There’s a buzz in the air on Kaneohe Bay. It’s not the buzz you might hear after a Transpac finish, or the buzz you will inevitably succumb to if you wander into the Waikiki YC bar on Friday night after beer can races. Nope, this buzz is coming from the waters off Oahu’s windward shore: a mob of Waszps buzzing the coach boat.
Oahu’s local Waszp fleet has grown to nearly a dozen over the past two years, with Kaneohe YC recently purchasing its second charter boat with the help of private donors and local hero Mark Towill, who hosts annual lectures to help fundraise for the Kaneohe Sailing Foundation. “I was a benefactor of the foundation when I was coming up,” Towill says, “so it’s great to be able to give back.”
Like many other junior sailors in Hawaii, Towill grew up sailing El Toros, Lasers and 420s. After successful junior- and college-sailing campaigns, he made the jump to the big leagues when he transitioned to ocean racing and competed in the Volvo Ocean Race with Team Alvimedica. With the next edition of the Ocean Race making the shift to foiling monohulls, it’s fitting that Towill, CEO of 11th Hour Racing, is helping to grow a foiling platform on his home waters.
“The best sailors are the most interdisciplinary ones,” Towill says. “The Waszp teaches a completely different skill set than the average youth dinghy. You might not learn the same kind of strategy and tactics, but the sport is getting more high-performance each year, so the more exposure we can give junior sailors to different kinds of sailing, the better.”
“If you look at the Olympics, three of the classes are going to foiling,” says KYC junior-sailing director Jesse Andrews. “Half of our Waszp kids go foil-windsurfing. The kite-foil has been popular here for a while. The Nacra is foiling now. We could even see a singlehanded foiling boat in the Olympics at some point, so it’s definitely the thing to be learning right now.”
Oahu has many obvious advantages as a sailing venue, but its major disadvantage is geography. The Hawaiian Islands is the most isolated island chain on Earth, making travel for big events prohibitively expensive. Such isolation has forced local youth sailing directors to get creative with their programs. For instance, program directors use El Toros instead of Optis as the introductory singlehanded dinghy, and 10 years ago, they transitioned to the Open Bic, which has become wildly popular with the advanced race kids.
“The Open Bic is way harder to sail than an El Toro or an Opti,” Andrews says. “They are also way easier to maintain. They sail like a skiff or a Laser downwind, so a lot of our kids go into those classes afterward. Balance and coordination are key, so we end up getting some pretty awesome athletes out of that fleet.”
Whereas most American kids flock to the coasts for regional championships, Andrews has taken his KYC groms to New Zealand to compete. Andrews sent a few sailors to the 2019 Open Bic Worlds at Manly Boat Club just north of Auckland. One of Andrew’s sailors, CJ Perez, was the top female at the regatta, with a 6th place overall. She has since began sailing the 29er and the Waszp, which has quickly become her favorite boat. “Being up on the foils is such an amazing feeling,” Perez says. “I like being with a fleet or just going out on my own. The Waszp is good in light or heavy wind, which means I can sail it almost every day.” Perez says that the Bic and the 29er have given her the maneuverability to be confident steering her Waszp, so it’s looking like Hawaii’s push toward high-performance junior sailing is beginning to pay off.
Yet Kaneohe YC is by no means the first American junior program to make the leap to foiling. Many clubs across the country have experimented with various foiling platforms, often running into similar problems: Cost is one primary factor, as well as maintenance issues and the technical prowess of coaching staffs. In many instances, foiling is treated as a freestyle sport, with many people opting to go for solo rips around the harbor instead of lining up for formalized racing.
“I feel no need to race the Waszp at all,” says Mark Zagol, managing director of sailing operations at New England Science and Sailing. “In fact, the Waszp might be hurting itself by trying to make everything so racing-centric, like the windsurfer. People keep hounding me to go to regattas, but there’s nothing like going for a solo run on a breezy afternoon. It’s awesome.”
Zagol says few people realize how much the sport of sailing depends on the recreational sailor. As a veteran of the International 505 Class, he spent many years “getting his head bashed in” before rising through the ranks to win a North American Championship in 2013. “Without that bottom half of the fleet, the racing wouldn’t be nearly as fun,” Zagol says. “We need more outlets for sailors to go out and have a good time, and for many people, that’s what the Waszp is for.”
NESS has owned two Waszps for four years and introduced a UFO foiling catamaran in 2019. They use the boats to break the monotony of their typical Opti and 420 race classes, keeping sailors engaged through the sheer thrill of speed. Including foiling platforms in their youth program, however, was a significant investment; all of their foiling equipment was purchased through private donations. They also had to get creative with their coach boat after their 17-foot Carolina Skiff shredded the trampoline fabric on one of their Waszps. Zagol and his team engineered a solution with PVC pipe, allowing them to rest the Waszp wing on a nonchafing surface while assisting and side towing.
“The biggest issue is coaching,” Zagol says. “We’re in this new foiling era, but we don’t have regular junior-sailing coaches who can handle the boats or the equipment. One of our coaches is a 29er veteran, and under some guidance, he’s been extremely helpful with the boats. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of coaches out there with the technical ability to run a foiling class, particularly when they’re on a summer salary between college-sailing seasons.”
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And then there’s the question of progression. Where does a high-performance junior sailor go after becoming proficient in foiling? Do they spend thousands on their own foiler? Do they join a college sailing team and transition back into traditional dinghies? For traditional sailing platforms, the progression is fairly clear, but for high-performance racers, the path still unpaved.
“You never know who is going to be good at trimming a wing sail until they are on the boat doing it,” SailGP Team USA skipper Rome Kirby once told me. Virtually all of the sailors on his team spent their youth sailing days in traditional one-design dinghies and didn’t get into high-performance sailing until after college. Learning on the fly on an F50 is a high-stakes process of trial and error, and points to an obvious gap (and a wide one at that) between high-level high-performance racing and the traditional youth sailing structure in America.
“The US has always been an innovative country though,” Kirby says. “We’ve been on top of the technology game for a while now, so this should be the perfect fit for us with the sports culture we have here. But at the end of the day, we just have to roll up our sleeves and do the work. There’s no other way around it.”
SailGP’s Inspire program aims to tackle this issue with a grassroots effort to attract youth sailors onto more high-performance platforms. Several Kaneohe sailors applied for the 2020 event before the COVID‑19 pandemic halted the SailGP season. Only time will tell whether Oahu’s nascent Waszp program will be the ultimate incubator for the next generation of flight-savvy youth sailors, but one thing is clear: It’s taking off.