Paralympic Sailing — Harnessing the Wind

Circa 2011

Paralympic sailing is nothing like pleasure cruising. There are no lounge chairs, no drinks with umbrellas, and no rest for the weary crew as they slice through choppy waters at top speed. Nevertheless, United States Sailing Team members Julia Dorsett and Scott Whitman have become experts at harnessing the wind.

“It’s like you’re playing on a moving chess board,” Dorsett joked.

She and Whitman make up “Team Winward,” two of 18 athletes in a class that includes both Olympic- and Paralympic-class boats. In the lead up to the 2012 Games in London, Dorsett and Whitman have attended camps in New York, Florida, Alabama and beyond.

“Sailing is a unique sport,” said US sailing coach Betsy Alison. “It takes a lot of stamina, especially on windy days. Not only is the physical nature of the sport demanding, but these athletes are fully mentally engaged for the entire period that they’re on the water.”

A typical training session for the US team includes rigging (equipping) the boat to sail, as well as venturing out to the training area to ensure all the equipment works properly. For an hour, two-member teams perform handling drills and race maneuvers.

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After a brief break, team members conduct speed tests against one another to gauge the accuracy of their controls and tune settings. The session wraps with an hour of drills and an hour of short-course racing, before everyone returns to the dock to de-rig and debrief.

On race days, each team sails the course and gathers data on wind, water flow, geography and course layout. A team may compete in as many as three, one-hour races per day, with 20-minute breaks between events. Even during breaks, however, sailors must continue to maintain control of their vessels.

“Sailing requires short bursts of intense activity that elevates heart rates for short periods of time,” Alison said. “It’s much like what happens during anaerobic training in a gym.”

Trainers and sailors alike agree that their sport requires trust, commitment, and a division of responsibility. On Team Winward, Dorsett operates lines that maneuver the jib (small front), main and spinnaker (large front) sails. As skipper, Whitman steers the boat from its stern (rear) end. Much of Whitman’s work is critically dependent upon Dorsett’s feel for the boat.

Regardless of his or her skill level, however, there are some elements no sailor can tame. “Our sport is completely dictated by weather, so it’s always uncontrolled,” Dorsett said. “We wake up in the morning and go to three different websites to find out what the breeze is doing and what direction it’s coming from. There is always a lot of gear shifting going on.”

While at a training camp in late March, Dorsett and Whitman missed three consecutive days of sailing due to inclement weather. On two of those days lightning struck the water; on the third day they battled 35-mileper-hour winds.

Dorsett is a former Paralympic tennis player who competed in the 2004 Athens Games. She says the influence of weather on the outcome of a sailboat race offers her much less control than she used to experience on the court. Alison suggests, however, that Dorsett’s savvy on the court helps the athlete suss out the correct moves to make on the water.

“Being able to multitask and take in to account all the environmental changes, while still sailing the boat properly is an enormous responsibility and challenge,” Alison said.

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Whitman and Alison both learned to sail at the Metedeconk River Yacht Club in Brick, NJ, where he studied under her brother. Whitman sailed competitively in college, but in 2000 a neck fracture made him drop out of the sport for six years. Dorsett’s life-changing injury also occurred in college: a car accident that left her paralyzed.

At the time of Whitman’s injury, Alison had been working with the US disabled sailing team for several years. She soon began to help the seasoned athlete regain his seaworthiness. “I knew sailing was a sport Scott could reconnect with,” Alison said. “We use adaptive equipment to minimize the impact of the disability and maximize the ability of the sailor. There was no reason why Scott couldn’t take his talent and apply it at a national and international level.”

Under Alison’s tutelage, Whitman made rapid progress. Today he operates a Skud 18 boat designed to enable great performance, regardless of a sailor’s mobility. Whitman says he remains grateful for Alison’s profound influence on his competitive approach on the water.

“Betsy knew I wanted to get back to sailing, and she came at the right time in my life,” Whitman said. “In March of 2006, she teamed me up with Julia for a regatta. We’ve been sailing together ever since.”

Although the Paralympic Games had historically recognized only one-person and three-person boats, it introduced a two-person boat category in 2008. That year Dorsett and Whitman entered and proved a formidable pair. In the US team trials for the 2008 Paralympic Games, they placed second to Nick Scandone and Maureen McKinnon-Tucker. Rather than take a well-earned vacation, however, Dorsett and Whitman became training partners with Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker, the pair that went on to claim gold in those Games.

Now Team Winward faces a challenge similar to the one it tackled four years ago: competing with three other US Skud teams for a spot in the 2012 Games.

“All three teams are training together because we’re all going to get better if we push each other,” Whitman said. “It’s a little like being on one of those reality shows where you’re working together, while you’re also vying for the top spot. It’s a tricky dynamic.”

Whatever the logistics of their competition, Whitman’s partner says Team Winward relishes the opportunity to excel. “When you’re competing against the best of the best, you’re going to get better,” Dorsett said. “You train with these people, but when you get close to the Games, that information stops flowing.”

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The US teams have agreed to train with one another until November, when they’ll go their separate ways to work on their own before reuniting in January for the US trials in Florida. Since they won’t be competing with other nations during trials, US teams will also work closely with such countries as Great Britain and Australia during summer training in Europe.

In many cases US sailing athletes are responsible for their own travel and seek sponsorships to stay afloat financially. The sport comes with a hefty price tag. US Sailing, which administers 17 national championships, awards some sponsorships to cover partial costs. Each team, however, must raise money for its $30,000 vessel, for the retrofitting that transforms that vessel into an adaptive boat, and for shipment of the boat to Europe for training and competitions. Whitman says Team Winward has auctioned off one of its boats to cut costs.

“I’ve spent the past two and a half months in Florida living in hotels and going from place to place,” Whitman said. “It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and unfortunately a lot of money. Some of that money has to go to equipment, travel expenses and coaches.”

With the Games a little more than a year away, and with Paralympic trials on the horizon, Alison remains confident that Team USA will represent its country admirably in the 2012 Olympics.

“Sailing is not a game of chance,” Alison said. “It’s a game where talent and training make for consistent performance. Our athletes, once selected for the Games, will have a rigorous international schedule next year.”

by Josh Pate

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