Riding the Wind
High school sailing teams go at it as part of the Willamette Sailing Club
The wind blew lightly and goose bumps textured the skin of everyone who was not in a wet suit. Those who were in wet suits jumped into the boats with ease and sashayed toward the starting line between two large red buoys.
For a few hours on a late April day, the Willamette River became a racetrack for 28 high school students practicing team sailing.
Today the Sharks and Crabs go first with three two-man boats on each team. The course takes 9 to 12 minutes and requires the boats to sail down around a buoy, back through the starting line, around a second buoy and then back to the starting line for the finish.
Willamette Sailing Club coaches George Yioulos and Bill Symes, who are in their second season as leaders of the club's youth team, motor around the course, cheering the kids when they perform well and chiding the kids when they make mistakes.
'What's your combo?' Yioulos yells as he passes by a boat. He expects the crew, who sits at the front of the boat, to be able to tell him immediately what places they and their team boat are in the race.
'Three and six' or 'One and seven' or 'Two and four.'
For the most part, the sailors chirp back their response as if the whole routine has been rehearsed many times before.
'Last year Bill and I coached them to do the racing,' said Yioulos. 'Now they have a lot more experience with the tactics they have to employ. You'll hear them yelling and they'll run plays and try to engage the other boats and slow each other down.'
The students banter playfully with each other, testing egos and occasionally teasing tempers. The students represent 11 different high schools - seven of them attend Lake Oswego schools - and together they make up the only Portland-area team.
'Our kids from Portland were showing up by themselves (at competitions),' said Rose Burrios, the volunteer coordinator and mother of sailor Monica Mader. Burrios helped start the high school team last spring, which was a necessary link between the club's current youth summer programs and the adult members.
Portland isn't a huge sailing city - given that it is 78 miles inland -so some of the team sailors, including Lakeridge sophomores Jeff Carlson and Noah Jacoby, didn't even think competitive high school sailing was an option.
'I didn't know there was a lot of sailing here. I'd only do it back East,' said Carlson, whose grandparents are from Connecticut.
There are eight to 10 yacht clubs in Portland all along the Columbia River - except for the Willamette Sailing Club - but very few maintain a competitive high school youth program. This has proven to be problematic for students wanting to participate in the Northwest Interscholastic Sailing District.
The district requires that a school have at least four students participating to compete at the varsity level. This rule is no problem for smaller, port city clubs like Poulsbo, Wash., or Bainbridge Island, Wash., but Portland and even Seattle have trouble meeting this requirement.
Within the Willamette Sailing Club, only Lincoln High School and St. Mary's Academy had enough students to compete at a varsity level at their last meet in Friday Harbor, Wash. The other students competed as junior varsity.
In some cases, the sailors are taking it upon themselves to recruit more students from their schools. It's a good sport for active kids who don't play more popular sports such as football or baseball.
'There's a whole group of people who did sports in middle school, but only the very best get to be on the team in high school,' said Burrios.
This sport is more inclusive. 'It's not elitist,' said Yioulos. 'It's just kids sailing boats.'
People have to get past the stodgy old-timer image the sport has, said Yioulos, who sailed at the University of Oregon from 2001-2005. In fact, it's those salty, old guys who need to invest in the sport, he said.
'When the club invests, the sport grows.'
There seems to be a recent effort to do just that - Vancouver Lake Yacht Club, Rose City Yacht Club and Hood River Yacht Club are all starting a youth program next year with a competitive high school program to follow in another two to four years.
'Sailing can give you a lifetime of pleasure,' said Yioulos. 'It's like tennis. You can do it until you're 80. Football you do 'til … what? … you're 25?'
Sailing is a dignified sport chalk full of life lessons, Yioulos explained.
For example, the sport requires that you are your own referee. If you foul, then it is up to you to be honest and do the penalty turns required.
Yioulos quotes legendary Canadian sailor Paul Elstrom: 'If you've won the race but lost the respect of your competitors along the way you haven't really won anything.
'There are a lot of stories of these guys who take the high road,' he added.
It's also a sport that requires teamwork and communication.
'If they don't work together they'll go slow. It's obvious,' said Yioulos. 'The physical maneuver is completely dependent on communication between boats.'
Last year, the club received a $25,000 donation from an anonymous donor on the grounds that the slow-pace of sailing yields a better connection to the environment.
Mader agreed that it has given her a better 'geographical awareness.'
'There are so many life lessons in this damn sport its ridiculous,' said Yioulos. 'All those things add up to a hell of a sport.'
The last thing sailing club members want to see is for their sport to become outdated. By investing in the youth, in 10 to 15 years it will bear fruit, said Yioulos.
For some of the students - like Lincoln sophomore Aegir Olsen - that might mean the Olympics someday.
For Yioulos, the goal will be reached simply if the kids just make sailing a lifetime sport.
'Hopefully these kids will do college sailing. Then maybe five to six years after they are out of school they'll buy a beat up boat and come back to the club.'
About the club: Willamette Sailing Club will hold an open house on Saturday, May 10, from noon to 4 p.m. for interested students and parents. The current high school team will be taking people out on the river for rides. Information will be available about cost and other program options. The club is in the process of forming a nonprofit, so they can raise funds for scholarships or other expenses.