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All Hands on Deck: Risks and Rewards of Georgetown Sailing

September 5, 2013


Josh Raftis

As darkness falls on the final night of NSO, the Harbin 6 common room fills with excited freshmen eager to share their experiences from the last few days. The range of topics jumps from academics to student organizations to club sports.

A few Harbinites think they have what it takes to make it in club basketball. Then, there are those who think the club soccer team would be foolish to turn them away. The freshmen who have spent most of their free time on Copley Lawn mention the ultimate frisbee team. The focus of the conversation then shifts from ambition to curiosity, and some of Georgetown’s lesser-known sports teams are mentioned. The minute one poor freshman decides to have a giggle at the sailing team’s expense, a barrel-chested young man who’s been silent so far leans forward and, in a low voice, growls, “Watch what you say about sailing.”

Despite a general lack of knowledge about college sailing, people seem quick to write the sport off as minor—or worse, boring. On the contrary, Georgetown’s sailing team has proven to be one of the University’s most successful varsity sports programs of the last decade, having secured the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association/Gill National Championship twice, including last year, and having placed five times in the last nine years. And what’s more, the high physical risk sailors face in what turns out to be an extremely dangerous sport challenges anyone who thinks of sailing as a leisurely activity.

No one at Georgetown is better equipped to obliterate these misconceptions than Head Sailing Coach Mike Callahan.

“When you first tell people that we’re sailing, people think we’re on a gigantic boat relaxing. College sailing is totally different. The boats are designed to reward athleticism.”

In the 15 years that Callahan has coached the Georgetown University Sailing Team, his enthusiasm for the sport and for his team has not faded one bit. Sitting in his office in the top of McDonough Arena, he answers each interview question with the confidence of a man who doesn’t have to think twice about the difference between a mainstay and a forestay.

“The thing about sailing is that it’s both mental and physical,” he says. “You have to be in good shape to do it, but at the same time it’s a thinking person’s game. It combines strategy with athletic ability.”

Callahan is quick to stress the intellectual along with the corporeal, with good reason. While college sailing is built around racing, it’s much more complicated than simply crossing the finish line.

The principal competitive event for collegiate sailing is a team race. These races involve two different teams, each comprised of three boats. To decide the winner, the finishing position of each participating craft is taken into account. Since each boat’s finishing position is what counts rather than which boat crosses the finish line first, team tactics quickly become complicated. For this, it helps to have a good head on your shoulders.

Given the type of equipment handled, the speeds at which the athletes pilot these crafts, and the perpetual possibility of inclement weather, sailing has the potential to be dangerous.  A former Hoya sailor, Callahan, lost his four front teeth the first day of practice when he fell headfirst into the side of a boat during a capsizing drill.

“My teeth actually stayed in the boat. Then we sold the boats to Stanford that year, and they were still embedded in there. They couldn’t get them out of the fiberglass,” he says.

Callahan isn’t the only one to harbor a few sailing horror stories.

“I was just learning how to sail, and it was really windy, and I was just coming into the harbor,” Alex Post (COL ’15) recounts. “I capsized in the middle of the channel, and [a] freighter was coming through … It was an extremely close call. That was one of my scariest moments.”

Senior sailor Nancy Hagood (COL ‘14), too, has had her share of memorable experiences at sea.  “Last year, while I was sailing at the Laser Regatta academy, a thunderstorm came up which wasn’t on the radar. We were all thrown out of our boats and then [had to] turtle underneath the boats until the storm passed.” Turtling involves flipping the boat completely upside down, and in this case, sheltering underneath.

The intensity builds as she goes on to recall an even more hair-raising occasion. “I was sailing with my sister [who] was out on the trapeze and we capsized. She was catapulted into the boat, sliced her head open, and had to get stitches. But I was fine so it’s all good,” Hagood remembered, laughing.  According to her, it’s just this sort of pulse-pounding experience that makes sailing such a good time.

“Sailing [is best] when it’s really windy, and the boat in front of you wipes out and suddenly you’re forced to avoid them without running over them. It gets a little hairy, but that’s what makes it fun,” she says.

Despite the sizeable risk involved in climbing into a sailboat, and the high level at which the Georgetown sailing performs, the team doesn’t receive the media coverage or student recognition it might deserve. However, this lack of attention doesn’t seem to faze the sailors.

“It would definitely be nice to get more recognition on campus, but we also get that sailing isn’t really a spectator sport, especially on the Potomac,” Hagood says. “We have a big team. There are forty people on our team, and it’s a great community. We don’t really need the recognition because we know we have a good time.”

Hagood smiles at the thought of the camaraderie among the sailors. “My favorite thing is the people,” she says. “I think the reason … we do so well is because we’re such a good community, everyone supports each other, and we’re all working toward the same goal.”

Before the team can keep working towards even more success for the upcoming academic year, though, Callahan and his program have to recruit during the summer. Thankfully, due to Georgetown’s vibrant campus community and the team’s reputation, their job isn’t too difficult.

“The great thing about sailing as far as being a collegiate sport is that there are no scholarships,” Callahan says. “So when you are recruiting, you are getting kids who are just choosing the best school for them academically. So if we lack some resources or a boathouse, it’s not a big deal because it’s not like someone else is offering more money to go there.”

 

As a student sailor, Hagood concurs, adding her own commendation of the Hilltop and what it has to offer.

“Georgetown has a perfect blend of academics and athletics. There are a lot of schools in the country that do really well in sailing every year and win nationals. But people go to those places just to sail and they don’t really have the college experience outside of sailing,” Hagood says. “But … Georgetown is such an awesome school, it’s in such an incredible location, there are just so many great resources, and [it] is generally a great place to be. The sailing team is the icing on the cake.”

Georgetown’s wide offering of activities and opportunities makes up a large part of Coach Callahan’s recruitment strategy, and he’s certainly happy with the results.  “These kids are coming from all over the country,” he says. “If you look at our roster it’s an equal mix of East Coast [and] West Coast.”

Callahan may be selling himself and his program short, though.  It’s not just the University that attracts future sailors, but Georgetown’s sailing program itself.

I really like D.C. Also Mike [Callahan] is a really good coach. We know him very well. He was Olympic coach of the year [an award conferred by the Olympic Comittee to the top college coach],” Post says. “That was a really big draw to come here. The team also has a really great reputation.”

To date, Callahan holds the most outstanding coaching achievement awards, as presented by the University’s athletic department. During the 2005-2006 season, for the first time in program history, Georgetown was awarded the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association’s Leonard M. Fowle trophy for best overall collegiate team in the country. Since then, the Hoyas have continued to bring fame and prestige back to the Hilltop, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be stopping anytime soon.

***

Although sailing at Georgetown is a varsity sport, the team depends on open try-outs to fill its ranks. “We do recruit like any other sport, we do have help from admissions, but with a team of 45 people (depending on the year),” Callahan says. “[W]hen you can only recruit four or five kids, we have to fill the rest of the spots with try outs.”

In fact, the team encourages people with no sailing experience to sign up. Callahan and his trusty band of sea dogs are especially keen on students who were athletes before coming to Georgetown.

“When we are looking through walk-ons for the team, we look for people who have played other sports. We want people who have been varsity athletes in high school. They can compete, but maybe they didn’t get recruited at Georgetown,” Callahan explains.

“We do have a history of bringing people in with no experience, and that’s something I want to keep. We could have a team of fifteen people who are really good, but that’s not what I want, and that’s not what the team wants.”

Inexperienced students are encouraged to try out for the team and are quickly included in the sailing community. In fact, the more experienced Hoya sailors have their own way of welcoming newcomers.

“We sail right next to the Potomac, and sometimes the jet wash from the planes coming in creates waterspouts on the river,” Hagood says, smiling. “It’s pretty fun not telling the freshmen and then watching the waterspouts come down and they all capsize.”

Nevertheless, it’s not all fun and games in the water by the national airport. The Hoyas fine-tune their sailing abilities not only by following a strict workout regimen that has them hitting the gym as often as any other varsity athlete, but more importantly by making sure they’re in the right mindset to maneuver their boats, tacking and jibing wherever they may need to go.

Callahan ensures that his team is sharp in mind as well as fit in body. “We focus on great work ethic and great concentration. A lot of sailing is getting the skills down and going out everyday and practicing hard. You also need the concentration to be in maybe twenty races in a day and to see what’s going on in the water where it’s always a changing race course.”

Upon reflection, Coach Callahan remembers to point out the remaining sailing virtue. “Oh! And thinking quickly. You have to able to think quick on the water and react to what’s going on around you. That’s what really makes a good sailor.”

  ***

With the ICSA/Gill success Georgetown’s sailing team has seen under Callahan’s tenure, the head coach and his sailors continue to compete at the highest level. Certainly, their expectations have not lowered one bit since coming back to the Hilltop this year.

When it comes to talking hopes and expectations for the team, sailor Alex Post’s expression becomes serious. “I mean, [the ICSA/Gill national championship] is definitely the goal. We lost a bunch of seniors last year, so we’ll have to see how that affects us and get the team set and see what happens.”

Hagood echoes Post’s determined sentiment. “It’s a long season. Our first weekend of competition is next weekend. Nationals are at the end of May and the beginning of June. [Though] we take a short break at the end of December and the beginning of January, we literally break ice.”

Perhaps with a little more awareness from the public, the sailing team can break ice in more ways than one.

“The only way to really understand the sport is to see it. I think if people haven’t seen it, they have their own preconceived notions of what sailing is,” Callahan says. “My battle as coach for many years has been to bring more people in to see what kind of a sport it is.”

Even though the stakes are high for the Hoyas this year, Coach Callahan is determined to focus more on his team on the whole and less on the results.

“Our team motto is ‘As One’. The idea there is that everyone is pushing everybody else—we win as a team and we lose as a team. It’s a core component of what we do… Everybody pushes each other and that makes things fun. That gives practice a different feel,” the coach emphasizes.

As far as a national championship goes, Hagood stays coy, saying, “It will all depend on who peaks in May.”

Unfortunately, the greater campus community still remains ignorant of the deft sporting organization that is the Georgetown sailing team. First-year dorm common rooms and seniors in Sellinger alike will probably respond with puzzled looks when someone mentions our nationally-renowned sailing team. But in the end that’s not what matters to the Hoya sailors. Their work ethic, team philosophy, and camaraderie serve to help them be the best they can be at a thrilling but dangerous sport that, sometimes, can spell the worst.

 

 

 

 



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