Sailing developing as high school sport

Almost every Saturday morning from March to mid-May, sailboats can be seen racing through the water at the Norfolk Yacht Club. Jumping from one side of the boat to the other, and ducking as the sails swing over their heads, high school students do their best to keep from capsizing as they race toward the finish line.

Fourteen years ago, high school sailing in the Hampton Roads area was almost non-existent. According to Randy Stokes, president of the Virginia Interscholastic Sailing Association (VISA), in past years there was only one or two teams from Hampton Roads.

"They'd pack up and go to Annapolis for the weekend," said Stokes, who coaches Norfolk Collegiate. "It seemed like high schools needed a local circuit to compete locally."

Stokes and a handful of his sailing friends raised money and bought a few boats to start a team in the area. More than a decade later, a lot of teams are doing the same thing.

John Campbell, the parent of a sailor from Hampton Roads Academy, was instrumental in buying two boats last year to give students the chance to get on the water. Most teams practice at local yacht clubs or universities.

In the spring, HRA practices at Hampton University. HU allows the team to use the boats when they are available, but Campbell said with their own boats the team is not restricted to Hampton's schedule.

"(We want) more availability to get on the water," said Campbell. "The more you're on the water, the better you're going to be."

Norfolk Academy, Christchurch, Norfolk Collegiate, Poquoson High School and Walsingham Academy competed in the Fleet Racing Championships in April. Christchurch was the only team of the group to advance to the national contest this month.

Campbell isn't the only one who wants teams on the water as much as possible. Christchurch has a dock on campus and owns its boats.

Meade Fowlkes, a first-year coach at Smithfield High School, said Christchurch, is better off with its own equipment. Even though Smithfield uses the property of a gentleman in the community, nothing compares to docks feet away from the backdoor of the school.

"They can practice every day, get brand new equipment and have access to the water," Fowlkes said of the boarding school.

Mark Newman, head coach at Walsingham Academy, agreed. "They (Christchurch) kick our butts."

While most schools rent boats and practice whenever they can, Poquoson High School has been able to bring its sailing program back to Poquoson. After a decade of back and forth from different yacht clubs, Poquoson's community banded together to bring the team home to practice at Light House Cove Marina. Poquoson also has a deal to store its equipment. Last season's addition of six new boats and this season's new sails have made practicing easier.

Volunteer coach Steve Hendrickson said being back in the community has done wonders for the team.

"This spring has been a rebuilding season, it's the second largest group we've ever had," Hendrickson said. "One key to our success is 17 kids and a lot of them are new."

Hendrickson went on to say that he thinks the ability to practice so close to the school has helped encourage students to join the team.

"It makes getting kids easier for us and I think we're starting to see that now," he said. "There is a stronger sense of identity, being connected to the town."

Schools such as HRA, Kecoughtan, Phoebus and Hampton often share the same practice area. Taking turns practicing at Hampton University and Hampton Yacht Club, the schools intersect in the bay that separates the two areas.

The teams are so used to practicing with one another, they band together to form one club team in the spring. Most of the schools are listed as varsity sports in the fall.

"All the members of the league had to approve it," Stokes said. "They thought it was a healthy fit because everyone wanted to see them out on the water. They probably would not support a super team."

Stokes said the four schools are relatively new to the sailing community. Because they have a shortage of sailors, he said they are disadvantaged when trying to develop a good team.

John Hilburger, a volunteer coach at HRA, said getting students involved in the program early is necessary to keep them engaged.

"The secret is to get a hold of middle school kids and get them addicted early before other sports have their chance," he said.

VISA allows students in eighth grade to tryout to engage teenagers early.

Newman said his biggest challenge is losing kids to more popular sports in the spring.

"We try to get their parents involved and spread the news word of mouth to recruit," he said. "We had an ad campaign to try to get younger kids because once they get involved in lacrosse or something they are lost forever."

Newman said he encourages his team to participate in sailing programs in the community. But once he has students interested, Newman said it's pretty easy to retain them in high school.

Fowlkes, who has been sailing for 55 years and was an Olympic competitor, said his goal is to get as many kids involved as possible.

"(We use) school announcements and talk to people in the community, but we're competing with other school programs that have the youngsters tied up," said Fowlkes. "It's not just sitting in a boat and pulling on a rope, it's a sophisticated sport."

As for being sophisticated, Campbell's son, Miles, said that's exactly why he likes it.

"You really have to know the rules because you can't have those cheater people. There are no refs, everyone sees everything and its fair," said the HRA student.

But overall, Miles just enjoys the sport.

"We have strategy, but we really just go for it."

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