Sailing Under the American Flag

The USA flag flying at the Olympics 2008

The eighteen sailors of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team have spent their lives as numbers sailing in a sea of more numbers. In their racing events they are spotted by the identifying digits on their sail. For example, the USA Yngling is '337.' But at the Olympics, they drop their numbers and gain new identities. They become 'the Americans' sailing in a cosmopolitan sea of flags.

Men’s 470 skipper Stu McNay explains, 'In past Olympics I’ve always seen the flags and that’s one of the coolest parts: To spectate and find your country.' Now it’s his turn. 'I want to be a part of that, where people can identify me as that American boat.'

Laser Radial medal favorite Anna Tunnicliffe says her favorite part of the United States branding on her boat is the 'USA' country code on her bow. 'Every time I tack, I see it and remember I’m sailing for my country.'

USA Laser sailor Andrew Campbell has sailed in ‘flagged’ events in the past, but not the Olympics. 'Without a doubt having nothing but the stars or stripes above your head is the greatest honor bestowed upon any American athlete and certainly any American sailor. I have had the honor of sailing two Youth World Championships, the World University Games and the Pan American Games all with the USA logo as the only distinctive mark on the mainsail.' That honor comes with expectations, though. Campbell explains he also feels a duty to perform under the flag. 'Knowing that every American sailor would switch places with you is a lot of pressure and at the same time an inspiration to perform at your best.'

For classes like the 470 and Yngling, the material ordered for all the sail stickers came with the wrong material and adhesive, so it didn’t stick to the Dacron sail material. McNay and crew Graham Biehl hope to get the new material delivered and have flag pasted to their main before the regatta ends. Biehl exclaims, 'That’s why I came here!'

Fortunately, Biehl still gets to trim a starred and striped spinnaker. But even that’s not all glory and fame because it presents a whole new challenge. He says, 'When I first sailed with the flag spinnaker it was harder to read.' Looking for subtle changes on a patterned surface is different than reading those nuances on a solid material. By now he’s fine, 'I’ve been working with it for about one and a half months now so I’m fully adjusted.'

Qingdao Olympic Regatta 2008. 49er. Star spangled banner.

The 49er has an even tougher challenge with the branded spinnaker: Their class rules say they must have the design sewn on instead of inked like the others. With the most complicated flag design, this might put USA at a slight disadvantage with all the seams. Both Tim Wadlow and Chris Rast have been to the Olympics before in the 49er, so it’s not new to them to bear the flag. Rast, however, has sailed for Switzerland in his past two Olympics, so representing USA is a new privilege for him.

To watch the USA sailors and their flags online, NBC is offering online coverage here: