By Bill Wagner
For the Naval Academy varsity offshore sailing team, there has been no better training ground than Block Island Race Week.
Current head coach Jahn Tihansky said Navy has been sending its varsity offshore squad to this iconic regatta for decades and the experience gained has proven invaluable.
“This is the premier big boat regatta in the New England region and it takes place during the summer when we have a robust training program in place,” said Tihansky, in his 14th season as head coach. “Block Island is an extremely well-run regatta and features as reliable a breeze as you’ll find anyway so you’re always going to get high quality racing.”
Navy has two teams competing at Block Island Race Week 2019, presented by Margaritaville. Ranger and Zephyr, a pair of Farr 40-footers, are competing in PHRF 1 this week and entered Thursday’s action in second and third place, respectively.
“This is a very competitive setting and there are some great boats in our class. We’re gaining experience and learning something every day,” said Hayden Kuzemchak, skipper of Ranger.
Navy’s summer training program is primarily focused on offshore distance races such as Annapolis-to-Newport and Marion-to-Bermuda. Tihansky said an intensive week of round-the-buoys racing with a 20-nautical mile Around the Island Race added forces the midshipmen to expand their skill set.
“It is very challenging to race off Block Island. There are tricky currents to deal with along with fog and visibility issues,” he said. “This regatta will test the crew dynamics of each boat. You do two or three windward-leeward races over four days and you either refine your boat-handling or pay the price.”
Navy is not the only service academy sailing program participating in Block Island Race Week XXVIII. Hedgehog, a Melges 32, is being crewed by members of the Coast Guard sailing team led by skipper Ben Williamsz.
Two other training programs have followed the lead of those service academies by bringing boats to Block Island Race Week, presented by Margaritaville. MudRatz, a Connecticut-based program that introduces youngsters to big boat racing, has entered a Farr 40 in PHRF 1. Meanwhile, Oakcliff Sailing, headquartered in Oyster Bay, New York, has returned with a group of college-aged students aboard a Ker 50 owned by Arthur Santry.
MudRatz has a crew of eight youth and collegiate sailors ranging in age from 16 to 22 aboard Summer School. There are three adult coaches providing direction and serving as safety officers. Sarah Wilkinson, a 22-year-old College of Charleston sailor, steered on Monday when Storm Trysail Club held three races.
“Getting an opportunity to sail an asymmetrical boat of this size and power is a great experience,” Wilkinson said.
MudRatz co-founder Brandon Flack, who is racing in the same class aboard a Melges 32 appropriately named Old School, believes strongly in developing well-rounded sailors. As a result, the eight students on Summer School will rotate positions throughout the week. There is one exception as Zach Champney has been appointed as all-time bowman.
“This is such a high-performance boat that if we don’t do things just right there are going to be problems,” 16-year-old Jack Derry said.
MudRatz leadership selected the Summer School based off applications and resume with most of the eight sailors chosen having previously sailed in the MudRatz program and been introduced to big boat racing aboard a Melges 24.
“We’re relating what we learned in the Melges 24 to this boat,” said 21-year-old Ashlyn Buffum.
As the daughter of one the man dubbed “head rat,” Lily Flack has been part of the program from a very young age. Now 16 years old, Lily readily acknowledged racing this Farr 40, which was donated to the MudRatz program, is a big step up in her sailing development.
“There is lots of learning and adapting as things happen on the water,” she said. “It’s baptism by fire and there are just some things we have to figure out on the fly.”
Navy’s two Farr 40 crews have been very helpful in providing tips and pointers to the MudRatz, telling them where to position the traveler cart and how much tension should be on the backstay. Tyler Black, head rigger for the IRC 52 Fox, taught the youngsters how to make soft shackles during the lay day.
“Our goal is to identify kids who have a real passion for sailing and give them a stepping stone into the big boat racing world,” said Jay Greenfield, a former College of Charleston sailor who is coaching the MudRatz this week. “What better regatta to expose these young sailors to than Block Island Race Week?”
Greenfield watched the MudRatz crew evolve and transform right before his eyes on Monday. “From Race 1 to Race 3 it was like a completely different team,” he said.
Tuesday brought heavy air in the 16 to 20-knot range and the MudRatz leadership erred on the side of caution by having the MudRatz remain at the dock.
“Our motto is ‘safety first, fun second and winning third’,” Greenfield said. “We’re not going to push the boat to its limits or take the type of risks a pro program might.”
Participation in a regatta aboard a MudRatz entry is free for the students, who are asked only to assist with boat maintenance and preparation while helping with fundraising. On Monday night, the MudRatz raised $600 by selling hats at the tent party.
Santry is a huge supporter of Oakcliff Sailing and has been donating his Ker 50 for use at various regattas for years. Santry, a former America’s Cup sailor during the 12-meter era, estimates some 50-60 students have competed in Block Island Race Week aboard his Temptation-Oakcliff entry.
There are five Oakcliff students aboard this week and they are receiving training from Santry and other former America’s Cup sailors such as William Rudkin.
“Doing a regatta like this on a high-tech boat like this is something you dream about,” said Banks Blackwell, a grinder who is a member of the University of Texas sailing team.
“We’re surrounded by extremely knowledgeable sailors and are getting to use high-end equipment,” said spinnaker trimmer Hugh Dougherty, who sails for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Block Island Race Week is one of 10 events these Oakcliff Sailing students will do this summer as they take their games to another level.
“Our goal isn’t to create Olympic sailors. We’re just exposing these young sailors to a higher level of sailing and giving them an experience they can utilize for the rest of their life,” Santry said. “We hope they stay involved with the sport of sailing, but a lot of the lessons we are teaching apply to other professions and areas of life.”