School Sailing's Next Frontier

Standing at the water's edge at Toms River, N.J., during Ocean County College's spring practice with Drew Siebert, a retired orthodontist, I'm enjoying a blustery spring day. I love this vantage point: The boats look crisp against the water and sky. You can see every action that affects the boats while standing close by and absorbing the feel of the wind. By my eye, the sailors of Ocean County, a two-year community college, are getting a good workout and Siebert, a Toms River YC member who chairs the school's sailing advisory group, likes what he sees, too. Roy Wilkins, a long-time soccer coach, is managing the practice, putting the sailors through repetitive drills, practice starts, and races. It's blowing 15 to 18 knots, and the 420s look big and powerful. Little time is wasted, because the sun is dipping toward the horizon quickly. The following weekend, Ocean County will enter its freshmen and sophomores against teams from four-year colleges in a hotly contested event on the Chesapeake. Community college sailors may be at a disadvantage because they're younger than many of their competitors. On the other hand, they don't have to wait to become upperclassmen to make the starting squad, and they're excited to be racing. The rapid progress made in two years by Ocean County College serves as an excellent example of what a junior college-or any school program-can do in a short amount of time. Jon Larson, president of the college, says, "Barnegat Bay is home to a talented pool of junior sailors. We wanted to offer an opportunity for them to continue their development as competitive collegiate sailors and get a first-class education close to home. These students transfer to some very fine colleges and universities." Wilkins had the idea for the team after reading an article by Cruising World editor Herb McCormick in The New York Times about the high level of talent emerging from the New Jersey Shore. He had spent more than 30 years coaching soccer at both the college and high school levels, which gave him a jump-start when organizing a sailing team. During the summer months he is among a number of Jersey shore zealots who race the prestigious 28-foot A Cat Boat. "With the success I had coaching at the collegiate level," says Wilkins, "I was able to treat the high school and collegiate sailors as first-class athletes. Our sailors are treated first class in every aspect, traveling with a coach, their own van, overnight accommodations, and meals provided." This kind of program doesn't happen automatically. Strong support came from local clubs such as the Island Heights YC and Toms River YC. Siebert got onboard to head the advisory committee and says, "To build a sound program, you need a strong synergy between the college, area clubs, local marinas, civic organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.), as well as philanthropic and political support from community leaders." He credits the work and generosity of many people for the program's success. As it's developed, OCC sails out of Toms River YC and shares its 420s with both Toms River and Island Heights YCs in the summer for their adult instruction and training. Toms River YC also recently purchased 30 used Tech dinghies from MIT, so there's a lot of available equipment for a young team. The junior college athletes are ecstatic. Matt Goetting, 21, a sophomore and A team skipper for the past year and a half at OCC says, "We've been lucky so far to have really committed kids who have been with the program for two years. We have an advantage because we get to sail and compete sooner; we don't have to wait for spots on the team to open up. We're usually going against a lot of juniors and seniors, but so far we've been pretty competitive." Christine Restivo, 20, a sophomore who graduated from Toms River South High School and sailed for Beachwood YC, says, "My high school didn't have a sailing team while I was there, but college sailing has been an incredible experience-lots of hard work and tons of fun. I've been sailing since I was 10, so I really appreciate the opportunity to continue the sport." Restivo plans to attend American University in Washington, D.C., next fall and keep racing there. When asked how big a program he is looking to build, Wilkins says, "Our strategic plan calls for the development of a School of Seamanship and Sailing at Ocean County College as a regional provider of resources, education and support for maritime interests. One part of the program is the intercollegiate team." Ocean County College (www.ocean.edu), with nearly 8,500 students enrolled, has come a long way in a very short period with its sailing program. President Larson is understandably proud of it, saying, "OCC is the only community college with an intercollegiate sailing program on the East Coast. I like the company this puts us in. Sailing competitively against Navy, St. Mary's, Princeton, and other Mid-Atlantic universities makes a statement about OCC." High school sailing has grown dramatically in the past 10 years. Maybe community college sailing will be next.