We all know the sailing world is a small one, but this struck me again when I traveled to South America recently for International Sailing Federation meetings in Uruguay. At dinner one evening at the Yacht Club of Argentina, I struck up a conversation with Pablo Gianelli, who serves on the board of directors of the Argentina Sailing Federation. He asked me if I’d ever heard of Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
“As a matter of fact, I grew up close to that area,” I answered.
He explained that he’d sailed at the Penguin Internationals there in 1966, and was stunned when I told him that I’d sailed in that regatta, too.
In the back of my mind I was trying to remember how I finished, and I also wondered about his result. The only memory to come rushing back was capsizing in the first race of the junior series. As it turned out, he also flipped, which gave us both a good laugh. Later that night I searched the Internet for the results of that regatta and discovered I’d finished 11th and Gianelli 14th. Forty-eight years had passed, and here we were, still talking about our youthful racing experiences. It’s a small world, indeed.
During my weeklong visit, which included time in Uruguay and Argentina, I visited six different yacht clubs, spoke to a group of juniors, and went sailing on a classic yacht with a fascinating history. There was an impressive amount of racing happening at every venue. I’ve noticed that many U.S. yacht clubs and sailing teams employ sailing coaches from South America, and I now understand why: Youth sailing instruction is a high priority.
My first day was spent traveling with ISAF president Carlo Croce. We visited several sailing clubs in Buenos Aires. The first stop was Club Nautico San Isidro. This huge facility on the Rio de la Plata has more than 3,000 members, and on the day of our visit, about 100 Optimist dinghies were competing in a regatta. Very few parents hovered over the youngsters, which is quite different from what we see in the States. The sailors competed on different courses, and coaches worked with the youngsters. The boats were right up on the line at every start, and the young sailors were sharp with their tacks and jibes. Onshore, the boats are stored in large, semicircular roofed barns. There were hundreds of Optimists in one barn, and in other storage barns I saw racks of International 420s, which made me wonder if the tuning requirements of the International 420 produce more technically-savvy juniors than do the Club 420s preferred here at home.
At a reception at the Yacht Club of Argentina I came upon a full-scale model of an interesting boat named Fjord III, designed by German Frers, Sr. I was told it was one of the region’s most successful racing boats. The Yacht Club of Argentina hosts the Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro Race, which Fjord III won in 1950. A few days later, I discovered one of the ISAF Executive Committee members, Scott Perry, of Uruguay, was the new owner of the boat. He acquired it in San Francisco in 2013 and commissioned a major refit before shipping it to Punta del Este. The wooden boat is 50 feet long, and as the story was told to me, Frers was a partner in a boatyard with his cousin, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, whose son was the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. In 1952, Frers planned to ship Fjord III to New York for racing in the States. Eva Perón, the First Lady of Argentina, requested that Frers paint the side of Fjord’s hull with her political propaganda. He refused, and as a result, the boat’s exit permit was denied. When Perón died a few months later, the exit permit was approved, and in 1954 Fjord III won its class in the Newport Bermuda Race.
Forty years later, Marcus Koch, a German sailor who played football for the Washington Redskins, purchased the boat and sailed it in the Pacific Northwest for several years. One can image how important it is to Perry and the sailors of Uruguay to have such an iconic yacht return to its home waters.
I could sense this pride when, after three days of ISAF meetings, Perry invited me to go sailing on Fjord III. He said there’d be four of us, but by the time we left the dock there were 13 onboard.
Uruguay is a remarkable place to sail, and its sailing hub is Punta del Este, which translates to “Point East.” It is located at the intersection of the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean. The locals told me the prevailing northerly thermal sea breezes had been absent all summer and that they had received an unusual amount of rain. Many marinas are nestled along the beautiful coastline, and boating is an important activity. Punta del Este, a thriving resort city with a population of 9,000 residents swells to 200,000 in the summer. Between 1985 and 1994, the Whitbread Round the World Race stopped in this town five times. There are reminders of the Whitbread everywhere.
Junior sailing is also a high priority for the Yacht Club Punta del Este. Optimists filled the harbor every day alongside large fleets of 29ers, Lasers, and Bytes. The island of Gorriti, about a mile south of the marina, creates a sheltered sailing area for small boats, but out in the ocean the waves can be huge, providing locals with two diverse training grounds.
Both Uruguay and Argentina are a long way from my home in Annapolis, yet the sailing culture is familiar. Yes, the language is different, and they don’t eat dinner until 10 p.m. (or later), but the thirst to enjoy time on the water is just the same in South America as it is in the States.
Any sailor looking to expand their experiences would do well to head south and train with our South American brethren, especially during the Northern Hemisphere winter. A little cultural sailing exchange could do us all well. Who knows? You might have the chance to meet someone you crossed paths with on the water long ago.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Sailing World. Click here to read more from Gary Jobson.