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An interview with Ashley Henderson and Paul McGuan about the Soling World Championship 2023

by David Schmidt 14 Sep 08:00 PDT September 17-23, 2023
Racing on day four of the Soling worlds at Scarlino, Italy © James Robinson Taylor /

Some boats are designed specifically for the Olympics, while others become Olympic-level equipment due to their international popularity. The Laser (ILCA) is a great example of the latter, while the Soling is a poster child of the former. The Soling was drawn by Norwegian designer Jan Herman Lange in 1964 following a design call from the IYRU (now World Sailing) for a "wholesome" three-person keelboat. The prototype Soling first sailed in 1965, and, in 1968, it earned Olympic berth in 1968.

The Soling class was first contested at the 1972 Summer Olympics (Munich, Germany), and its first Olympic gold was collected by the American-flagged and star-studded team of Buddy Melges, Bill Allen, and Bill Bentsen. The boat remained an Olympic class through the 2000 Summer Olympics (Sydney), where its final Olympic gold was earned by the Danish-flagged team of Jesper Bank, Henrik Blakskjær and Thomas Jacobsen.

Since then, the class continued to evolve (for example, cheaper-but-equal carbon rigs arrived in 2016), while still offering great international-level competition. Take, for example, the Soling World Championship 2023, which is being hosted by the Milwaukee Yacht Club, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from September 17-23.

I checked in with Ashley Henderson and Paul McGuan, daughter-and-father regatta chairs of the Soling World Championship 2023—where they are both registered competitors, albeit on different boats—to learn more about this world-championship-level regatta.

Can you please tell us a bit about the Soling class's culture and the kinds of sailors that one can expect to encounter at this year's Soling Worlds?

The Soling culture has changed a lot throughout its years from the ultra-competitive Olympic days to one that helps boost others. The level of competition is fierce on the water and helpful on land.

Several of the Olympic competitors are still active in the class and they are very forthcoming with advice and coaching for newcomers to the class to help maintain the high-caliber of racing the class has always enjoyed.

What kind of entry numbers are you seeing this year? Also, where do most competitors hail from?

This year we will see 24 boats from seven different countries—Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and the United States.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter on the waters of Lake Michigan in mid-to-late September? Also, what are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

Mid-to-late September brings a variety of conditions—usually we can expect a Nor'easter switch to bring us big wind and bigger wavers, in 2011 for the NAs and 2012 for the worlds we saw 30+ knots of breeze with 8'+ waves.

Racing in Lake Michigan offers some unique challenges but also allows the Soling to be used to its full potential.

The Soling was designed for big water and waves and it is exhilarating surf a keelboat downwind. This is a rare opportunity for sailors from Europe and inland lake sailors to experience the big wind and water.

The wave sets on Lake Michigan are also much closer than would be typical for ocean swells.

In the ideal world, how many races do you and the other organizers hope to score? Also, how many races will you aim to run per day?

We aim for two races per day (one with three and one on the final day) for racing to last about 70 minutes, three laps around the course and a championship finish.

The championship finish adds a short reaching leg after the final downwind gate, which gives the competitors one last maneuver to pick-off one last boat or two.

How important do you think local knowledge will be for this regatta? Also, if you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) teams, what would it be?

Depending on the wind local knowledge can be key—except many have raced here before and are world-class sailors. I thought I knew the local conditions well, but Peter Hall (Montreal), a three-time world champion in the Soling, handicaps the conditions and course strategies in Milwaukee Bay much better than most of the locals. So will Bill Abbott (Sarnia) and Roman Koch (Munich).

All of the Soling sailors who regularly travel to race internationally have an excellent understanding of the local sailing conditions. One of the really nice things about Lake Michigan and Milwaukee Bay is that you can get to very clean racing areas very quickly which have unlimited open water and very few local conditions. It is not a quirky inland lake.

Do you have any entrants that you're eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

We have several repeat World Champions - Bill Abbott Jr., Peter Hall (Montreal), Roman Koch and John Walton (San Diego) have a long history of excellent racing in the Soling who could upend the repeat champions.

The great thing about this boat is there is lots of opportunities for new sailors on the rise. Starts are critical in this fleet and mistakes can be deadly.

I note that you're a registered competitor yourself. What aspects of this regatta are you most looking forward to?

I am looking forward to being a driver this year; for the worlds in 2012 I was on bow with my friends Whitney Kent (driver) and Cate Muller (middle).

Racing is a family affair this year for us. My sister, Arielle Henderson, is bow on my boat, longtime friend Jon Bailey is middle as well as racing against my dad, Paul McGuan (driver), Mark Keast (middle and partner), and friend Jenna Kozal (Bow) who is a student at Marquette University as well as on the sailing team.

I enjoy the international aspect of racing in the Soling and the Worlds brings competitors from all over the globe who are great sailors but also very good friends. We had a party at my parent's house for the 2012 Worlds that was far better attended than we expected. We had to keep cutting up the sausage into smaller pieces to feed everyone (over 90 people), but it was one of the most unique and enjoyable parties we've ever had.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

Our budget has really helped us to be eco-friendly. We will be posting QR codes at the club to access the race documents, results, announcements, etc., in lieu of printed documents. We will also be providing reusable water bottles to the competitors and feeding the competitors breakfast at the club on regular dishes (no paper plates).

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about this year's Soling Worlds, for the record?

There are many sailors who are devoted to the Soling class due to its remarkable performance and the technical complexity that allows the boat to be sailed well in all conditions. The Soling is especially solid in heavy wind and seas, but still very nimble in light winds. Many of those devoted followers will be here at the World Championships in Milwaukee. The Soling is still hugely popular in Europe, and while less popular in the U.S., those of us still sailing the boat are avid sailors and especially good friends.

The regattas are intensely competitive with very close racing and exciting mark roundings. It is a remarkable boat and a wonderful community of sailors.

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