Rockland-area sailors find joy in high school racing

Robin Lewis, 17, senior instructor at the The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, disassembles sailboat rudders to be rebuilt prior to this year's sailing season.
Robin Lewis, 17, senior instructor at the The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, disassembles sailboat rudders to be rebuilt prior to this year's sailing season. Buy Photo
Posted March 27, 2012, at 4:56 p.m.
Youth sailors in 420 sailboats chase each other while racing at Rockland Community Sailing.
Courtesy of Rockland Community Sailing at the Apprenticeshop
Youth sailors in 420 sailboats chase each other while racing at Rockland Community Sailing.
Tight maneuvering in 420 sailboats at the start of a Rockland Community Sailing race.
Courtesy of Rockland Community Sailing at the Apprenticeshop
Tight maneuvering in 420 sailboats at the start of a Rockland Community Sailing race.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Isabel Crane of Warren and her sister Louisa both enjoy sailing for the Watershed School high school team, but the 14-year-old twins differ slightly on the reasons.

Isabel Crane admits “I’m not extremely athletic, so sailing is a good option.”

Louisa Crane likes the fact there is a lot of thinking that goes into it.

“You really have to use your brain,” she said. “There’s a lot of strategy you have to learn, and conditions are all different, so it’s a challenge.”

The Watershed School in Rockland is one of four midcoast high school teams that operate under the Rockland Community Sailing banner. The others are Camden Hills of Rockport, Oceanside East and West (which is the merger of the former Rockland District and Georges Valley of Thomaston high schools) and Medomak Valley of Waldoboro.

The high school program, which opens spring practices in two weeks, is one facet of a sailing program that began in 1998.

“It was started by Ruth ‘Woofie’ Parker,” said Kevin “KC” Heyniger, the waterfront programs director for The Apprenticeshop in Rockland. “She felt Rockland youth needed a place to sail.

“She got some people together and they created the program.”

Rockland Community Sailing is connected with The Apprenticeshop, which was established in 1972 as a school for traditional boat building and seamanship.

Heyniger originally joined The Apprenticeshop in 2001 and was there for the start of the high school program in 2003.

“There were four sailors in 2003, and there were were 20-30 in 2006,” said Heyniger, who had left in 2005.

When he returned in 2009, the high school program was down to eight sailors.

Rebuilding the program

One of the eight was Robin Lewis, who had just started his high school sailing that year and didn’t want to see it fold.

“I pushed hard to get it back,” said Lewis, who had begun sailing as an eighth-grader in 2008.

Lewis’ pushing has paid off as the RCS high school contingent grew to 22 for last fall’s racing season.

“There’s nice energy now,” Heyniger said. “It’s getting self-perpetuating.”

Lewis was not among the 22 this year because he is attending the Salisbury School in Salisbury, Conn., where he continues to sail. The 17-year-old stopped by The Apprenticeshop last week to lend a hand while he was on school break.

Lewis also noted the mental aspect.

“Sailing is such an intellectual sport,” Lewis said, while also pointing out the level playing field for competitors.

“Girls can smoke you, too,” he said.

“Some people equate girls with [being] weaker,” Louisa Crane said. “In sailing, it’s pretty even.”

That equality is an attraction for the Cranes.

“I do like how it’s co-ed,” Louisa Crane said. “In other sports, there are different rules for different genders. I like sailing, they’re the same for everybody.”

So it all comes down to how the boat is handled.

“The way you move through the boat has to be graceful,” Lewis said. “It’s much different from other sports. You try to let the boat do the work.”

Sailors have to keep in mind, too, there are consequences for exceeding a particular boat’s capabilities.

“You instantly pay for your recklessness and your mistakes,” Heyniger said.

Fancy footwork

The boat the high school teams use is a 420 dinghy, named for its length, which is 4.2 meters (13 feet, 9 inches), and RCS has 10 of them available.

A 420 has one mast, two sails, a tiller for steering, an adjustable keel and a crew of two — the skipper, who does the steering and some other jobs, and the crew, who does just about everything else.

“I personally like crewing better,” Louisa Crane said. “Switching sails … and doing the little jobs that the skipper can’t do because he’s steering the boat.”

Those “little jobs” include watching out for other boats and learning where to sit to keep the boat properly balanced.

“The boat goes faster when the weight is more forward but not front-heavy,” Louisa Crane said. “The crew is in charge of balancing the boat. You’re always moving around the boat.”

That can be a challenge a new crew person. When a new person joins a 420 team, the more experienced sailor is the skipper, at least until the new member gains experience.

“It’s a great boat for teaching,” Heyniger said.

“When I first started in the 420, I was confused,” Louisa Crane said. “And it’s tight for two people.”

One time when there is plenty of room is when both crew members are hanging out over the water, trying to keep the boat as level as possible in a strong crosswind.

Isabel Crane likes when it all comes together.

“I love it when you’re in complete control of the boat,” she said. “I love to go fast in a boat, and it’s [a] great feeling knowing you’re going the best you can.”

Number of teams growing

There are 15-20 high school teams in Maine, Heyniger said. The first was at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor and other schools include, in addition to the midcoast teams, George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Portland High, Cheverus of Portland, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth and Southern Maine High School, which is a conglomeration of sailors from Portland-area schools that don’t have full teams.

“[John] Bapst [Memorial of Bangor] has had some sailing activity [by individuals],” Heyniger said.

The schools participate in a number of regattas in the spring and fall, and there are two types of racing — fleet and team. Everyone sails around the course at the fastest possible clip in fleet racing, and the first boat across the finish line wins.

“A high school regatta can have 20-25 boats approaching the line at the same time,” Heyniger said.

Team racing is based on the total score of each club’s three boats with one point awarded for first, two points for second and so forth. Strategy comes into play when one club’s boat sails in such a way as to slow down a competitor and allows its teammates to improve their positions, possibly enough to win the regatta. Once a boat crosses the finish line, though, it can’t be sailed back onto the course to help its teammates. That can only be done by a boat still competing.

Lewis likes both kinds because of the different strategies involved. Prep schools such as Salisbury generally compete in team racing, Lewis said.

The Cranes prefer fleet racing.

“I’m not that experienced at team racing,” Isabel Crane said.

Louisa Crane agreed, to a degree.

“Team is fun, but I like fleet racing better,” she said.

Safety first, improvement second

The bulk of the RCS teams’ sailing is done in Rockland harbor, which has fishing boats, sailboats and motorboats coming and going. Plus, there are ferries to and from North Haven, Vinalhaven, Matinicus and Criehaven islands.

Incidents between boats are few, said Heyniger.

“That’s the nice thing about Rockland harbor, it’s huge,” Heyniger said. “For someone learning to sail, it’s a great environment.”

With all that activity, any parent might be concerned about mishaps, but Erica Crane, the twins’ mother, doesn’t worry about her daughters.

“They love it [being on the water]. They’ve sailed since they were 8,” she said.

She could recall only once when there was an injury of any kind.

“Isabel hit her head with a boom [the long horizontal movable bar at the bottom of the mainsail],” Erica Crane said. “It never occurred to me it would be a dangerous sport, not like football.

“She had one stitch, one missed practice [and returned to the water].”

RCS provides three full-time staffers and two part-timers as instructors or instructor-trainees to to teach people to be safe, and has motorboats shadowing the racers to make sure everything is OK or pick up people who have fallen into the water.

Erica Crane has seen major development in her daughters’ maturity because of their sailing.

“Because of the sport, they make decisions on their own and it’s given them better decision-making skills,” Erica Crane said. “They take more responsibility, they’re more inclusive and [more flexible].”

A team kickoff party at 7 p.m. Thursday at RCS will be a fun informational gathering, Heyniger said. Parents and potential sailors will be given a short presentation on the program, then get a chance to talk to veteran parents and sailors about their personal experiences. Interested people can call Heyniger at The Apprenticeshop at 594-1800.

Spring practices will begin April 10. There are no tryouts and no cuts.

Erica Crane said she would recommend sailing to anyone, and Isabel Crane has done so.

“I have actually influenced friends to do it,” Isabel Crane said.

“It’s a sport that can translate into a lifelong sport and career,” Erica Crane said. “It’s … a great foundation.”

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