Two rock stars, one national championship

By David Pendered

Au. 18 – Two rock stars of women’s match racing prepare to face off this weekend in the legacy-rich waters of Oyster Bay, off New York’s Long Island Sound, in a regatta celebrating its 20th anniversary as the nation’s governing body of sailing seeks to infuse more equity into the sport.

Nicole Breault is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and third in the world standings of women’s match racing. Allie Blecher is ranked No. 2 in the U.S. and eleventh in the world. A total of 10 boats are in this weekend’s regatta and sizing up the two frontrunners now based in California.

Skipper Nicole Breault (rear, wearing white hat) hopes to win her fifth national title in this weekend’s U.S. Women’s Match Racing Championship. (Credit: U.S. Sailing, Mark Albertazzi. 2021).

Breault is the defending national champion who seeks to claim her fifth title in the U.S. Women’s Match Racing Championship. Blecher is racing to add a second national championship to the one she won in 2019 – a year Breault didn’t campaign in the WMRC regatta.

If women’s sailboat racing had the sponsorship, marketing and following of women’s tennis, this weekend’s event may have garnered promoted viewership of a match between tennis icons Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

As it is, the regatta has garnered a bit of attention within the sailing universe. And it does have two national sponsors: Gill, an outdoor apparel company specializing in clothing for sailing, fishing and paddling; and Regatta Premium Craft Mixers, whose products don’t require description.

Match racing is a high-drama format that leaves little room for error in any aspect of seamanship – tactics, sail handling and balancing a 23-foot keelboat for maximum speed to name a few.

The boat that wins the start and holds the right-hand side of the racecourse often wins the race. Except, of course, when the skipper of the trailing boat rounds the windward mark within a boat length or three, and the crew of the trailing boat handles sails masterfully so that their vessel takes the lead on the downwind leg.

All these feats are true in other categories. But the boat-on-boat aspect of match racing makes it a great spectator sport.

This drama is to unfold as the nation’s governing body for the sport is trying to plot a course to a future where sailboat racing is not viewed like polo – a sport for kings and the moneyed few.

The host for the 2022 U.S. U.S. Women’s Match Racing Championship dates to the nation’s Gilded Age, the Seawanhaka Yacht Club. (Credit: Google Earth Pro, David Pendered)

U.S. Sailing is trying to identify and transition to a new future. The new Vision and Purpose statement begins with the premise: “A Future Where: 1) Inclusion and diversity is the standard; and 2) Newcomers enjoy access to affordable and inclusive local sailing communities.” And so forth.

That said, Breault and Blecher and the rest of the fleet are to race out of a compound associated with the rarefied world of robber barons and the Gilded Age.

This duel is based at the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, which faces Oyster Bay and has the natural benefits of proximity to Manhattan and the deep waters of Long Island Sound.

The club dates its lineage to 1871, making it one of the nation’s oldest, and the list of former commodores includes the names Vanderbilt (as in shipping and railroads), Morgan (as in the Morgan Stanley investment company), and Roosevelt (as in politics, banking and finance).

The Oyster Bay area has its own ties to a rarefied world. Theodore Roosevelt settled nearby, before he was elected president, and maintained his residence there until he died in the house in 1919. Widow Edith Roosevelt stayed in the house until she died in 1948 and Congress established the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site to preserve the house.

The regatta is a newcomer to this stage. The regatta dates to November 2002, when the Women’s Match Racing Championship joined a series, the U.S. Women’s Open Championship, which was formed to serve “the interest of female sailors who wished to compete against other women at the national level in double and singlehanded boats,” according to a description posted on the site of U.S. Sailing.

Not for the faint of heart: Nicole Breault (rear, white hat) and crew members hike out to balance the force of wind on sails. (Credit: U.S. Sailing. Amanda Witherell. 2018)