October 23, 2020

Matt Gallagher Appointed Chair of US Sailing’s Offshore Committee

Over the summer, US Sailing approved STC member Matt Gallagher’s nomination as Chair of their Offshore Committee, a Board-appointed position with a four-year term. In this interview with Ron Weiss - STC’s Chair of Sponsorship and Communications - Matt describes his goals and challenges for the committee, which encompasses Safety at Sea and Rating Rules, among other initiatives.

Ron Weiss: Where did you grow up, and how did you get into sailing?

Matt Gallagher: I grew up outside of Chicago and have pretty much spent my whole life there except for college in Indiana, and a short time in DC working for a politician. I didn’t grow up in a sailing family, in fact almost exactly the opposite. My father was on a troop ship in WWII and never wanted to get on another boat the rest of his life. I started sailing in college with a buddy whose father had bought a small sailboat during a mid-life crisis and kept it on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. After college, I grew away from sailing but in my middle 30’s I married Emmy (who is also an STC member). We had been childhood friends but didn’t start dating until much later in life. She had done some sailing as a young adult as well. When my mother passed away about 15 years ago, we used the inheritance to buy a boat, and that is when we really got into it.

RW:  How did you go from getting into the sport just 15 years ago to Chair of the Offshore Committee?

MG: (laughing) I guess just dumb luck. Right after we bought our first offshore boat, I joined Chicago YC. My trajectory started when one day I was sitting at the bar at CYC and this tall guy - Dave Daul, the Commodore - walks over to me and buys me a drink. “What do you know about communications?” “Well, I’m a lawyer and I took Journalism as a minor in college…” Dave asked if I would be interested in leading the Communications Committee at CYC, and I agreed. I really enjoy working with volunteers and I had previously been involved in managing volunteers for a legal aid group, so I had experience with that. It wasn’t so much about me being a hot-shot sailor, but I was good at recruiting and managing volunteers. Soon I got involved with the Mackinac Race Committee and helping with their communications. And then one day I must have missed a meeting and they decided to volunteer me as Chair of the Mackinac Race committee, the organizing authority for the event, for a two-year term.

I like to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, ask them a lot of questions and learn a lot. That’s how I think you succeed with volunteers in this sport. Every day I want to learn a little more. I ran CYC’s Junior Sailing program for a while, started a couple of new regattas, and I’ve run a number of North American and World Championships here in Chicago. I got to know Storm Trysail Club Commodore AJ Evans when he was Bermuda Chair and I was Mac Chair. I just picked up the phone one day and called him to pick his brain, and soon we started working with other major OA’s around the country. It was cool to get to know a number of other people who were just like me, facing similar challenges and opportunities in other parts of the country. And that’s how I wound up at US Sailing. I started working with the Safety at Sea Committee when Chuck Hawley brought me in. I did that for a few years working with him, and then STC member Sally Honey, and as part of that I managed the Hansen Medal, US Sailing’s lifesaving award for boaters who rescue others at sea. I also led the drafting of the first version of the Multihull safety regulations.

My predecessor as offshore chair, Ron White – also from Chicago Yacht Club and also a past Mackinac Chair – had held this post for a few years but decided to step down, so he recommended me to take over the Offshore Committee.   

RW: Out on the Great Lakes, the biggest races are the Mac races.  How many have you done? And for those not familiar with it, what’s it all about?

MG: Emmy and I have done nine Mac Races together on our boat, Endeavour, a Beneteau Oceanis 37. We’ve got a nice little family program going on here, and my 13-year-old son Charlie has already done a couple with us - and he’s already asking how old you have to be to become an STC member. (Note: 18 years old is the minimum.) We race with several other STC members, including Chris Keller and Derek Torrey, and have seen some pretty sporty weather, including a severe storm in 2011 where we saw 70+ knot gusts. That race also saw the deaths of two sailors on Wingnuts quite close to our position on the lake, so it brought home the critical importance of Safety at Sea training and policies.

The Chicago Mac is THE Mac race (others include the Detroit/Bayview YC Mac Race and the Super-Mac). The race is in its 111th year and, unlike Newport-Bermuda or the Transpac, it’s run every year. Before 2020 when the race was cancelled due to the pandemic, the last time we missed a year was 1920, likely as a result of both World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. Racing it every year is fun, but also exhausting because there is no break. As soon as you run one, you’re planning the next one.

Matt Gallagher, second from right, after placing second in the newly created and Storm Trysail Club-sponsored Team Challenge in the 2019 Mac. On the left is STC Member Rob Evans (J/109 - Goat Rodeo) and on the far right is STC Member Jim Murray (J/109 - Callisto), plus Matt’s wife and STC member Emmy Gallagher. Thanks for upholding Storm Trysail Club’s reputation in Offshore sailing!

RW:  When did you join Storm Trysail Club?

MG: I joined STC Fall of 2018.  Rich du Moulin invited me out to the Adult Hands-On Safety At Sea at SUNY Maritime that Spring, that’s when I first actually met Commodore Evans face to face. AJ said “It’s so great to have an STC member come all the way out from Chicago to help!” and when I confessed I wasn’t a member, they immediately started the process. I think they started the nomination process before I even got off the plane in Chicago!

Don Maxwell, a close friend who succeeded me as chair of the Chicago Mac, proposed me, and AJ seconded.

I’ve been lucky to sail with numerous other STC members over the years including Leif Sigmond on his Farr 40 and Bryon Ehrhart on his Reichel Pugh 63, Lucky. Both times we sailed with many other fellow STC members.

RW:  You have a strong interest in meteorology

MG: Every sailor is interested in weather! A number of years ago a good friend of mine, Winn Soldani (who is also a recent STC member), had gone through Penn State’s online Meteorology Certificate Program, and he talked me into it. It’s 4 college-level courses, taught remotely, aimed at people like sailors and pilots and emergency planners who need to understand the science. It’s a fantastic program that I recommend to everyone, particularly navigators.  Anderson Reggio went through it too and it wouldn’t surprise me if we count other graduates of the Certificate Program as fellow members. The program enables you to talk to meteorologists and really understand what’s happening. It’s a little intense, but you do learn a tremendous amount. The courses cover synoptic weather, mesoscale weather, tropical weather and advanced weather forecasting. The program culminates in a national forecasting challenge/contest. As part of the curriculum, the courses teach how to communicate forecasts, with confidence levels, etc. To be able to communicate weather forecasts properly is a surprisingly critical set of skills. For anyone interested in learning more, I’d strongly endorse both the Penn State Certificate program as well as our fellow member Peter Isler’s Marine Weather University (taught by renown meteorologist Chris Bedford). Both courses will serve you well in your sailing.

RW: Speaking of forecasts, what do you foresee happening with Offshore Committee?

MG: In terms of the Offshore Committee and US Sailing, a number of years ago before my friend Ron White got involved, the Offshore part of US Sailing was arguably overstaffed and underfunded. It’s supposed to be self-funded through certificate issuance and Safety at Sea seminars, but with fewer certificates being issued, it took some time to right-size it. Now we have a terrific team. Brian Geraghty of Bayview YC is the Vice-Chair, Stan Honey (STC), Sally Honey (STC), noted yacht designer Alan Andrews, Bob DeClerc (Bayview YC), John Brim (STC and NYYC), and Nathan Titcomb (Offshore Director). I like being the ‘dumbest guy in the room’ and I love working with all of them. There are a number of other dedicated volunteers around the country helping to run various subcommittees of the Offshore committee.

When I stepped into the role, I was pleasantly surprised by how much time Jack Gierhart (the CE0 of US Sailing) has been spending on Offshore projects. I had assumed that since US Sailing is primarily focused on the Olympics and such that Offshore would be something of a side-project for him. But he’s incredibly interested in Offshore and supporting our goals: Solidifying funding, helping encourage fun, fast, competitive racing, and managing the relationship with the ratings organizations and the yacht clubs such as STC that run offshore races. I view the customers of the Offshore office to be the sailors, but the Organizing Authorities (OA’s) are really a proxy for the individual sailors. My focus is working with the OAs – the ‘Big 10’ as it were: NYYC, Chicago, CCA/Newport-Bermuda, Annapolis/Newport, Annapolis/Bermuda, Bayview, San Diego, St. Francis, Marion-Bermuda, and STC of course! But beyond those, we also need to be aware of the needs of offshore sailors in other venues around the country, racing not only under the measurement rules but also the old standby, PHRF. I want to ensure that US Sailing Offshore is delivering what they need, in terms of measured rating rules, PHRF, and Safety at Sea. Those are the three big things we’re involved over the short-term. I know that rating rules are a hot topic at almost every level of the sport. I want everyone to know that we are not here to pick a rating rule or favor any rating rule. What we are here for is that if any of the OA’s wants to run a race, they can get the certificates under any rating rule or rules THEY choose, and that we have enough measurers to do it too. That’s something that we really have to work on as there just aren’t enough people right now with the right training. We also want to make sure if you’ve been measured and rated under one rule, if and when you want a certificate under a different rule, that the process is quick and seamless. I actually applied for an ORC certificate for my boat. I already had one for ORR, and it only cost a couple of hundred dollars and I didn’t even have to talk to anyone. I wanted to experience that for myself. We also want to make re-measuring easier if you make changes to the boat.

Another area that requires attention is the Portsmouth Yardstick. I didn’t know anything about it before coming to the Offshore group, and it’s a push we are making to help clubs with smaller/older keel boats. We have a partnership with the Royal Yachting Association to use their tools to make that easier.

We also want to reinvigorate the PHRF component of the US Sailing Offshore Committee. And we want to know more about what PHRF sailors want. Right now, we are merely the body that handles PHRF rating appeals, but that doesn’t happen all that often. Each of the local PHRF committees do things their own way, and we don’t want to tell them what to do, but we do want to create some kind of leadership structure so they can share best practices, experiences, etc. As part of that we are looking to update the Red White and Blue Book, the national ratings book which hasn’t been revised in a number of years.

The bulk of racers in the country compete under PHRF and it’s the big base of the proverbial pyramid - the entry point of the sport. Most of the big OA’s are focused on the upper end of the sport and if we can put a little effort into building the base of the sport we think that will help expand the sport overall. It will filter up. We see the problems at the top end of the sport, but that’s not where they start. We want to identify the problems in a more systematic way at both the top and the bottom.

Again, we are here to listenfirst; both to the top organizers and the entry-point PHRF fleets.  We will be reaching out to a representative number of local clubs and PHRF committees in the same way – “how can we help?”. How can we facilitate these entry point events/fleets? I personally think we have demographic trends we won’t be able to change, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to work around these issues or mitigate them as best we can.

RW:  Can you tell us a little more about how the Offshore Committee is constructed?

MG: The Offshore Division of US Sailing is charged with helping sailors enjoy their offshore capable boats while participating in offshore, coastal and near-shore racing and cruising. The Offshore Division is composed of both staff and volunteers.  On the professional end, there is the Offshore Office, which includes Nathan Titcomb and another part-time support staffer. On the volunteer end, there is the Offshore Committee, which I serve as Chair on, and Nathan is on that as well. Then we have sub-committees: The Safety at Sea committee is probably the most high-profile one, and that’s chaired by Sally Honey. They’re responsible for Safety Education, and Training, and the Safety regulations. There is also a sub-committee in charge of rating rules, but the Offshore Committee has been handling that; reporting on trends and issues and recommending improvements in the management of the rules. We don’t create or manage the rules, but we are involved in generating certificates and we work with each of those rules organizations to make sure that things run smoothly for all involved.

We also have a Portsmouth Yardstick committee which is just getting started up. The PHRF subcommittee is somewhat dormant except for occasionally handling appeals, but that is going to change rapidly. We also helped to develop and administer the UMS (Universal Measurement System) – a standardized way of measuring boats so that owners don’t need to remeasure their boats everytime they want to enter under a different rule. Nathan reports to Jack, and I report to US Sailing’s Board and President Cory Sertl.

RW: A year from now, what are your goals?  What about the medium term?

MG: My short-term goals include making sure that US Sailing is focused on the needs of our customers and reinvigorating our volunteer corps. Longer term, we need to recruit and train new measurers so that it’s faster and easier to get that done. Data acquisition, and maintaining the integrity of that data, is key. Right now, it’s ORR and ORC and IRC. But there may be new rules someday down the road, and we want to make sure that the data is there and ready for whatever comes down the pike. At the end of the day, it’s about getting people on the starting line. There are things we can’t control, but we can and should do that. We want to reduce the friction of getting into offshore racing for the sailors and the OAs, so that more racers can have fun on the water.

RW: The Great Lakes Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta is being re-vamped. How’s that going?

MG: I worked with Butch Ulmer on the IOR in Long Island Sound and learned a lot. A local Tartan Ten sailor had been running the one in the Great Lakes, but he was doing it pretty much himself. We’ll be transitioning it to be run/managed by STC and Western Great Lakes Station Captain Mike Hettel has led the charge on the STC end. It was supposed to happen this year, but of course COVID19 made that impossible. Some of bigger east coast schools with offshore teams like Navy and Coast Guard will come out, but the level of big boat experience of the Lakes college sailors is less than Long Island Sound, and we want to help develop the offshore/big-boat culture with them here. Big-picture, for the sport, we need to encourage these young sailors to follow our paths into big boats and ultimately as members in Storm Trysail Club!

RW:  Do you have an “ask” of the Storm Trysail Club membership?

MG: I would ask that any STC member, or anyone else for that matter, who wants to get involved in helping support Offshore sailing nationally, just send me an email. I especially want people who want to make PHRF better. We need more interested people to improve on this critical on-ramp to big-boat sailing. The Safety at Sea Committee could use more seminar moderators as an example, and the Portsmouth Yardstick initiative are two other areas where we could use volunteers. Anyone who is interested in any of these, or those who may have other questions or suggestions, are absolutely welcome to reach out to me at  [email protected] or (312) 451-4954. My virtual door is always open!