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Junior sailors to compete at Helly Hansen National Offshore One Design Regatta

From left to right: Annabelle Hutchinson, Ben Podlich, Liam Kennedy and Kate Riley make up the junior crew that will compete in the Helly Hansen National Offshore One Design from May 5-7 in Annapolis.
From left to right: Annabelle Hutchinson, Ben Podlich, Liam Kennedy and Kate Riley make up the junior crew that will compete in the Helly Hansen National Offshore One Design from May 5-7 in Annapolis. (Handout)

The Helly Hansen junior sailing crew has heard it all before. That sailing is boring. That it's for old people. That it's not a real sport.

Liam Kennedy, 18, a senior at Annapolis High and the team's new spinnaker trimmer, had heard enough. As part of a school project that required community service, he started a petition to make sailing an officially recognized school sport. The school didn't agree, but perhaps some of the people he spoke to did.

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"I used to get mad at people who didn't understand that sailing was a sport, but now I kind of use it as an opportunity to teach them," he said. "But it's always something that annoys us, because we don't get the recognition like other teams."

Consider this weekend a chance for sailing to steal the spotlight.

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Kennedy, along with St. Mary's Annabelle Hutchinson, 18, and Severna Park's Kate Riley, 17, and Ben Podlich, 16, will be the only junior crew that will compete in the J105 class against regional, national and international teams in the Helly Hansen National Offshore One Design Regatta, held Friday to Sunday at Annapolis Yacht Club as part of the largest sailboat racing circuit in the country.

Podlich (bowman), Hutchinson (jib trimmer) and Riley (skipper), along with previous spinnaker trimmer Andrew Hiller, finished 11th overall out of 19 boats in last year's race, the first with a Helly Hansen-sponsored junior crew. Now with Kennedy onboard, they're aiming for a top-10 finish — even with talented veterans and former America's Cup sailors among the competition.

"They might not have the same amount of experience, but the knowledge you can gain from sailing can really be learned at any age," said Annapolis Yacht Club sailing director Jane Millman, who helped select and coach the team with three others and will trim mainsail during the competition. "I know for a fact sailing develops a skill in young adults that I don't think any other sport really offers, and that's the ability to make decisions where you see a direct or indirect consequence from that decision you make. All have been sailing for more than four years, so they've been using that decision-making skill for a long time."

Those skills will be tested more than ever as the crew makes the transition from 16-foot dinghies to the 35-foot J105, which is being lent by AYC member Pendleton Alexander. Along with the bigger size, the J105 weighs about 8,600 more pounds. Millman said it's like getting behind the wheel of a school bus after tooling around in a Mini Cooper.

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"You're no longer cutting corners as tight or as fast," Millman said. "You need to take turns a little bit wider. The biggest difference between cars and boats is that cars have brakes. So understanding the weight and the momentum that you're carrying in maneuvers is a big difference."

Handling such a large boat, and especially one they don't own, would be a big responsibility for anyone, let alone teenagers. Millman and the other coaches are there to provide assistance if needed, but for the most part, they "keep quiet and let them do their own thing."

"It's not really coach instruction. It's more like coach supervision," Podlich said. "So we're very comfortable making decisions for all these years."

Hutchinson said getting into an accident or causing any damage is her biggest fear when out on the water, and that will be especially heightened this weekend considering the circumstances. But while the responsibility sometimes creeps into all of their minds, the race is first and foremost an exciting opportunity to test their limits.

"I think for the bigger boys on our team, they feel very at home on keelboats and larger boats in general," Hutchinson said. "But Kate and I are really more dinghy sailors, so getting experience on a bigger keelboat like the J105 is really cool for us because it's not entirely in our comfort zone. By trying new boats, we get this whole different aspect of sailing."

The crew wants to see just how good they can be, and this is race — an international event — is their chance to show it. For most of their time spent on larger boats, usually as the youngest crew member, they've been the ones taking orders. Now, they're in charge, and they feel they have a responsibility to their peers to prove themselves — especially to the veterans.

"I think it's always in the back of our minds that we're a younger boat and have a lot to prove on the water," Hutchinson said. "We definitely want to make an impact and show people that even though we're young, we still have pretty good abilities and can sail these boats well."

Said Podlich: "It's important that show that we can do well to both the juniors and our elders."

It's this idea that fueled Kennedy's petition. Recreational sailing is slow, methodical and boring to some, and competitive racing is often perceived that way, too. While it's hard to notice the difference on land, it's a distinction they want to make clear.

"The sport is far more demanding," Hutchinson said. "There's so much action and knowledge and information that you need to be processing at a very rapid pace to make good decisions on the water. People underestimate the skill you need to sail and sail fast."

Sport or not, there's a competitive spark the comes out when talking about the race, an eagerness to beat the adults and show their peers that this is something worth caring about.

On one hand, they just want to soak in this opportunity without ruffling too many feathers. On the other ... well, they just really want to win.

"At the end of the day, this is a race, but we're out here to have fun, not to bring home the gold," Podlich said. "Even though that would be nice."

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NOOD Regatta

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Annapolis Yacht Club

Skinny: More than 210 boats in 17 classes will compete as part of the largest sailboat racing circuit in the country.

Details and schedule: sailingworld.com/nood-regattas/annapolis

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