St. Mary's City -- Along shorelines from which colonial ships once put out for England with cargoes of tobacco and corn, crews from St. Mary's College now sail in search of national championships and individual awards -- and they are finding them regularly.
In the past three years, 21 members of St. Mary's sailing teams have been named All-America, including some who had not raced boats before enrolling at the college.
Academically, St. Mary's College is the only public honors college in the state, mandated to provide an affordable, accessible liberal arts education on par with top private schools.
It is a college that continues to build a reputation for academic achievement and value. Money magazine, for example, rated St. Mary's among the top 10 small liberal arts colleges in four select national and regional categories this year.
But along the waterfront, St. Mary's is making extraordinary gains with its 37-member sailing team, which includes Danielle Brennan, a 19-year-old sophomore who last year slam-dunked the women's yachting world and earlier this year was named Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year.
Academically and athletically, said sailing coach Adam Werblow, St. Mary's is something of a Dartmouth set along the shores of the St. Mary's River, on the site of Maryland's first capital city.
"More and more, as the school's academic reputation grows at the national level and the sailing reputation is at the national level, we get more and more talented academic applicants," said Werblow, 28, who has been the sailing coach for seven years. "This year, of our top two recruits, one had SATs of 1,400 and one had about 1,180. That certainly wasn't the case seven years ago. The average SATs were quite a bit lower, but just like the sailing team, the school's academic reputation is on the upswing big-time."
In the sailing world, Werblow said, small liberal arts colleges with strong academics are limited to a handful -- St. Mary's, Connecticut College and Dartmouth.
"Out of those three schools, St. Mary's has made the biggest commitment to the sport and easily has the best facilities," said Werblow, who coached the U.S. Youth World Team to two gold and two silver medals in 1991 and will coach the U.S. sailing team this summer in Bermuda.
"One of the neatest things about our teams is that there are people who come out and watch our practices, and they can't tell who are the world champions and who are the beginners," said Werblow, adding that half of the current team members are walk-ons.
"The world champions have taught the beginners so well from the start that their technique is excellent, and the beginner winds up bringing things to the table that you would never guess could be taught to some of these real hot shots.
"Off-the-water things in a lot of cases -- something about nutrition, maybe how to prepare for an exam, how to write an essay -- so that the academic side of the sailor's life is more together, so that when they come out and they go sailing they are better prepared, their minds are clear and they are focused on the racing."
The catalyst in the mix of academics and athletics at St. Mary's, Werblow said, is personal direction. During the sailing season, Werblow said, virtually each weekend members of the team leave St. Mary's after classes on Friday and spend Saturday and Sunday competing against other college teams.
"The national regattas move from site to site," Werblow said. "One weekend, we are at St. Mary's, the next it is at the Naval Academy or the following weekend at Harvard. . . . It is difficult after coming back from Boston at 3 in the morning to get up for your 8 o'clock on Monday -- particularly if you have an exam."
Last year Brennan became the only college sailor and thyoungest person (18) to win the Rolex award. She said that she is driven to excel, on the water and off.
"When I was little, I was dyslexic, and I still am," said Brennan, who grew up in Manhattan. "I had tutors and so on, and everything has been really hard for me.
"Living in New York City, I had to drive an hour and a half to go sailing at Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy, so I had to really attack it and try to learn.
"I attack everything. In order to be successful in college sailing, you definitely need to set goals for yourself every day. Just balancing school and sailing practices and then the traveling and competition, you really have to be organized, efficient."
In academics and athletics, said Brennan, there are lasting lessons.
"In one of our races [last year] the knot tied to the main halyard came loose, we had to capsize the boat to get the main sail back up and, of course, by then we were last and eventually had to eat a last-place finish," Brennan said. "Things like that happen all the time, where you just have to keep being positive and stay on your game plan. Stuff happens in sailing. Stuff happens in life, too."
Brennan's sailing background is typical of the top recruits who come to St. Mary's, Werblow said. She began sailing as a pre-teen and was a top local youth competitor on Long Island Sound by the time she was a teen-ager and won the girls national sailing championship at 16.
Werblow said 120 to 150 people per year apply to the college specifically for the varsity sailing team. This year, 95 people tried out for team berths, and seven were picked.
But last year, Brennan almost escaped Werblow's notice.
"That is really an embarrassment. . . ." Werblow said. "I generally know the names of the top junior sailors in the country. But that year, I was really focused on our team, and I hadn't even heard of her. She was from the area I grew up in, and I had no idea who she was."
As it happened, Brennan had heard of St. Mary's.
"This school is the perfect setup for me," said Brennan, who carries a 3.4 grade-point average as an economics major. "I can roll out of bed and go sailing, the academics are real strong and I am getting a good education.
"It is a small school, everyone is friendly and the sailors are pretty much the heroes -- like the football team somewhere else."
The college, with the same enthusiasm it shows in support of the team's collegiate sailing team, also is supporting Brennan's campaign for a spot in the Europe Dinghy class in the 1996 Olympics.
"When you coach people, you get to learn what their strengths are, but you also get to learn what their weaknesses are as well," Werblow said. "I think it is strong testimony that, with all the attention Danielle has gotten, life goes on here for her. She was at the pre-Olympic trials [this spring] in Savannah [Ga.], and on Friday morning before our team gets ready to go down to Old Dominion for the team racing national qualifiers, she sends a fax to her teammates and says, 'You guys are ready. Kick [butt].'
"She takes the time and has the care to wish her teammates well and to be rooting for them. She is a great teammate as well as a great leader on the water."
The pre-Olympic trials in Savannah, Brennan said, were a learning experience, a time to get adjusted to the Europe Dinghy and gauge the skills of international competitors. She placed third and failed to qualify.
Brennan plans to race in six class regattas before the Olympic trials, which she hopes to win to claim the single American berth in the Europe Dinghy.
She also will continue to sail for the St. Mary's team, which is ranked second in the nation, and she said, a tough training ground.
"Practices are really tough," said Brennan, adding that her Europe Dinghy workouts will have to come outside normal practice hours. "A lot of our practices are tougher than a lot of our regattas -- and we push each other really hard."
In college sailing, where most regattas are round-robins sailed by A and B teams in identical boats, the emphasis is on the sailors rather than the equipment.
"Because of that, there are no excuses," Brennan said. "The sailors win or lose it, and immediately you know why."
In 1993, when St. Mary's was close to winning the women's national championship, Werblow called an informal team meeting on the dock between races to discuss the whys of winning or losing.
"And Ted Lewis, the college president, is down on the docks right in the middle of the team meeting," Werblow said. "It hadn't really occurred to Ted or any of the players that this was a strange scene.
"Crews from the other schools looked at us and said, 'Whoa, this is crazy.' But for St. Mary's, it made perfect sense."