June 20, 2019

Meet the Showrunner – Whitney Kneisley

While there are many people involved in pulling off a perfect Race Week —most of them out front and visible—this Wizard of Block remains behind the curtain making sure Race Week goes off without a hitch
By Dave Reed, Sailing World

Motherhood has nothing on the Storm Trysail Club. Raising a couple of rough-and-tumble teenage boys is comparatively simple, says Whitney Kneisley, STC’s executive director since 2014. The 51-year-old is captain of a tight ship with 250 or so crew “members,” each with strong opinions on how best to stay on course or keep it upright. In its long history, the club has only had three executive directors.

The previous queen managing Storm Trysail Club’s colony of volunteers was Marcy Trenholm, who served the organization for 26 years, always with a sharp wit, an unflappable sense of humor and skin thick as steel. In her retirement, Trenholm left big Top-Siders—into which Kneisley tentatively toed when recruited by past STC commodore Nick Langone.

She agreed to a part-time role, with no idea how challenging the assignment would be. “It’s turned into a colossal full-time job,” she says with a chuckle, “but it’s always exciting. And unpredictable.”

The scope of events and initiatives Storm Trysail Club has taken on over the years is exhaustive, but Race Week is the crown jewel as the last remaining destination race week in the United States. While it only happens every other year, the planning never wanes. Over time, Race Week’s volunteer army had grown too large to house and feed, so the organization has spent the past two years cultivating its A-Team, Kneisley says: “This is a lean-and-mean machine this year, and we’re happy with that.”

She’ll command roughly 82 volunteers spread across race committee, jury and shoreside support. For 2019, Kneisley had two big challenges laid before her—both late in the game: a new and big-time presenting sponsor in Margaritaville, and a last-minute race village relocation from The Oar’s parking lot to the grassy knoll of the Narragansett Inn. With the new -location, it’s on her to make sure the tent and trailers go into the right places at the right time. She arrives early to spot or extinguish fires before the A-Team arrives.

Everyone’s on-site by 0700 Friday, Kneisley says, and that’s when the fun really begins. “It’s everything from setting up the tents, building the stage, setting up the sponsor areas and making sure they have everything they need,” she says.

There is also hanging banners, stringing lights, moving tables and chairs while volunteers build the duty office. There are phones to install, the internet to connect and a mobile office to build. “Basically, we move the entire Storm Trysail Club to Block Island,” she says.

Next stop? Red Bird Liquors to pick up all the alcohol they’ve bought because they can’t bring their own hooch onto the island: “We make sure we have 25 kegs of beer delivered, put on ice and the bars ready to go.”

Meanwhile, the race committee sorts its gear, some of it stored on-island, blowing up marks, placing it on boats, etc. “There’s a whole team that takes care of that,” Kneisley says. “They have a full set of stuff they manage. I try to stay clear of that whole operation.”

While the race committee conducts its own practice on Saturday, onshore volunteers assemble for the biennial skippers-bag-stuff fest. “We basically lay out all the materials and tchotchkes, form a chain gang and stuff the bags, making sure every bag has the right amount of access cards and raffle tickets,” she says.

The first couple of days are busy in the duty office, she says, answering all sorts of questions and requests from sailors, families and the public, solving last-minute issues and dousing flareups. By Monday evening’s awards, everything should be running smoothly, leaving Tuesday as cleanup day—then the members party Wednesday. And don’t get Kneisley -started on that highlight of her week.

“It’s a nightmare,” she says. “It’s the most difficult event of anything I do because everyone is impossible to please.”

It’s not lobster tail and steak like the old days, she says. The organization simply can’t afford to splurge. “People want their lobster so badly they’re pissed off when they get there and don’t get it.”

Such is the art of smiling through any squall of complaints and grumbles, a trait many who know Kneisley say is her best.

“Her personality is always up, always positive,” Langone says. “She always feels as if she can get something done. In fact, one thing she says all the time, no matter what, is ‘We’ll get it done.’ It’s always been that way. She’s not afraid of anything.”

Not to worry. If you need something to make your Race Week experience great, Whitney will make it happen.