College Sailors Get a Lesson in Teamwork

The College of Charleston sailing team learns the importance of team cohesion both on and off the racecourse.

College of Charleston
Keelboat regattas offer an alternative for college sailors, particularly for larger crews, but for College of Charleston sailors, the new Southern Collegiate Offshore Regatta came with another perk: fruitful lessons in team building.Michael Wiser

As the Southern Collegiate Offshore Regatta approached, we were giddy and nervous, but above all else, craving the competition and a chance to compete in our home waters. Eight teams were coming from around the country to compete against the College of Charleston.

The entire team was either sailing in or running the regatta: from a mark boat, committee boat, or press boat. It was to be a full team effort. When one of the teams showed up short a body to properly sail their boat for the weekend, we let them borrow a sailor. When another team needed help with flying their spinnaker, we sent them a teammate as well.

With each race, we grew more comfortable with the way things happened on the J/120­ ­Illyera — maybe too comfortable.

In the excitement of a successful mark rounding, we jibed too soon, and our spinnaker sheet fouled in the turning block. As soon as Sean Hannigan, the primary trimmer, realized there was a knot, he called for help. Our ­mastman, Shane Kilberg, jumped to the leeward rail with Keenan Hilsinger, the bowman, and they started to trim the kite to release the pressure from the turning block together. I finished cleaning up the other sheets and ­halyards quickly before offering assistance.

Sean directed our movement. As a team, we shifted aft to help improve the sail shape and keep us moving. Jamie, our squirrel, was at the stern, untying the giant rat’s nest of a sheet.

After what felt like an eternity, the knots came free, and Sean counted down for the sheet release from our white-knuckle grip. Time had completely slowed, but all in all, it took us three minutes to recover. As I returned back to the cockpit to take up my position, I felt a surge of adrenaline from what we’d just done. When we crossed the finish line, we were fired up that we’d finished third, despite our mishap.

Our coach Ned Goss always tells us, “Sail calm, sail confident, sail for fun, and the results will come.” He instills this in all of us, and we absolutely lived by it at the SCOR. Rather than get hung up on our mistakes, we debriefed between each race to collectively figure out how to avoid repeating any mishaps. To be able to identify our own weaknesses and call upon our teammates to help overcome them strengthens our skills and our team, says coach Goss. As cliché as it is, we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Despite being waylaid by a contagious flu, we left everything we had out on the racecourse. We sailed hard, and at one point, sailed Illyera at 13 knots downwind with the kite up.

What makes the College of Charleston team excel is our problem-solving abilities, employing quick team-based decision-making, and functioning seamlessly as a unified crew rather than as an individual or, worse yet, falling victim to group-thinking paralysis. It’s not always pretty, but we’ve learned to be effective together.

While we ended up losing the tiebreaker for second place in the SCOR, we were proud of what the team accomplished together. We smiled, but when we stepped down from the podium, reality set in as the long nights in the library with midterms looming crept back into our minds — such is the life of college sailors.

Aubrey Web is a junior at College of Charleston.