BLUE HILL — For the past 15 years or so, members of the Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club have looked on the club’s youth sailing program as something of a mixed blessing.
Most KYC members cheer the programs of the Kollegewidgwok Sailing Education Association (KSEA), formally established in 2013, as a good way to engage youngsters in the sport of sailing and to teach them how to sail safely. Other members wonder whether KSEA serves any purpose other than to clutter the club’s grounds and waterfront with sometimes obstreperous kids and teenagers.
Last week, the dozen or so KYC members gathered for a talk by Caroline Atwood got a rousing confirmation of the youth program’s value.
Atwood, 25 and an alumna of Tufts University, is a member of the United States Sailing Team. With her partner, Ravi Parent, she is competing for a spot in the 2020 Olympic Games in the Nacra 17 class.
Just recently added to the Olympic sailing competition, the Nacra 17 is a two-handed foiling catamaran that requires tremendous strength and athleticism to sail and can reach 27 knots (about 30 miles per hour) or more when both hulls are out of the water.
“It’s really cool to be able to get to sail something this fast,” she said. “Honestly, it kind of feels more like a rocket ship than a sailboat some days.”
The Nacra 17 races are “the only Olympic sport where men and women are competing on the same field together,” Atwood said. “It’s mixed gender, which is pretty cool.”
Even better, for Atwood, is that it doesn’t matter who takes the helm and who sails as crew. Women crew on some boats in the class and skipper others.
“It doesn’t matter who does what,” she said.
The boat isn’t for beginners, for sure, but the Optimist pram is, and that’s the boat in which Atwood began her sailing and racing careers under the aegis of KSEA.
“I grew up sailing right off this dock,” Atwood said last week.
Raised in Connecticut by parents who belonged to KYC and were both successful competitive sailors, Atwood spent her summers at the yacht club and started sailing in the Green, or beginners, fleet of Optimist prams, a rectangular little bathtub of a boat less than 8 feet long.
Eventually, she progressed to the expert fleet, then started sailing with a regional team in Oyster Bay, on Long Island, N.Y., and eventually was recruited to sail at Tufts, perennially one of the top college sailing teams in the country.
After a couple of years sailing for the Jumbos, Atwood began to train with the national team sponsored by U.S. Sailing, the sport’s governing national authority, sailing mostly 49er FX class high performance two-handed dinghies.
Atwood attributes much of her advancement as a sailor to traits she developed to overcome dyslexia — “intense focus and hard work to get to the end result.” Added to those qualities is the fact that Atwood is, she said, “aggressive.”
Applying those characteristics, and having a father competing on the international sailing circuit as she was growing up, led Atwood to see that “sailing for the United States is something you can achieve.”
That is what she is working on now, and the process is long, difficult and expensive. The national sailing team doesn’t fund aspiring competitors, so they have to buy their own boat — or boats — and sailing gear such as the crash helmets and cut-proof clothing Atwood and her partner wear to protect them from injury if they fall off, or are run over by, their high-flying catamaran.
Boats and gear aren’t the only cost items. Aspiring team members have to pay their own travel expenses and shipping and related expenses for their boats when they compete in the regattas that serve as qualifying events for the Olympic team. In the past year or so, the Parent-Atwood team has raced at regattas in Miami, Italy and Mallorca in the Mediterranean.
Atwood and her partner are among the three U.S. crews competing for a spot in the Olympics aboard Nacra 17s. Currently, Parent is racing in Japan with another crew while Atwood recuperates from surgery for a torn meniscus incurred when the boat sailed over her. Not long before that, she suffered muscle damage in both arms in another mishap.
Fortunately, US Sailing does help with medical expenses and expertise as part of the training support is provides to national team members.
Once she recovers, Atwood plans to rejoin her partner and start preparing for the 2019 and 2020 Nacra 17 world championship regattas that will determine which U.S. sailors make it to the Olympics. This year’s championship regatta will be sailed between Nov. 29 and Dec. 8 in Auckland, New Zealand. The 2020 championships will be sailed between Feb. 6 and Feb. 15 at the Royal Geelong Yacht Club in Australia. If Atwood and Parent can win those regattas it should be on to Tokyo for the Olympic Games next July.
As Atwood continues to compete, Blue Hill sailors will be able to follow her Olympic campaign. The Parent Atwood team has its own website, parentatwoodracing.com. The team also has a Facebook page at ParentAtwoodRacing.