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A Q&A with Peter Becker and Joe Cooper about the Young American Sailing Academy

by David Schmidt 5 Dec 08:00 PST December 5, 2018

The last few years have seen a reassuring uptick in high-profile, youth-focused opportunities to sail aboard Grand Prix-level hardware, ranging from the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup to the different “under-30” rules in the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup. Best yet, this trend has trickled down to phenomenal opportunities for younger sailors in Corinthian events on all three coasts and the Great Lakes.

While we at www.sail-world.com applaud every opportunity to help develop tomorrow’s rock stars, perhaps the most high-profile of all of these Corinthian-level efforts in North America was the story of High Noon’s downright awesome performance in the 2016 Newport Bermuda Race. Here, a group of junior sailors from the Long Island Sound area, racing aboard a borrowed Tripp 41, were the second boat—astern of the 100-foot, professionally crewed Comanche—across the finishing line and ultimately finished third in the highly competitive St. David’s Lighthouse Division.

This proud effort was led by the Young American Junior Big Boat Sailing Team, which had been operating and winning regattas for several years thanks to high-level coaching from experienced big-boat sailors including Volvo Ocean Race veteran Guillermo Altadill, as well as Peter Becker and Rob Alexander. While the adults served as watch captains, all seven of the junior sailors, age 15-18, sailed their hearts out to deliver a truly phenomenal performance in a race with a pre-start forecast that kept plenty of bigger, higher-dollar campaigns tied to the docks in Newport.

Flash forward almost three years, and the Young American Junior Big Boat Sailing Team has been incorporated as the Young American Sailing Academy (YASA), with a bigger-picture goal of fielding podium-worthy teams that can compete at the highest levels of the sport, from offshore events like the Newport Bermuda or the Sydney Hobart to the Olympics and the America’s Cup. I checked in with Peter Becker and Joe Cooper, YASA’s president and board member (respectively), via email, to learn more about YASA’s mission to help develop the next generation of American high-performance sailors.

Can you tell us about how YASA got started?

PB: YASA started out seven years ago when Rob Alexander [and I] took over the helm of the Junior Big Boat program at American Yacht Club and expanded the program to run from spring to fall (vs only the eight weeks of the dinghy program).

The purchase of the J/105 Young American was syndicated, and its use has been dedicated to the junior sailors. Focus and emphases is placed on distance racing and offshore.

One of the impetuses was from the observation that many big boat owners are not sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable to allow them to sail their boats with confidence and ease. YASA looks to change that with a new generation of young sailors who know (and love) how to go to sea.

JC: Peter lives in Rye, NY and I live in Newport, RI, three hours by car and 12-16 hours by boat, so it was not feasible for me to be hands-on in Rye from the start, although he and I have been talking about the lessons learned from the sea for ages. He is one of my oldest mates and long-time shipmate in the US, going on 35 years.

While there is not a YASA program on Narragansett Bay (yet-it is in my sights), I make it a point to bring teenagers out on big boats any time I can. Some Cooper Kapers (as I call them) include, day sails on Falcon 2000, a Class 40, two sailors for a couple of days on Wizard, the former VOR70 Camper, several Prout [School] sailors in 2017 for three days of the Candy Store Cup on the 56-meter Perini Navi ketch Zenji, two Prout [School] sailors sailing in the Pro Am of the World Match Racing Tour in 2016 with Sally Barkow, tours of VOR 65’s during the Newport [VOR] stopovers, a tour of the 40m French trimaran Spindrift, and dockside look-sees at more a few Class 40’s, Imoca 60's (Hugo Boss) and the MOD 70’s when they were in town.

What were your initial goals for the program and how (if at all) have they evolved/changed as the program has matured?

PB: The first year (2013) the goal was to sail a few Stratford Shoal Races (18-32 nm) and graduate to sailing longer coastal races such as the Block Island Race, Around Long Island Race and the Vineyard Race.

By the end of the 2013 season the team had advanced and even won the Vineyard Race sailing a borrowed J/122, beating Rambler by 20 minutes corrected. There was no looking back. Three years of gathering sea time for the juniors as preparation for the 2016 Newport Bermuda Race. Sea miles included return delivery from Bermuda on a Farr 73 in 2014, return delivery from Hawaii on R/P 72 Wizard in 2015, [as well as] many local miles.

The 2016 Newport Bermuda Race, sailing the Tripp CTM 41 High Noon was a highlight winning line honors, first in class and third overall and the Onion Patch Trophy.

2017 saw the formation of YASA as a not-for-profit 501c3 and the expansion to include the college-aged sailors. The 2018 Newport Bermuda Race was sailed on the R/P 63 Gambler, which allowed the team to gain valuable experience and knowledge in handling a mini-maxi class race boat. We want this to be a prelude to sailing a VOR 65.

2018 will see the expansion of the high-school aged program in Western Long Island Sound & Newport. YASA is receiving the donation of the modified J/44 White Gold. This will provide an exciting platform for the advanced juniors, and will fit nicely between the J/105 and the R/P 63.

JC: I of course knew about, and was watching, the fantastic achievements the Young American sailors were having in [their] races on Long Island Sound. Peter remarks on the Vineyard Race and I think that is when the wider Long Island Sound community started to see that something was going down in Rye.

In June of 2016, Peter asked me to sail with High Noon in some of the prelude races prior to the Bermuda race. The boat was totally run by the juniors, and I was seriously impressed by them. Not just sailing skills but the poise, teamwork, covering each other, all the fine little nuances that are the sparkling little stars of really skilled sailors.

[For example,] handing the handle to someone exactly when they need it without being asked, great situational awareness. I was not all that surprised when they blitzed the Bermuda Race. I did a couple of videos before they started with two of the girls on the boat and there too, their maturity, understanding of what they were doing was evident. This was the year the WX forecast was for the end of the world and masses of [adult-crewed] boats elected to not start.

How does the program work? Can individual sailors sign up or are they invited to join? Is there a qualifying criteria? Also, can individuals show up as a lone sailor, or do they need to arrive with an entire team of sailors to take Level 100 or Level 200?

PB: Primary equipment is the J/105 and White Gold. YASA works well with borrowed boats. The R/P 63 Gambler is owned by the USMMA Sailing Foundation who partners with YASA in providing the vessel and assisting with coaching and vessel support/logistics.

Level 100 sailors in the past were based from AYC, today YASA is being setup to serve young sailors from all clubs. Hinckley Yacht Services is a YASA partner and [is] providing a base for operations from their Stamford, CT yard.

The 2018 Gambler crew was made up from sailors of college age and from a diverse geographic area; Bermuda, Michigan, Virginia, California, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, etc.

YASA is actively seeking donors, partners and sponsors to help fund the sailing operations, coaching and vessel upkeep. YASA is quickly expanded beyond the funding ability of the junior sailors themselves, which was the original model of a modest program fee.

JC: On Narragansett Bay there is a lot of big-boat sailing and a lot of junior activity, and I have been working on starting a YASA boat in Newport through one of the clubs there.

What kinds of skills can a Level 100 student expect to walk away from the program with? Also, how does this compare to a Level 200 graduate’s knowledge base?

PB: Level 100 sailors have competency in sailing coastal distance races and with proficiency in all positions on the deck. Navigation and weather routing may or may not be knowledge gained by all Level 100 sailors. Boat handling is a given requirement.

Level 200 is Newport Bermuda Race and beyond, [including] preparation for real offshore sailing. All Level 200 sailors take the World Sailing certified Safety at Sea hands-on training.

YASA believes that one of the factors of success is a very high caliber coaching. Guillermo Altadill has been our head coach for both the 2016 and 2018 Newport Bermuda Races, and Ralf Steitz, [Volvo Ocean Race veteran] Sara Hastreiter, and Joe Cooper have added significant value to the YASA coaching.

In terms of racecourse results, what are do you think are YASA’s biggest achievements? I’m guessing High Noon’s stunning performance in the 2016 Newport-Bermuda Race, but are there any other performance metrics that you and YASA are especially proud of?

PB: 2016 Newport Bermuda was our big 15 minutes of fame. In addition, we have multiple wins with the Block Island Race (four podium finishes), Vineyard Race (six podium finishes), Around Long Island Race (three podium finishes) and the Ida Lewis Distance Race (two podium finishes).

Some of the accomplishments are as simple as training 17 junior sailors with the skills and knowledge required to sail a mini-maxi. In 2017, two of our sailors won the Vineyard Race in the double-handed division.

One of our YASA female sailors sailed the Sydney Hobart Race after beating out 175 other female sailors from around the world for one of four spots on the Magenta Project boat. This sailor now knows Libby Greenhalgh and is currently [being] mentored by Sally Barkow. Another female YASA sailor help deliver a VO65 from the Hague to Portugal after the [last] VOR [wrapped-up].

JC: I have been coaching a high-school sailing team for about ten years [at The Prout School in Wakefield, RI] and the percentage of young girls entering the team has been on the increase for the past five years. In the 2018 season the gender breakdown was 85% girls, and the top two pairs were four girls, so something is going on with girls finding something they like in sailing.

Every year I get two or three young sailors who come into The Prout [School's] Sailing Team with zero skills and leave four years later totally excited, fired up and “hooked” on sailing.

What about in terms of non-quantifiable results? Any stories of younger sailors coming into their own at YASA or otherwise making big gains in their personal sailing?

PB: Almost every year there is a young sailor who has possibly not enjoyed the dinghies as much as [the] others, and not being a top dinghy sailor [they] may feel like they don’t socially fit in well. And unlike a dinghy where it is mostly an individual sport, [sailing] on a big boat it is a team effort, there is a job for everyone, and soon the sailor understands that their job is important and adds value. This quickly leads to greater enjoyment and confidence. Truly it is an environment that creates confident, happy Salty-Sailors-for-Life.

YASA promotes a strong environment for gender equality and the development of female leaders. YASA believes that no matter how big or small the boat it is brains that will win out over brawn. This belief levels the playing field. YASA is effectively 50/50 male and female, with female crewmembers assuming all roles on the boats. Some of our best and most accomplished sailors are female, [and this is] a fact we are very proud of.

YASA believes that safety is partially built through allowing the juniors to treat the boat like a jungle gym. The more they find the confidence to climb around the boat on a normal day the less fear they have of handling the equipment. This leads to a better calm in the face of what otherwise would have been a scary event, i.e. a broach etc.

With this confidence and calm, more focus and energy can be put toward rectifying the situation at hand.

JC: It is hard to quantify attitude, but these young sailors let nothing on the boat, the J-105 Young American faze them. I have done one Ida Lewis Distance Race and two Vineyard races with them.

In 2017, [during the] Vineyard Race they did not stop “racing” once. Each member of the team had rights to call BS on (slow) boatspeed, course angle, whatever might have been the issue slowing them down. Anyone could start the discussion about sail changes or whatever was necessary to keep the boat at 100% as often as possible.

The last 50 miles were downwind in a building breeze, and the crew pulled off maybe eight to ten gybes in 25 [knots] true with higher gusts and they were all close to perfect.

In 2018, due to a failure of communications when preparing the boat for the Vineyard Race, we lost power and engine about 12 hours into the race. The young woman who had the role of skipper took command completely. There was none of the “oh Lord we don't have…” Fill in the blanks, just discussion on how to get a work-around for no navigation, GPS etc, weather, running lights and so on.

[The crew] all exhibited careful critical thinking, [they] came up with ideas on how to fix things and even the whacky ones were not shouted down as sometimes happens. They worked the problem all the time. We finished in about 52 hours and sailed the boat into the harbor and up to a mooring. I was tremendously proud of their efforts and their never quit approach. Again, they worked hard, looked after each other, backed each other up, had intelligent assessments of weather tactics, strategy, and all the things you do on a distance race. We were fourth in class, 6th in the PHRF fleet of 30 boats, and we finished when 15 boats of a combined IRC and PHRF fleet of 59 retired, [some] 25 percent of the combined fleets

On both races, the levels of leadership and teamwork were at least as good as some of the best boats I have sailed on. I did not actively sail the boat in either race, just cooked a couple of meals and provided entertainment as far as I could tell.

Teenagers are very social beings and the teamwork that sailing big boats builds is the kind of environment they thrive in. The excitement they get from sailing in this way will, we hope [and] anticipate, make them into lifelong sailors, and some of them are certainly skilled enough to go as far in the game as they put their minds to.

Has YASA taken any steps to “green-up” or otherwise lower your environmental wake? [Perhaps this is a partnership with Sailors for the Sea or a commitment to forgo using single-use plastics straws/cups/plates or even just trying to burn less fuel in coach/chase boats?

PB: We do have plans for promoting sustainability. These efforts will follow as YASA gains funding for expanded operations.

In this area YASA would like to not just check a box or give lip-service to sustainability, but to arrive at a message and mission that can actually help create a difference. Today being green is a crowed space, and YASA is in search for the clear mission that [we] can act on with impact.

JC: These sailors are fully up to speed on the “no” single-use bottle issue and anything that can be done in terms of ocean stewardship. We bring a couple of five-gallon water-cooler type bottles with a hand pump and they fill their [personal and reusable] water bottles from these.

In the 2018 Race we saw a few balloons on Long Island Sound and it just drove them nuts. They are completely aware of the challenge for all sailors, for all humans with respect to plastics.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

PB: We have big goals for the future, but right now we are having a hell of a lot of fun!!

JC: Agreed. For me, us, growing up sailing, the satisfaction of watching these young sailors “get it” when you explain some principle to them and watching them perform the way they do is hugely gratifying. AND they are great people too. You can have a discussion with them on almost anything.

We are working on sailing, but these kids would perform the same way in any task you set them I reckon.

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