Singlehanded Victory a Threepeat

Good things come in threes. For Clay Johnson of the Harvard sailing team, the third time was just as charming as the first two.

The junior skipper made easy work of the New England Singlehanded Championship last weekend, claiming his third title in as many years. He beat out 34 other sailors, notching five wins in 14 races and beating Zander Kirkland of Tufts by 15 points.

Johnson’s fall season is far from over. With his victory, Johnson qualified for nationals in Hawaii.

“Going in, I really just try to be consistent,” Johnson said. “I’ve sailed a lot of Lasers outside of college, so I kind of have a leg up on these guys going in, but I don’t think people really expect me to win.”

Joining Johnson at nationals will be skipper Vincent Porter and co-captain Sloan Devlin, giving the Crimson three realistic shots at bringing home hardware at the competition.

“We’re in one of the hardest districts to qualify in, it’s really competitive, so for them to pull it out is really great,” Johnson said of his teammates. “Together we have a really good team going, and hopefully we can bring home the gold.”

Lasers, otherwise known as singlehanded regattas, are Johnson’s specialty.

He claimed twin fourth place finishes in 2001 and 2002 in the North American Championships—both of which came before his high school graduation. His college credits include a 2004 Honorable Mention All-American award, a sixth-place finish at the 2004 National Team Race Championships, and another sixth-place trophy at the 2004 Coed Championships.

Johnson has been sailing Lasers most of his life, but since coming to Harvard, he has had to adjust to life in a boat with someone else. Collegiate sailing in two-person dinghies emphasizes fleet and team racing.

The fact that the college sailing circuit is more focused on the two-person game has not altered Johnson’s overall focus.

“There’s still a hint of luck involved, and it’s still impossible to have a perfect race,” he said. “It’s always a game of who makes the fewest mistakes and who stays the most consistent.”

In a sport that punishes chance mistakes and rewards consistency, Johnson has done little of the former and a great deal of the latter, and it was reflected in his approach at the Singlehanded Championship. The top four boats at the Championship are invited to nationals. Johnson took home the grand prize thanks to his consistency.

“I continue to try to stay consistent, and I know that if I’m in the top five of every race, theoretically, I should be in the top four at the end of every regatta,” he said. “I just try not to do stupid things, and know that I don’t have to win every race or regatta, and that my experience sailing against a bunch of these guys before will help me.”

Johnson’s crew—junior Kristen Lynch—was more forthright.

“Clay tries to do every situation perfectly, almost to an extreme,” she said. “When he doesn’t start a race well, he can psych himself back, whereas a lot of other sailors aren’t as good at it.”

Johnson’s singlehanded skills have paid dividends in the two-person regattas as well.

“I’m pretty lucky, because I get to sail with Kristen, and she doesn’t get a lot of credit,” he said. “In sailing, crew is a position where you get a lot of blame if you lose the race and no credit if you win the race, because the skipper gets all the glory.”

Johnson credited his chemistry with Lynch for the seamless transition to two-person success.

“Even though I’ve sailed Lasers my whole life, I’ve learned to communicate so much better thanks to double handling,” he said. “With Kristen and I, it always works out pretty well when we sail together; we go hand in hand.”

“Jumping into a two-person boat,” he added, “you just have to rely on the other person to do things to the best of their ability. Sometimes I think I try to do too much, and a really good two-person boat is one that relies on the other person, trusts the other person, makes calls together, and is on the same page.”

Johnson’s talents don’t stop at sailing, Lynch said. They also extend into the realm of coaching.

“He’s the best teacher that I know on the team, and he’s been explaining things to us he’s been learning since he was five years old,” Lynch said. “Some of us have only been doing this for a couple of months or years, so his knowledge makes him a great team player.”

In addition to nationals, Johnson also has his sights set on the season’s remaining regattas. Among the more important ones include this Saturday’s Navy Fall Invitational in Maryland, the Schell Trophy at MIT, and the vaunted ACCs—the sailing team’s Super Bowl—to be held in November.