U.S. Olympic Sailing Sets up Shop in San Francisco

The container-village base will become the first full-service, full-time training base for U.S. Olympic sailors

Olympic Sailing
The US Sailing Team's new San Francisco training base has been an active hub of Olympic sailing since opening in early 2018.Courtesy Kimball Livingston

In 10 years, only 10 years, the Olympics return to Los Angeles. If it's your job to put the United States on top in medals won, that might be the right amount of time. Thirty‑four years ago, at Los Angeles, American sailors medaled in every class. Lately, not so much. But on the upside …

American kids won four gold medals at the 2018 Youth Worlds. And one silver medal. And the Nations Cup for the best national performance. And it was no accident. Four years ago, Project Pipeline kicked off to join the talent development of regional youth programs with Olympic-level coaching from the U.S. National Team. Now we see what that can do. The kids are cranking, the kids believe, and maybe, just maybe, it’s easier for the rest of us to believe.

For the next huge step along the pipeline, we head to California: It’s a bright summer day, 1227 PDT, and the chief of U.S. Olympic Sailing, Malcolm Page, has the floor in a container-village ­restaurant on Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. His audience is not average. Picture a fair sampling of every American sailor on an Olympic track, some of them dazed from trans­atlantic/trans­continental flights plus an early call to tour the skunk works of their new technology partner, Autodesk. Also on hand, the full administrative complement of American Olympic sailing. Meeting in a “container village” sends a message. Oracle Racing has donated its container-village America’s Cup base to US Sailing, to be installed on Treasure Island and to become the first full-service, full-time training base for U.S. Olympic sailors. When you talk about realizing a dream, having ­something as solid as an America’s Cup base picked up wholesale and hauled over from Bermuda goes a long way toward making the point.

On this day, the container base is sitting in a warehouse in Oakland, awaiting permitting, but the point is made. “We’re flipping the system,” Page tells his audience. “The American model has been athlete-driven, athlete-promoted. That stopped working when the IOC dropped the prohibition against professionals, and other countries professionalized their sailors. We’re not going to have government funding like the U.K., but here on San Francisco Bay, Americans who support Olympic sailing are creating a year-round center of excellence, a place where coaches will be with their athletes every day they need to be, working closely with the top one or two but with their eyes on another half dozen in development. It will become a place accommodating everything an athlete needs, from trainers and physiotherapists to, eventually, a solution to housing and support for access to higher education. What you see here is US Sailing planting a stake in the ground on the West Coast. What you see is evidence of the most important thing that could happen in Olympic sailing in America, a cultural shift, and it’s being led by the San Francisco Bay Area, and it matters that this is the ­technology hub of the USA.”

What you see is evidence of the most important thing that could happen in Olympic sailing in America, a cultural shift, and it’s being led by the San Francisco Bay Area.

And you, dear reader, will be needing some background: San Francisco’s Treasure Island was created of landfill for the 1939 World’s Fair. It soon became a base for the Navy, which returned it to the city in 1997. The rest has been a long time coming. There is an ambitious plan to renovate the island for homes, office space, retail, hotels and 300 acres of parks over the next 20 years. Looking back 20 years, Treasure Island Sailing Center was created on a protected cove on the leeward side of the island to do all the things you expect in community sailing. TISC’s signature experiential learning for fourth-graders was seeded during the 2013 America’s Cup. A major supporter since has been the St. Francis Sailing Foundation, which sparked the turn of events we’re relating here. The foundation’s leadership created FAST USA, the Facility for Advanced Sailing and Technology, and FAST is now partnered with TISC and US Sailing. The goals are to transform American Olympic sailing and to elevate every feature of community sailing on San Francisco Bay — kids rubbing shoulders with the greats, inspiration flowing both ways. Coordinating with the Southern California city of Long Beach, where planning is already underway for 2028 Olympic sailing, was an early order of business.

It’s a long-term vision.

“It takes time to develop an Olympic-level athlete,” Page says, drawing from his own experience of choking the first time out, falling short the second, then winning gold medals in subsequent Olympics as a 470-class crew. And yes, it was the Australian anthem that played while he was on the podium. There is criticism that the United States did not hire its own, but what I know is that the sailors are happy. Paige Railey, celebrating her return after a (courageous) year of rehabbing from injuries, declares, “The camaraderie of this team is a thing of beauty.”

But why plant Olympic training on San Francisco Bay? Credit the readiness of TISC to have temporary facilities functioning in 2018, with a multiyear plan for the build-out. Credit the support of the St. Francis Sailing Foundation, a new outlook at US Sailing and uniquely varied sailing conditions. Finn bronze medalist Caleb Paine has invested countless sailing hours here. Paired now with training partner Luke Muller, he says, “San Francisco Bay allows you to choose your conditions. For speed testing, we go to the East Bay. For light wind, we go to the South Bay. To challenge ourselves, we go to the cityfront and sail in the Golden Gate wind funnel.” On many days of the year, San Francisco Bay offers a menu mimicking Rio, Tokyo, Marseilles, whatever the need. That menu was part of the sell when FAST chairman Peter Stoneberg toured Page around and pitched the notion of planting this stake in this ground. Stoneberg says, “I have a friend in Olympic skiing, and I asked him what made the difference when American skiing turned around and started winning medals. He said it was creating a center in Utah where the skiers have everything that could be ‘home’ for an athlete in training. We’re building that home for Olympic sailors.”

Following lunch and a crash course on the vision for FAST, the sailors, coaches and Olympic staff make their way to the sailing center to mingle with public-school kids and then get serious about getting wet on San Francisco Bay. The neighborhood surrounding is a zone of destruction and ­construction — the island is thick with piles of rubble — and the sailing center is still the diamond in the rough familiar to locals, but Olympic training on San Francisco Bay is launched. Soon, FX newbies are testing their chops in the protected cove, while on the Laser front, Charlie Buckingham, Chris Barnard, Erika Reineke and Railey mix it up with budding hopefuls from Project Pipeline. It’s two years to Tokyo, six years to Marseilles, 10 years to LA, and it’s about time.