To Catch the Wind: Georgetown Sailing Tacks and Jibes

April 16, 2009

Mike Callahan (SFS ’97) will never forget his first sailing practice at Georgetown-not that he especially wants to remember it.

Over Labor Day weekend of 1993, Callahan-a talented skipper who won two national sailing championships in high school-set off on the Potomac River for the first time. Uncharacteristically, he flipped his boat. Wasting no time, the young sailor attempted a dry roll, a technique that when properly executed, rights a craft without getting its occupant wet.

Instead, Callahan slipped, smashing his face onto the underside of the boat. He immediately noticed something was wrong: his front four teeth were stuck into the backside of the boat, and blood was pouring from his mouth.
“I remember looking up at the boat and seeing my teeth embedded in the fiberglass,” Callahan said.

Sixteen years later, Callahan-teeth and all-has more than recovered from his injury. As the head coach of the Georgetown University Sailing Team, the man who once suffered a painful-and embarrassing-injury during his first official foray as a Hoya has built one of the most successful athletic programs on campus.

Callahan-head coach of the program since August of 1998-has led the Hoyas to six national championships and has been awarded Georgetown’s Outstanding Coaching Achievement Award three times, more than any other Georgetown coach to date. This year’s co-ed squad is the top-ranked team in the country, and the women’s team is close behind at #5 in the nation. Although only a handful of people on campus may know his name, Callahan just might be the best coach at Georgetown.

Contrary to popular belief, competitive sailing involves a lot more than lolling about with a stogie on a yacht.

“Sailing is like the ugly stepchild of athletic departments, sometimes because it is difficult to understand,” Callahan said. “When they see it, they understand that it’s just like any other college sport-you have to be athletic, you have to be in good shape.”

A team race, a three-on-three competition between two schools, is the most tactically-based sailing event-the team runs what are the sailing equivalents of offensive and defensive plays that are seen in typical field sports. The team with the lowest score-first place gets one point, second place gets two, and so on-wins.

Every year the Hoyas get to practice these skills with some familiar faces. On Sunday, April 5, Georgetown invited several alumni back for the annual Alumni Races, a showdown between previous and current All-American Hoya sailors. The Hoya alums that show up to the event have all been coached by Callahan,; they are a young, enthusiastic and skilled bunch.

While the competition on the water may have been fierce, levity reigned on dry land. Ryan Costello, an All-American from the class of 2001, sported a homemade yellow hat topped with a plastic lemon. In a feigned Spanish accent, he dubbed his team the Conquistadors. Leading the undergrads was Georgetown’s best sailor, Charlie Buckingham (COL ‘11), a sophomore from Newport Beach, California. Buckingham’s merry personality has earned him the nickname “Chuckles” from Callahan. But like Costello, when he’s on the water he’s all business.

Buckingham has the prototypical sailor’s body: toned, strong and, most important, lean. Not just anyone can sail. A sailor needs to be quick in order to move around the boat to balance its weight, but he has to be strong enough to hold the lines that direct the sails when the situation calls for it. Callahan’s maxim is that it takes two to sail-a skipper, like Buckingham, and a crew, the person who keeps the boat balanced and aids the captain in steering the ship.

Buckingham sails with Alex Taylor, a junior from Hobe Sound, Florida. For best results, a boat will usually race with a combined weight of 280 pounds. A bigger man will typically sail with a more petite female to balance out the boat’s weight.

Callahan blows a series of whistles to mark the start of the race. In sailing, teams begin from a moving start in which they have to stay behind an imaginary line between two markers. After the last whistle sounds, Callahan recognizes the talent on the boat.
“We’ve got the two alpha males against each other … the silverbacks,” he said.

The race starts with a bang-all six boats violently turn and maneuver their way into the perfect position of sailing 45 degrees into the wind. The turns aren’t easy-the skipper and the crew of each boat must tilt their craft drastically to one side-almost to the point of flipping-then rush to the other side to balance again, turning the boat in the process. The goal is to block your opponent’s sails from catching wind and to allow your teammates to sail ahead over the course of the race. The sailors are supposed to keep the same speed at each of the several turns they encounter throughout the race-with technique that separates the skilled from the rest of the pack.

This day, Costello and the Conquistadors beat Buckingham and the undergraduates.
“It’s good that we ended the day with the alumni beating our asses so we don’t think we’re that good,” Callahan said.

Over the past 11 years, Callahan has turned a once merely-decent Georgetown sailing team into a national powerhouse. In 2001, the team won its first team race national championship. Andrew Campbell (’06) won three single-handed one-man national championships in 2003, 2005, and 2006, and would have won a fourth if he didn’t take a semester off his sophomore year to try to qualify for the summer Olympics in Athens. In 2006, the Hoyas won their second team racing national championship. In 2008, a year when the squad was not expected to do much, they won their first national title in fleet racing, which involves three or more teams sailing against each other.
Callahan’s recruiting prowess is largely responsible for the team’s success.
“Through the years we’ve been having great recruiting classes from around the world,” Callahan explained. “If we can get the best kids to want to come here, it makes my job a lot easier.”

Youth high school sailing leagues hold national regattas which Callahan uses to scope out the best talent. The top American sailors on the team made names for themselves on the national circuit before heading to Georgetown. But only about quarter of the team is recruited, the rest are just talented walk-ons.

The National Anthem blared from Bolling Air Force Base across the Potomac on a warm, windless Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s five o’clock already,” Callahan said, exhausted.

Callahan is not tired from another sailing practice-far from it. The Potomac’s lack of wind has made today’s practice, as Callahan says in his typically sarcastic tone, “as exciting as field hockey.”

These windless days, along with several patches of shallow water, make the Potomac a less-than-ideal locale for competitive college sailing.

The team doesn’t complain about the conditions, though-they make do with the cards they are dealt.

“Even though you’re on the Potomac River, you have a top-notch sailing team,” former Hoya sailor John Camera (COL ’01), a member of Callahan’s first national championship team, explained. “That helps for getting recruits from places like California and all over the country where before people might not have looked at Georgetown.”

One of those people is Marco Teixidor (MSB ’10). Hailing from Puerto Rico, Teixidor made waves on the international scene before coming to Georgetown, appearing at the Junior World Championships four times. When Callahan asked his team if anyone knew him, senior Andi Bailey turned out to be good family friends with Teixidor. Callahan invited him to visit, and it’s been smooth sailing since-Marco is one of the team’s top skippers.

Today, Buckingham, junior Marco Teixidor, and freshman skipper Peter Johns fight the death of wind to participate in an O’Reilly Drill, a simulation of a team racing situation. As part of the drill, Peter Johns and his crew, freshman Rebecca Evans, sail in front of Teixidor and his crew, senior Andi Bailey, to take the wind out of their sails and allow Buckingham and Taylor to sail ahead.

The drill’s languid pace-thanks to the lack of wind-brings out some advice from Callahan. Described by Buckingham as “the best team race coach in the nation,” Callahan is no screamer.
“He’s perfectly balanced, runs good practices, and is intense,” Buckingham said. “But at the same time he’s not too intense and doesn’t get mad or too passionate.”
Callahan admits he needs to stay mellow.

“It would look stupid to have a sailing coach freak out,” he said. “It’s sailing.”
The sailors refer to Callahan on a first-name basis, something that rarely happens on collegiate sports teams. More often than not, Callahan can be seen joking around with his sailors. Though the coach’s first-name relationship with his squad may seem to connate a lack of authority to some, it is clear that Callahan is the boss on the water.

Callahan’s interaction with the sailors is typical of a team that constantly jokes around. Teixidor identifies Aras and Buckingham as the team’s resident clowns, spouting a constant stream of South Park and movie quotes.

“Sure, I think they probably party with each other … but I don’t know because no one ever gets in trouble,” Callahan said. “So I assume they’re not getting in trouble. They’re a very close knit group.”


Callahan sits behind a desk in a blue Nike pullover, khakis, and stylishly unkempt black hair in his small office in McDonough Field House. His dad graduated from Georgetown in 1955, so you could say Callahan has been a Georgetown fan for life.

His office’s floor and walls are riddled with sailing memorabilia. Behind him, a sawed-off stern from an old boat named “Boot N’ Rally” is nailed to the wall, with the names of past winners from the Alumni regatta engraved on top. A picture of Andrew Campbell (SFS ’06)-Georgetown’s most successful sailor and a 2008 Olympian-sits on the wall to his left. But on the floor lie the sailing program’s 40 or so All-American plaques, all earned during Callahan’s 11 years as head coach. It may seem odd to leave them lying on the floor, but the program can’t afford to buy frames for them.

Money has always been a problem for the sailing program. Callahan remembers travelling to a regatta at the Coast Guard Academy during his college days. He and two teammates were supposed to stay with a friend at Connecticut College, but the arrangement fell through. The three ended up sleeping in the van because they did not have any funds to rent a hotel room.

“For us, it was just that kind of commitment … we wanted to go to that regatta, we wanted to do well,” Callahan explained. “We weren’t going to let it bother us. We weren’t going to sit at home and say we don’t have the money to do this trip. We were just going to do it.”

The sailing program’s financial woes continued when Callahan was named the head coach in 1998. For the first year, the team only had a travel budget of $2,500 for 60 events. It hasn’t increased much since. On road trips, team members stay with friends whenever they can. Sometimes, like in Callahan’s college days, they still sleep in vans. On the rare occasion when they do get a hotel room, six to seven people often stay in one room. Sailors are often forced to reach into their own pockets to cover expenses, and the team’s on-the-road diet usually consists of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Three years ago, the University told Callahan that instead of the usual fundraising goal of $15,000-$20,000, he would need to raise $100,000 for the year.

“It’s a daunting task to raise the money to make your team exist,” Callahan said solemnly. His financial luck has only gotten worse.

Until recently, team had kept its boats right next to the water so they could easily gather them and start practice. But after the Parks Service told Callahan that the boats were killing the grass, the team was forced to spread their crafts throughout the marina and drag them a long distance to the water each day. The Parks Service also required the team to pay full price for storing their boats at an acceptable location, storage which costs the team around $30,000.

“We offered to pay the 30 grand and re-sod it every year,” Callahan said with a glint in his eye. “We’ll make it the best grass in Washington, D.C. The Parks Service said you can’t kill a resource and then fix it. So you know what they did to solve the grass problem? They threw wood chips on it.”

It seems Mother Nature has it out for the team too. During a thunder storm a few years ago, a lightning bolt struck a metal light post in the McDonough parking lot, shooting down into the engine of a sailing van and causing it to explode.

“There was a van that exploded, and I was like, ‘Oh, I guarantee it is a sailing van,'” Callahan said with resignation.

An enthusiastic group of alumni and parents help the team out whenever it needs it. Every year, the squad hosts a Parent’s Dinner and a silent auction. The auction, which featured prizes like tickets to the new Yankee Stadium, cufflinks, and the keys to some of the player’s on the team’s vacation homes, raised $40,000 for the program this year. The alumni help out as well.

“I would argue that we have one of the best younger alumni groups around,” Callahan explained. “I might even argue that we get to 100 percent alumni giving for kids that I’ve coached.”

Every year, the team has managed to raise enough money to meet the team’s needs-and without any complaints.

“It’s tough to want to compete for resources here because you have a track team without a track, a baseball team without a field, a softball team without a field, our field hockey team goes to the University of Maryland to play, so you know, we are not at all complaining about the resources we have. We’re happy with what we have.”
The young alumni, many of whom have stayed in the D.C. area, practice with the team every once in a while. Former Hoyas like Camera come down in May to practice with the team before the National Championship and to share the knowledge they gained from sailing at Georgetown.

The healthy alumni giving and continued involvement with the sailing program is in part due to a vow Callahan made when he took over the program.

“When I graduated, we had a team that was talented, but wasn’t good,” Callahan said. “It was like, ‘Why did I spend four years of my life doing this.’ I was better as a freshman than I was a senior …When I came back, the most important thing for me was that when kids leave their senior year, no matter winning, losing, whatever, they knew it was a positive experience.”

So Callahan created what he calls “a culture of winning” that has changed the program for the better.

“Basically, we cleaned up the act of the sailing team, gave it the reputation that it has today that is it’s not an abyss,” Camera said of the squad during Callahan’s first year as head coach. “It’s a varsity sport, and you have to expect to be in shape and go to meetings and work hard. It’s not a social club.”

The “culture of winning” has become a lifestyle for the sailing team, despite an unruly Parks Service, unfortunate lightning strikes, and under-funding.

On Sunday, the sailing team qualified for the team race nationals by winning the qualifiers at Navy, earning them the top seed at nationals. At the end of May, the Hoyas will travel to Treasure Island, California, and try to add another national title to the shelf.
“If we got too much, we’d get spoiled and wouldn’t appreciate what we do have,” Buckingham said.

Buckingham may be right, but it would be nice if the team could afford to hang some of their many accolades on Callahan’s office walls.

Read More

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments