Even by the impossibly chill standards of boat lovers, the Philadelphia Fleet Race was an easygoing event.
“It’s not like the pinnacle of our season,” said Penn club sailing team captain Mike Russom, who took me out on an old motorboat — dinky but functional — to watch the races.
“This regatta really doesn’t matter,” he said.
Leaving from the Corinthian Yacht Club and within clear view of a Boeing factory and a bridge, I watched six colleges — Ocean County, Drexel, Villanova, Penn State, Penn and Delaware — compete in several races on the cloudy, breezy day. Penn, which finished fifth, used the race to develop its up-and-coming junior varsity skippers.
“A lot of us haven’t been sailing for very long,” JV skipper Matthias Chia explained. “We’re trying to get used to sailing in a two-person boat. … Considering experience, I think we did a pretty good job.”
Chia, a Singapore native, raced one-person Lasers as a junior and senior in high school. He is used to urban sailing, and the industrial setting didn’t faze him.
“Actually, there’s more [factories] in Singapore,” he said.
Jose-Maria Barrero, who skippered for the first time at the regatta, also found that he needed to adjust to the two-person, two-sail Flying Junior.
“You really have to coordinate between skipper and crew,” he said. “That’s the main difference.”
Barrero is from Colombia and grew up racing small Optimist boats. Like many who have found their way into a regatta, he has garnered great adoration for the sport.
“There’s a fairly sizable sailing community down in Colombia,” Barrero said. “It’s something I’ve always loved doing.”
On the boat, Russom and teammate Calvert Holt briefed me on the ins and outs of the event. In some regattas, like the dozen or so I attended at a Chesapeake Bay summer camp growing up, teams bring their own boats. Everyone races the same type but, like NASCAR, upkeep is part of the competition.
College racing opts for “one design.” The host team — Penn in this case — provides the sailboats, and everyone uses each one once. Teams docked every two races in order to switch boats and sailors. We chatted and watched casually as Barrero and Chia — who raced at different times — skippered four separate races.
“That kid from [Ocean County College] has decent roll tacks,” Villanova coach Matt Newborn said. He was sitting on Penn’s other motorboat with Jack Kerr, the Quakers’ coach who, it should be noted, comes off exactly like a sailboat racer should — affable, self-assured and scruffy.
“He was an A-skipper for Old Dominion University,” Russom said. “He’s actually an analyst for Merrill Lynch.”
Sailboat racing is an extraordinarily strategic sport, often as mental as it is physical, and it requires racers to adjust to weather conditions. Saturday, the wind was fair and the current was ripping. In the downwind leg, where racers usually can move from buoys on a single point of sail, some racers chose to “tack” — or turn against the wind — several times. This trade-off allowed the boats to avoid the current but forced them on a longer route and in a direction in which the sails filled with less wind.
“[Some of the sailors] just started tacking away because they realized the current was too strong there,” Chia said.
Chia finished in fifth place a few times during the early races but in his last five, he finished second three times.
“We needed some time to get into our groove,” he said. “We got a lot better after we got used to the winds and the currents.”
The most exciting race took place as boats from Drexel, OCC and Penn State tacked towards the upwind marker. When the time came to tack around it, Drexel and OCC led by several boat lengths. The Nittany Lions chose a riskier route, sailed in diagonals around the current and fought their way back into the race. But the Drexel boat continued to sail a technically proficient race and overcame both crews with its efficiency.
By midday, it was time for me to leave, which was good news because my Pavlovian senses were kicking in, and I was fixing for the traditional post-regatta Chesapeake meal of crabs and burgers. (Unfortunately, I settled for a steak and egg with salt, pepper and ketchup.)
Penn sailing chose a more traditional Philadelphia route. One Red and Blue sailor grabbed some Wawa for the squad, and they raced through lunch.