Performance and Play in Kaneohe

Kaneohe Yacht Club and its sailing coach have found a different way to keep the stoke in the kids to keep them in the sport.

Kaneohe YC’s sailing director Jesse Andrews
Jesse Andrews, Kaneohe YC’s sailing director, was an early adopter of skiff and foiling craft for his youth sailors. Courtesy Jesse Andrews

Using the term “epic” too often makes one a kook. It’s equally uncool to overhype one’s sailing experiences because, let’s face it, there’s always someone who has won more, sailed faster or gone to a cooler place. The summer of 2022, however, was truly epic for Jesse Andrews, the Pied Piper of Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay, whose followers stormed North America and Europe, and ascended to performance sailing’s world stage. Under Andrews’ direction, these young sailors are charging hard in the Waszp and Olympic iQFoil classes today, and getting serious looks to fill slots on the rosters of youth and women’s America’s Cup development teams.

Kaneohe sailing’s epic and timely ascent into everyone’s collective radar has been a long time coming, but the whole phenomenon was accelerated when the US Sailing Olympic Development Program doubled down on performance youth sailing in 2022. Kaneohe, naturally, was the first proving ground.

Oahu’s sailing teams were chasing ILCA and Club420 medals this past summer too, but most of the kids, whether because of geographic isolation or lack of interest, avoided the traditional path of racing in large Optimist and 420 fleets on the mainland. Instead, they began their careers with O’pen Skiff “Un-Regattas,” and then went on to 29ers and eventually anything with a foil they could get their hands on.

Deconstructing how these junior programs have grown to become a new model for enabling dedicated youth sailing talent despite their ­isolation starts with Andrews, a once-frustrated New England kid who refused to wear shoes and ended up in the Aloha State.

In Beebe Cove, an eel-grass-filled offshoot of Long Island Sound, Andrews enjoyed a traditional sailing upbringing, flipping over horseshoe crabs, and sailing Sunfish and Dyer Dhows. His teen years on the International 420 circuit took him to Europe and Australia, which “was a great experience and lifestyle,” he says. “Having the freedom to drive with other kids. Traveling and having fun is something that should always go hand in hand.”

A few of his teammates went on to Olympic and America’s Cup campaigns after college, and eventually for Andrews, Connecticut lost its appeal.

“I’ve never wanted to wear shoes in my life,” he says. “I was an untraditional kid living a pretty traditional life.” He was also hooked on surfing, and one winter his mother boldly moved him to California. That started to feel right, but then after two years studying and sailing at the University of Rhode Island in the early 1990s, he’d had enough of the cold—for good this time.

He enrolled in the University of Hawaii and found his new tribe on Oahu.

It’s been almost 30 years since his relocation to the land of rainbows. He started coaching the University of Hawaii sailing team after graduating while filling in at Kaneohe YC until becoming its sailing director.

“I’ve been doing the same two jobs for 25 years,” he says.

Today, he faces the same core challenge of his coaching peers: how to introduce kids to sailing and keep them sailing long after they leave the program. If he has a singular philosophy, it is to “do what the kids want.”

“In Australia, New Zealand, Europe, it’s easy to do what makes sense,” Andrews says. “Here there’s so much red tape, but in Hawaii, we listen to the kids. We have a small, great board of trustees, and when the kids asked, we brought in the foiling Waszps.”

Kaneohe YC has long been an outlier to the traditions of mainland American yacht clubs. When the closest national event is a five-hour flight, it’s hard to get excited for or even fund dinghy racing excursions. It’s also hard to hunker down to do mundane tacking drills when there’s surf to be ridden and waves to be jumped.

Ocean sports are “it” in Hawaii, so Andrews has had to be creative with keeping kids excited about sailing. That’s where the O’pens came to save the day, initially. Windfoiling, winging and Waszp sailing developed while Kaneohe’s groms were hitting their teens.

Andrews started “Foiling Fridays’’ in 2021 to keep the kids on the water during the pandemic. “First, it was Waszps and 29ers,” he says. “Then iQFoil and wingfoil all starting at the same time. It’s inclusive. The iQ is a little faster, but if you screw up, everyone’s right on your tail. It’s been a huge hit.”

Partnering with the Hawaii Kai Boat Club, the local kids have had access to 29ers and now a fleet of iQFoil boards, which Andrews says are inexpensive and a fast track to high-­performance ­racing skills. Hawaii Kai sailor CJ Perez is climbing through the International Moth fleet and was one of the first females to join a SailGP team as part of its Women’s Pathway Program.

“We haven’t lost the fundamentals and love of traditional sailing,” Andrews says about the junior sailing program today. “They love all crafts.”

Tapping into watersports stars and new disciplines, Kaneohe hosted a wingfoil clinic with Global Wingsports Tour champion Fiona Wylde. Local superstar and waterman Kai Lenny has even been a guest at the clubs.

Kaneohe’s sailors are now heading to Europe for Waszp and iQFoil tours. “What we were doing [and sharing] on Instagram was all good exposure, and it just exploded,” Andrews says. US Sailing took a keen interest as well and began hosting regional racing camps. “It’s amazing. Now people are coming to us. We’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right venue.”

“The Kaneohe program has a feeling of being ‘loose,’ but it’s really extremely organized,” says Leandro Spina, head of US Sailing’s Olympic Development Program [Editor’s note: Spina has since resigned from his position as head of the ODP]. “We’ve become really good partners. It’s such an iconic sailing venue, and now with the amount of talent in the [iQFoil], it’s ridiculous.”

In 2021, Andrews’ phone started ringing off the hook. The American junior sailing universe wanted what he had. Spina organized the 2022 iQFoil camps, and the US Junior Olympic Sailing Festival that came to Hawaii hosted iQFoil and Wingfoil fleets.

Jesse Andrews’ phone started ringing off the hook. The American junior sailing universe wanted what he had.

Spina says Andrews’ creative training formats and commitment to new classes has inspired him to integrate this approach into his ODP. “It’s what we envision young athletes to do,” he says. “Choose one class but sail everything they can get their hands on.”

When Spina and Andrews met, they quickly started talking about Olympic pathways. Andrews’ tour of European iQFoil events last summer attracted a lot of attention, especially since four Hawaiians qualified for the gold fleet in the iQFoil Youth Open World Championships in Silvaplana, Switzerland. Then came the clinics, plans for an annual performance youth event, and an international regatta. “It happened quickly,” Spina says. “Hawaii is now a new leg on our tour.”

Spina says Kaneohe’s program opened doors to different ways to retain sailors, and using foiling to do so in particular.

“Foiling and these programs are not a replacement; they’re an enhancement,” Spina says. Optimist and 420 participation is still strong. “It creates another path to retain talent. It’s an evolution, more ­opportunities to keep learning. As long as they keep learning, we can retain them.”

The Hawaiian ocean lifestyle, Spina adds, is also something that taps into an enjoyment of learning. “I love to be on the water, and what we’re learning now with the fast evolution of foils is that kids are having fun,” he says. “The boards are light and small. My 11-year-old son went to Hawaii and now wants to surf. There’s no surf in Miami, so now we wingfoil surf, and I’m learning with him.”

Having CJ Perez on the US SailGP team could be enough to affirm the virtues of Kaneohe’s model. The visual of America’s Cup skipper Jimmy Spithill enjoying a wingfoil session is something that draws a direct connection between Andrews’ sailors and the superstar. Perez has made the connection, sought her own path and, with serious ambition, broken into professional sailing.

The grand finale of SailGP’s Inspire Program, with qualification regattas held in many countries, seems to have been designed for Kaneohe sailors. And they didn’t disappoint. Pearl and JP Lattanzi qualified for two American spots in the 2022 final. Early in their careers, the siblings had Andrews as a coach in Oahu and traveled with their parents to O’pen Skiff regattas. They were nicknamed the “Flyin’ Hawaiians.”

Pearl, now finishing her college sailing career as captain of the Salve Regina University sailing team in Newport, Rhode Island, is a top-ranked Waszp sailor and candidate for American Magic’s Women’s America’s Cup team. JP is trying out for the youth team.

“I didn’t grow up sailing college boats,” Pearl says. “The skills have transferred over [in college sailing], and it hasn’t been a hindrance at all. I have a lot of opportunities outside college. I’m not thinking I’m nearing the end of my sailing career like some friends feel. That’s not me right now.”

Pearl, who also sailed with Perez at Hawaii Kai Boat Club, says the lack of big fleets in Hawaii forced her sailing ­diversity. “People like Jesse set us up for fun sailing, keeping us in the newest boats. I was never in a boat I didn’t want to be in.”

The optics of Andrews’ junior sailing approach look, as Spina says, “loose,” and he’s not far off. Andrews’ standard outfit is clashing Hawaiian floral prints and a comically large foam-front trucker’s cap. But this coach is in the College Sailing Hall of Fame, was awarded the Graham Hall Award for outstanding service, and is considered by his peers as one of the best. He has carefully integrated his passion for sailing into a seriously fun and outstanding package that’s now, ironically, a pathway for serious success in sailing.

Pearl says Andrews’ difference is his strength. “Jesse’s not the usual coach,” she says. “He’s so open to learning. In the beginning, we’d just have a big talk after practice. Comparing notes, watching videos online and researching. We were learning together. Now we’re both so knowledgeable about foiling and high-­performance sailing. I wouldn’t have had any of these opportunities without Jesse.”

Andrews has ideas about how to expand junior sailing on Oahu. His sailors are slightly less isolated now that their secret is out. Mainland kids are coming to compete and train on the island. Hawaii Kai Boat Club, however, recently lost its lease and needs a new home, and Kaneohe YC remains too small to grow beyond its footprint.

With racing perceived as the primary ticket to the bigger sailing world, Andrews is wary of focusing too narrowly on competition. Balance, he says, is important. “We can’t take the free sailing out of junior sailing,” he says. “It’s great seeing ex-junior sailors as long-term friends with foiling and current races. They’re not passionate about competing. They love the ocean. They love foiling.”

Sailing and foiling first, ­competition second. That’s epic—an epic shift to the junior sailing paradigm.

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