It’s 2:45 p.m. on Labor Day afternoon, with the remnants of Hurricane Harvey whipping across Lake Champlain, turning the sapphire-blue surface into a froth of whitecaps. An exhausted-looking man cleats his Laser to the dock at the Community Sailing Center, clearly beaten by the aggressive breeze. “Anybody want to sail?” he says, ironically.
“Yes!” says Caroline Patten with no trace of irony. As the coach of the UVM Sailing Team, she’s as game for the big gusts as the thirty-four athletes who’ve been prepping by smearing on sunscreen, gobbling up late-lunch sandwiches, zipping up booties, and securing Helly Hansen gear to help keep the water at bay on this seventy-seven degree day.
On Lake Champlain four days a week from 2:45 until 6 p.m., traveling to four to six regattas on weekends and working out with a trainer two mornings a week, this team is as serious about sailing as Alabama is about football. What it lacks in varsity status, it more than makes up for in conviction, camaraderie, and showing how Catamounts can shine on these double-handed dinghies.
“Every single person on the team is highly competitive and wants to win,” says Lindsay Doyle ’19. “Eat, sleep, homework and sail. Not too much time for anything else, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Out on the water, Patten barks orders for a warm-up drill through a megaphone, circling back on her Boston Whaler to herd two boats that have mistakenly crossed in front of The Spirit of Ethan Allen. A yellow bailer’s gone overboard and bobs along the blue. “Some kids think it’s just a lake and don’t realize how hard it blows,” says Patten, a lifelong sailor who began coaching the team in the fall of 2015 and has since seen the Cats qualify for National Championships, placing seventh in 2015 and 2016; this sport, she says, has many surprises. “It requires a tremendous amount of physical endurance as well as mental.”
Team president Brittney Manning laughs when asked about the typical perception of sailing. “The expensive, ‘Let’s wear white linen and drink cocktails on a nice yacht’ kind of thing?” she says. “We find that comical because we know what we are doing is just as intense as any other sport.” The team does its own fundraising, and will soon be moving into Burlington’s new sailing center after years of working out of containers.
It’s not always this windy on the lake, of course. Dead calm can reign, or rain can, or freezing sleet and snow. Two years ago, Manning was part of a crew that ventured out on February 2 to kick off the spring season, bailing ice out of the boats.
The payoff is not only results, but also a remarkable sense of place for all members of the UVM Sailing Team. “Champlain is one of the absolute best venues in college sailing,” says Patten, explaining how training inside or outside of the breakwater can simulate a wide variety of conditions on lakes and oceans. “For a big portion of our seasons, there are few other boats on the lake, so it feels like our own personal playground. We also get to see some pretty epic sunsets over the Adirondacks.”