"We have an incredibly strong sailing team--the best team in the country."
So says Brian Keane, modest captain of the Harvard sailing team. Actually Yatch Racing magazine will rate the team second in a December ranking of the nation's 20 best college teams, up from last year's high of third Surpassed only by Navy, the Harvard team has proved its depth and quality this month by repeating as Ivy champions and for the second consecutive year, capturing the Wood Trophy--a skippering event that draws on varsity, J.V., and freshman teams for a particular test of death," Coach Mike Horn says.
And despite the loss of Captain Rony Sebok for most of October, the women's squad "managed to hang in there without her," according to sophomore Jamie Jenkins, winning the New England Women's Championships last weekend to keep the coveted Victorian Coffee Urn for the second year in snow. When Yatch Racing ranks the nation's 20 best women's teams this December for the first time, Harvard will be sixth, says Ken Legler, Tufts sailing coach and one of three who decide the ranking.
Sheer dedication allows both divisions of the Harvard team to polish their raw talent unusually quickly each season. Legler says. "They're out racing every weekend," he notes.
Coach Horn and Keane also attributes the team's success this year to a large nucleus of veteran seniors who helped skipper the team to last year's number-three ranking.
And team enthusiasm accounts for a good part of the sailors improvement, Keane says, adding that Harvard turns out 30 to 40 people for each practice while local rivals B.U. and Tufts launch groups half that size.
Harvard's long record of victories is doubly impressive because the team neither recruits experienced sailors nor discourages novices, Horn says, adding. "There is nothing planned about the team from year to year." Most sailors are beginners when they first join, and of the top five seniors this year, only Keane originally joined with a reputation already established before college.
"Sailing is one of the few sports you can come into knowing absolutely nothing about it," explains Winston Tedd adding that though he capsized on his first day out with the team, he was racing regularly by mid-season.
"I was a beginner the spring of freshman year and so came out with a real bang," recalls junior William Rotch. "The first day was a total madhouse with people yelling and screaming. It was very confusing."
The team splits into different groups to compete in up to eight events each weekend. Horn says, adding that frequent competition and three days of practice a week quickly whip the sailors into shape.
Regattas can involve up to eight hours of grueling efforts against opponents and the elements, Horn adds, contradicting the the popular myth of the gin and tonic sailor." Rotch agrees that anyone who has raced with the Harvard team knows there is a difference between pleasure sailing and collegiate racing.
Men's Captain Keane concedes that good sailors must be in shape to compete, but argues "it's mainly the mental level, that separates the men from the boys rather than the physical level. Collegiate sailing is like a very fast game of chess because conditions are always changing." Keane says, adding that sailors must be familiar with tactics and strategy as well as with a large body of sailing rules.
"People have natural talent--a feel for sailing, a feel for the wind, a feel for the bout," sophomore Jenkins says, though she concedes that practice and experience are important--"Of course the more at home you are in a boat the better you become."
Horn agrees that most of his sailors just have the talent in them. "Really good sailors have an instinct you can't teach."