Kathleen Tocke is curled up in the bottom of the Snipe, thinking she might die, fearful she might not. The supercrew had a bad reaction to seafood, and to say she is not at her best is to put it kindly. While Tocke rides out her problema estomacal during a fortunate postponement at the Snipe Western Hemispheres, her skipper Ernesto Rodriguez relaxes in the cockpit, hiking boots off, bare feet up, ghosting around the starting area. He has no doubt Tocke will rally when the time comes.
After an hour delay, the breeze fills, the AP comes down, and Tocke rises from her death bed. Soon enough, she’s hiking off her toes and executing roll tacks, roll jibes and pole sets with explosive power punctuated by her flying ponytail. The team posts a 1-2 for the day and moves up the leader board.
Regarding her super-human motivation, Tocke later chuckles, “I just hike harder so it will be over faster.”
Rodriguez has seen Tocke in similar circumstances in the past, which is why he was never concerned. With a laugh, he says, “I knew when the sequence started, she would transform into another beast.”
In the Snipe class, 2021 is the year of Rodriguez and Tocke. They’ve been on fire, winning the Snipe North Americans, the Snipe European Championship and the Snipe US Nationals. For good measure, Tocke won the Snipe US Women’s Nationals, crewing for skipper Rachel Bryer.
Coming from behind is one of Tocke’s favorite topics. “Our best races were those we climbed from the abyss. Ernesto doesn’t give up. No matter how much pain we’re in, we just keep going.”
For his part, Rodriguez agrees. Of all the wins of the past year, his favorite was the Europeans. “We were the only US team there,” he says. “We felt like we had a target on our backs.”
After an OCS on the second day of that championship, the team had to be more conservative on the starting line. They relied on their speed, tactics and teamwork to win the event, which Tocke notes comes easily. “We’re really good friends,” she says. “He’s like a brother who’s also a pain in the neck. We don’t talk in the boat. I can anticipate if he’s going to tack or not. We only talk when we really need to. That really helps so we can focus on our jobs without having too much going on.”
It’s no secret that Rodriguez is supremely fit. Snipe builder Andy Pimental, of Jibe Tech, recalls a situp contest at a regatta where Rodriguez put everyone to shame. Tocke, however, believes a lot of people overlook his critical acumen on the racecourse.
“Ernesto can see wind other people don’t see,” she says. “It’s not just hiking around the racecourse. People hear his accent and they think, ‘Here’s this dude who goes to the gym.’ They have no idea the brain power inside that head.”
A lot of Rodriguez’s success in Snipes can be traced back to his Cuban upbringing, where he was a member of the national sailing team.
“In Cuba, we spent a lot of time sailing: five days a week, three hours a day for 10 years,” he says. “Being on the water that much at an early age, you develop a sense for what needs to be done, what is the maximum speed in the conditions. Those years in Cuba helped me, knowing I can get to another level, which translates to good results.”
There are a lot of different opinions with regard to which Snipe sails are best, which Snipe hulls are optimal, and what method is the ultimate to tune the unique 15-foot doublehander first built in 1931. There is no debate, however, with regard to the heart and soul of this class. Everyone agrees it’s National Sailing Hall of Famer Augie Diaz, who is known affectionately as “the Old Man.”
This old man, by the way, will sail circles around any unsuspecting whippersnapper in a Snipe.
Born in 1954, Diaz has a long list of accomplishments, including College Sailor of the Year, two-time Snipe World Champion, and 11-time Snipe US National Champion. He is the living, breathing embodiment of the Snipe class motto: “Serious sailing, serious fun.”
When asked why Rodriguez and Tocke sail so well, Diaz is animated and enthusiastic. “Oh my God, you must start with the fact that both are incredible athletes, strong and quick,” he says. “Then recognize they are both terrific sailors. Ernesto has a lot of time in the Laser, the purest form of racing. It’s mano a mano.”
Diaz has known Rodriguez since the younger sailor defected from Cuba in 1996. “Ernesto’s upbringing in Cuba, Laser sailing was very hard. Everyone in the Laser fleet worked against Ernesto, and because of that, he is very tough. Kathleen sailed with me for more than 10 years. Even though she won’t admit it, I taught her a few things. Kathleen was a figure skater. Figure skaters, gymnasts, those athletes do really well in the Snipe.”
While COVID-19 shut down a lot of major regattas in 2020, it created an opportunity for some Snipe sailors to train in Florida. Legendary Polish sailor Mateusz Kusznierewicz, who won a Finn Olympic gold medal and a Star World Championship, was staying at Diaz’s home in Miami when COVID-19 hit hard. Unable to leave the country, Kusznierewicz agreed to coach Rodriguez, Diaz and other Snipe sailors.
“We were going out in the afternoons, three, four, five times a week,” Diaz recalls.
In those tuning sessions, Rodriguez and Tocke laid a foundation for their performance in the year 2021. Rodriguez says Kusznierewicz did not give the team one magical piece of advice or a belt full of silver bullets. “It was a lot of small details that we went over,” Rodriguez says. “Small changes are the ones that make big differences for us.”
On the racecourse, Diaz wants to win just as much as anyone else, but he also wants the Snipe class to thrive. Countless sailors have entered the class through the Diaz borrow-a-boat program, including Rodriguez. “My father and I sponsored Ernesto in the Snipe class in 1997,” Diaz says. “We gave him a boat. He started sailing with us. My father and I are helping him get faster. And he gets faster and faster. And he’s beating us. But we still keep helping him.”
When asked how many Snipes he has loaned out over the decades, Diaz laughs and says, “Too many.” He notes: “I’ve gotten a lot out of the Snipe class. Even if I dedicated the rest of my life to giving back, I wouldn’t be able to give back enough.”
Getting young sailors into Snipes is one of the activities Diaz takes seriously. “I refer to them as red ants,” he says. “When you are on the racecourse, they are crawling all over you and they are biting you. It’s all these young guys kicking my butt. I love it. I love winning, but I like seeing the class do well even more than winning.”
While Rodriguez is quick on the racecourse, he is just as fast to offer advice to newcomers, especially those languishing in the middle of the fleet.
Building and sustaining the class may well be one of the most important things Tocke learned from her decade crewing for Diaz. The Snipe class opened a lot of doors in a lot of countries for Tocke, who points out that she did not grow up in a wealthy family. Rather, she grew up in a family that was head over heels in love with sailing. Because of that experience, she wants young people to have the same opportunities. She is quick to organize seminars, encourage newcomers, and host Snipe regattas for women.
Back on the course, the competition between the top teams is tight. No quarter is given. But unlike other classes where the exchanges can get chippy, there is a lot of respect. Rodriguez has a reputation for being a gentleman on and off the water.
“I think that friendships can be very competitive on the water,” he says. “But it is important to not breach the rules. I would never jeopardize my friendship with Augie over one race or one regatta, or one world championship. Our relationship off the water is more important to me than on the water. I cannot take credit for my behavior. I learned that from Augie. I was not brought up that way in Cuba. I’m glad that he is in my life. He is a good example for me and a lot of people in the class.”
Tocke and Rodriguez are, of course, both students of the game. One of the many reasons they have excelled this year is because the other sailors in the Snipe class have shared information with them and pushed them hard. They have had an amazing year, but they did not win all of their regattas. At the Western Hemispheres, Diaz and crew Barbara Brotons emerged victorious, as the Old Man should, with Rodriguez and Tocke right there cheering them on.