By Airwaves Writer Mac Dickson
The Etchells class has maintained a celebrated and decorated reputation since Skip Etchells designed his first twenty-two-foot racing sloop in 1965. Born in 1911, Skip lived through both World Wars and the Great Depression. He spent a much of his life designing Stars and later Lightning’s in New England. The Etchells family has a noteworthy sailing pedigree. Skip won the Star Class World Championship as a helmsman in 1951. His wife and crew, Mary, remains the only female world champion in the Star class to date. Skip’s extensive racing experience and success made him the ideal boat builder. Following his move to Stamford in 1965, Skip designed a new boat that would become the International Etchells Class.
The design, according to skip, was “a very simple rule, very good for the imagination: 22 feet on the waterline, 4’6” draft, 3,700 pounds displacement, and only 310 square feet of actual sail area. A wholesome, heavy-weather boat was clearly invited, we thought (Etchells.org).”
Today, the Etchells is a thirty-foot sloop that has maintained over fifty active fleets for the past thirty years. The vessel is crewed by three to four people, and remains comfortable and competitive. It boasts a low wetted surface hull which allows it to sail in even the lightest of breeze. The Etchells class has adhered to a one-design principle. The construction of the boats is not only governed by the strong, effective class association but also the ISAF.
The class boasts high levels of competition in all levels of racing. The top Etchells sailors often have ten or more years in the class, and an even deeper history in other boats. However, in recent history there has been a noticeable lack of younger-generation racers in the class. The first-annual US-UK Youth Etchells Challenge came about this year in an effort to change that.
The challenge was issued by the Cowes, UK Etchells fleet over the winter after discussions at the 2016 World Championship and the annual Etchells series in Miami, according to Senet Bischoff. It included invitations to one, or two US Youth teams to compete in the an annual Etchells invitational regatta taking place in Cowes, UK: the Gertrude Cup. The event will see very high competition from twenty teams, including the UK Youth entry.
The US Etchells fleet was quick to jump at this opportunity and promptly made an announcement in search of the right sailors in early April. Although they were only challenged to send one boat, they received so much interest from youth sailors and Etchells class members that the final group for the Gertrude Cup will be two boats and a team manager. The team was selected through applications due on the first of May to sailors not older than twenty-five. The application required a statement of how participation in the challenge would foster the applicant’s development as a competitive sailor. The selection committee consisted of three well-known names in the Etchells world: Senet Bischoff, Michael Gavin, and 2017 national champion Steve Benjamin. “We were seeking sailors that had interest in learning and broadening their sailing experience… and a team that had a balance of dinghy and keelboat experience, as well as experience at different positions in the boat,” says Bischoff. The committee has since selflessly dedicated much of their own time and resources to this team through providing boats, fundraising, coaching, support, and much more.
In a respectable, gracious manner, the British hosting authority agreed to supply a boat and accommodations for one US team and reserve a second entry for an additional US Youth Team. The US plans to follow suit at a major event in the states in 2018, potentially the North American Championship. A new class trophy, dedicated to the annual challenge, will be awarded to the highest-placing youth team at the Gertrude Cup.
The basic criteria for applications to the team, as outlined in the announcement, included: “a sailing résumé, contact information, availability from May to July, birthday, height, weight, and a statement of how participation in the Youth Challenge will contribute to your development as a competitive sailor.” After sorting through numerous applications, the committee decided on a final team of nine sailors within the age requirement of 18-24. The sailors that constitute the selected team range from the minimum to maximum ages and boast an impressive array of sailing experience. Through the committee, the team has access to two competitive boats to train in. Their agenda for the summer consists of practice weekends and four major US Etchells events leading up to the coveted Gertrude Cup. The majority of the team, sans the two skippers, has no prior experience in the class.
The members of the team are very excited about the three-month campaign. Captain and Skipper Connor Needham stated that, “the opportunity that presented itself to have a scheduled, outline for the summer; competing in multiple events in a class that’s very well known for its high level of competitiveness; getting to a point of being able to compete in a major event like the Gertrude Cup at the end of July,” is what especially drew him to the challenge.
While the unconventional, raw Etchells Youth team is confident in their abilities, they understand that they have their work cut out for them and they’re determined to get where they need to be. The events on their schedule will bring the stiff competition that they need to get them ready for the big goal in the UK. “The top-end boats have sail-designers on the boat, they have sail makers on the boat, they have professional main-trimmers, they have guys that have been looking at it for 20 years. Something that I’ve learned is that I haven’t sailed against someone in the class that hasn’t sailed the boat for shorter than 10-15 years,” explains Needham, “It’s one of those boats where you need to learn by making a lot of mistakes, and those mistakes come through competing at events and learning from the other guys.”
They are coming into this challenge fully aware of the steep learning curve of the technical, competitive Etchells class. Despite their lack of experience in this particular boat, they are all valuable assets in their own unique respect. What is it about these kids, mostly brand new to the boat, that gives them a shot? Ed Lebens, a Long Island Sound Native, believes that “the range of skill sets, skill levels and sailing experience all coming together in one class and one team,” will be able to push them to be successful and competitive in the class. The thing that really makes this program special is their passion for learning from each other. “Everybody has come to this team with a common goal of learning a lot and trying to get to the top. Nobody’s stuck up with ego, and everybody’s learning from each other and making the most of the team,” asserts mid-bowman Key Becker. The team had their debut in full force this past weekend as they competed in the Atlantic Coast Championship at Shelter Island Yacht Club, Needham’s home Club. They were coming off of two practice weekends at the venue, eager to race and continue to grow their skills. The team raced two boats skippered by Connor Needham and Marly Isler and earned 5th and 9th place finishes, respectively. These results are very impressive for the tough fleet of 24 boats that competed. Check out each sailor’s individual profiles below:
- Age: 19
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: American Yacht Club
- Education: College of Charleston
- Etchells Class Experience: Minimal
- Sailing Background: Mixed offshore and inshore big boat sailing generally on more high-performance boats.
- Team Role: Mid bow
- Age: 18
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Noroton Yacht Club
- Education: Darien High School, graduate
- Etchells Class Experience: None before challenge
- Sailing Background: Lots of local dinghy sailing as well as a ton of big boat experience
- Team Role: Bow
- Age: 23
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: San Diego Yacht Club / Yale Corinthian Yacht Club
- Education: Yale University
- Etchells Class Experience: Extensive, Fleet 13
- Sailing Background: I raced 420’s, skiffs, and Etchells’ internationally before becoming a member of the Yale University Sailing team where I sailed on the match race and women’s circuit. I was captain my senior year and majored in American Studies with a focus in Architecture and Environmental Studies. I’m now working at Latham & Watkins law firm in Washington, D.C. and use practically all of my vacation days to continue to sail; competing in team races, long distance races, and short-course regattas.
- Team Role: Skipper
- Age: 18
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Essex Yacht Club
- Education: St. George’s School
- Etchells Class Experience: None before the challenge
- Sailing background: Started in Opti’s. Progressed to C420’s and have sailed the circuit 3 times. I race big boats on distance races like the Ida Lewis Distance Race and the Vineyard Race. I also sail in the American Yacht Club spring and fall series’ and Block Island Race Week. I race big boats – mostly on Swan 42’s and Swan 45’s. I campaigned last year for 2016 Melges 24 Worlds. I competed in the Red Bull Foiling Generation, which is on the more high-performance side of the sailing I have done. During the winters, I frostbite in Laser’s on the Connecticut River. I sail for St. George’s school which makes for a very intense season.
- Team Role: Main and spinnaker trimmer. I go back and forth from the 2nd role and the 3rd role in the boat.
- Age: 21
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Severn Sailing Association
- Education: Graduated from Boston University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering
- Etchells Class Experience: none
- Sailing Background: I grew up in Annapolis, MD sailing at SSA (Severn Sailing Association) racing Opti’s and 420s. The past 4 years I attended Boston University majoring in mechanical engineering and was a member of the sailing team. I sailed both the women’s and coed circuits, sailing A division for women’s and B division for co-ed. As a junior, I was captain of the women’s team and then captain of the co-ed team senior year. I received the honor of Women’s All-American Honorable Mention in 2016 and Women’s All-American in 2017.
- Team Role: mid-bow on Connor’s boat, mostly calling tactics. I am also the team treasurer.
- Age: 25
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Shelter Island Yacht Club
- Education: Roger Williams University ’14, BS Mechanical Engineering
- Etchells Class Experience: Competing for 4 years
- Sailing Background: Since high school I have competed in regattas in various positions in boats such as: Lasers, 420’s, various Collegiate Dinghies, Melges 20’s, Etchells’, Swan 42’s, Farr 30’s, X40’s, Summit 40’s, J70’s, J109’s, J111’s. I graduated from RWU in 2014 and continued my contribution and activeness in the sailing community through coaching in college and competing in the off season. I started out as the head coach at Middlebury and was shortly after hired to coach at Boston University. I have competed in various Etchells regattas since 2014 as a skipper which includes the Louis Piana Cup, Sidney Doren Memorial Regatta, Biscayne Bay Series, Etchells Midwinters, Etchells LIS Championship, the NYYC Annual Regatta and a Summer Series which I most recently won with a fleet of 14 boats including well known skippers such as: Jay Mills, Scott Kaufman and Jay Cross. I was elected to race in the NYYC Invitational Cup in 2014 and 2016 where our team was 1 position short of qualifying in 2014. This summer I will also be competing in the Swan 42 Worlds.
- Team Role: Skipper, Captain
- Age: 20
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Seawanhaka Yacht Club
- Education: Currently a junior at RWU, majoring in Finance.
- Etchells Class Experience: Practice crew for Steve Benjamin, no racing experience
- Sailing Background: Born and raised sailing on Long Island Sound, initially sailing Optimist’s, Club 420’s, and Laser’s before moving onto Collegiate Sailing as well as bigger and faster boats such as Farr 40’s, J105’s, J70’s, and Etchell’s. Represents Roger Williams in collegiate sailing.
- Team Role: Main trimmer
- Age: 18
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Noroton Yacht Club
- Education: Rising freshman Tufts University ’21
- Etchells Class Experience: None prior to challenge
- Sailing Background: I420 circuit
- Team Role: Bowman
James (Jimmy) Kennedy
- Age: 22
- Home Yacht Club Affiliation: Beachwood Yacht Club
- Education: Roger Williams University ’17, Marketing major
- Etchells Class Experience: First event in the boat: 17th at 2017 Nationals
- Sailing Background: I grew up sailing from a young age. At about 7, my parents put me in a junior program at the Beachwood Yacht Club located on the Toms River. While there I competed in Opti’s, Sunfish, Laser’s and Club 420’s. Moving into high school, I competed for as a crew and skipper at Toms River High School South from 2009 – 2013. In the summers, I competed in the BBYRA; sailing E Scows, Laser’s, and A Cats. Moving forward, I attended Roger Williams University very eager to sail. While there, I sailed as skipper and crew in FJ’s, 420’s, Zim 15’s, Navy 44’s, J70’s, and several other dinghies. As a recent graduate of Roger Williams University, I am sailing as much as possible competing on E Scows, Etchells’, J70’s and in several Team Racing events.
- Team Role: Main and Spinnaker trimmer
The US-UK Etchells Youth Challenge has a clear goal: growth of the sport through expanding the horizons of youth sailors. There is a huge gap between sailors who grew up immersed in the community with opportunities falling in their lap from every direction and those who have to make their own way. The latter is much more difficult. Sailors who grow up outside of the high-level bubble are not often seen competing at big, competitive events outside of the dinghy world like the Melges 24 Nationals, J70 North Americans, Annapolis to Newport, etc. This program making a clear, decisive effort to change that. “Being somebody that’s graduated from college,” comments Hannah Polster (Boston U. ’17), “and not being super involved in sailing outside of the realm of dinghy sailing and college sailing, it’s a huge opportunity for people to get into new classes of boats and kind of get further involved in sailing outside of the academic world; something that, coming into my senior year, I didn’t really know how to deal with post-college. It definitely gives me a lot of opportunities, and as it continues I think it will be a huge help for other people when they graduate.”
Many college sailors are under the impression that the “big-time” sailing route they are limited to after finishing school, or if they take time off of school, is an Olympic campaign. This challenge is a new way for sailors to represent their country, compete internationally, and gain skills from prime competition without the financial or time requirements of an Olympic run. “It’s really cool for the people who don’t want to put in the [semester] that it takes to get an Olympic medal. It’s a class, where you can have a life and work your butt off and still compete in the top events, and still stay involved in the sailing community,” states Skipper Marly Isler.
This initiative can largely be credited to the committee that made it happen. “I think we all owe something to Steve, Senet, and Michael for putting this together,” notes Becker, “They’ve all supported each one of us individually. Those three are a huge part of this and they don’t get mentioned enough.” Steve Benjamin, the driving force behind it all, recently won the 2017 Etchells National Championship. He is focused on his own campaign and is in definite contention for the World Championship, yet he is spending a large amount of his own time and resources to bring youth sailors into the sport and class that he loves. “That’s a really cool thing he’s doing, and a very selfless thing,” Isler fondly remarks.
It takes people like Steve Benjamin, organizations like the Etchells class, alliances like that of the US and the UK, and driven competitors like this team to take the sport we all cherish so deeply to the next level. The Sail1Design team is looking forward to following what these kids accomplish and keeping our readers updated. Stay tuned, and go USA!