Thicker Than Water

Competitive small-boat sailing doesn't need to drive a wedge between family members. Seven teams show us their relationship between family and success. From our March 2008 issue

February 26, 2008


Daniel Forster

As the fleet approached San Diego’s Mission Bay YC following the final race of the 2006 Lightning North Americans, a roving pack of kids darted through the boat park. Buckled into PFDs with crotch straps and collars, a few of the youngest waited for their parents to hit the beach. Although the Lightning attracts some of the most skilled sailors in the world, the presence of families, even at top international regattas, is a prominent feature of the class landscape. This particular event the top-five finishing teams had, at least in part, family members sailing together.

One of the first to reach shore was Dan Moriarty, who with his wife Tobi and helmsman Matt Burridge won back-to-back North American titles in 2005 and 2006. Moriarty says Lightning sailors place a premium on family inclusion.

To foster this atmosphere ashore, with cookouts and family-friendly post-race activities is one thing, but the Lightning encourages the same accord on the water, something to which the Moriartys attest. Most Lightning sailors feel the class’s move toward windward-leeward courses has lowered the optimal crew weight, making it easier for teams to sail with lighter sailors, wives, or children, for example. That the middle crew position provides a low-pressure training ground for new or young sailors is also a boon. But what is it about these family teams that enables them to fill the leader board?


“We enjoy being together,” says Moriarty. “I consider Tobi my peer. I’ve sailed with husbands and wives, and it’s sometimes tense. If one thinks he or she is superior, it creates a different feel. But I just absolutely enjoy sailing with her on the same boat.”

Larry McDonald, who finished fifth at the event sailing with two of his children, agrees that keeping it fun is paramount and often produces competitive results. A sailmaker from Carlisle, Ontario, who has won two Lightning North American championships, one world championship, and a bronze medal at the Pan-Am Games, McDonald attributes his ability to sail competitively with his teenage kids, Joy and Adam, to his willingness to shift his priorities.

“I can’t go [racing] as skipper,” he says. “I have to go as Dad. Dad is never going to yell at the kids. My definition of winning is that my kids want to go back the next day.” The only time tensions rise, he says, is when his son loses the occasional battle with the spinnaker pole, much to his sister’s consternation. Nevertheless, crew harmony is most important.


“My daughter evaluates first how we got along and then how we finished,” says McDonald.

There have been volumes written on how cohesive team dynamics are integral to winning. Most world-class teams aspire toward an air of professionalism, treating each other with courtesy and amity while approaching the game with sober determination. But what happens when you pepper your crew with parents, spouses, or children, replacing workmanlike detachment with the familiarity of family dynamics? What makes sailing together work for some families and not others?

To find the answer, we turned to five notable family teams, comprising sailors familiar with success at the highest levels of the sport who have also placed a premium on sharing the experience with those closest to them. Despite sailing different boats-from keelboats and catamarans to skiffs and dinghies-they all expressed that it takes patience, confidence, and a willingness to listen. And most of all, it takes respect. Here are their thoughts.


Paul and Trine Elvstrom
When in 1984 Paul and Trine Elvstrom, of Denmark, became the only father-daughter team to ever have competed in the Olympic Games they had experience on their side. Although they were new to the Tornado, Paul had won four gold medals sailing in six Olympic regattas since 1948, more than any other Olympic sailor. He had also racked up 15 world and eight European championships in eight different classes. In 1983 and 1984 he and his daughter teamed up, winning back-to-back Tornado European championships, which earned them a slot at the Los Angeles Games. But having spent his entire adult life training for and sailing in Olympic events, Paul knew the pressure could be taxing to any relationship, particularly when adding a daughter into the mix.

“When Trine and I started to sail the Tornado together,” says Elvstrom, now 79, “we promised each other that we did this for only one reason: To have fun together, We stuck to that and learned that this was still possible even when it turned out that we went on to the toughest of all competitions.”

Their promise led them to a fourth-place finish, which encouraged them to launch another Tornado campaign for 1988. At 60 years old, Elvstrom and his 26-year-old daughter qualified again and finished 15th overall at the 1988 Games in Seoul.


For the elder Elvstrom, a sailor unequivocally considered one of the sport’s all-time greats, the 1984 and 1988 Games were less about winning and more about sharing the Olympic experience with his daughter. As a father, he noted, he was particularly proud of Trine’s poise on the racecourse. “We had no coach,” he says, “but I remember how glad I was when the other coaches commented to me that they thought I had the fastest crew in the fleet.”

Pease and Jay Glaser
When Pease and Jay Glaser bought their tandem bicycle they had to strike a deal. Because Pease steers the boat, they determined, Jay would steer the bike. It’s this ability to compromise that made the Glasers one of the most competitive husband-wife teams in the world. It also helps that they’re both world-class sailors in their own rights. A two-time Tornado world champion and 1984 Olympic silver medalist, Jay met Pease at the 1986 Goodwill Games after winning a silver medal in the 470. The two hit it off and teamed up. But when Jay proposed marriage two years later there was no ring. The diamond, instead, arrived on a trailer. “I bought Gary Knapp’s Tornado,” he says. “I spent all the money. So that became Pease’s Diamond.”

Their unflagging dedication to sailing has always been central to their relationship. Married in 1990, Pease and Jay set their sights on the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, sailing boats named to parody the more conventional purchases for which they’d been traded-Starter Home and later, Beach Home. Although their spousal Olympic bid never panned out, Pease, sailing with skipper J.J. Isler, won an Olympic silver medal in the 470 in 2000, which earned her the 2000 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year award. They are now teammates in the business world as the owners of Glaser Sails in Huntington Beach, Calif. At the 2007 A Cat World Championships, Pease finished 17th, with Jay in 44th.

“The fact that we already knew how to negotiate a partnership helps,” says Pease. “When we first started sailing together I had never steered cats before, so he had a big role in teaching me.” Although Jay was instructing at first, Pease says that as she climbed the learning curve they were forced to renegotiate their roles. At first she was afraid to speak her mind, Jay being more knowledgeable about the boat, but eventually they devised a discussion checklist for between races, which made a systematic assessment of their performance easier. “There’s a high mutual respect,” says Jay. “And we’re at ease with the decisions the other person makes.”

And when tensions climb? “When things are bad on the boat we sometimes get sarcastic,” says Pease. “But neither of us are yellers. We stay polite. Ultimately, a lot of what we’ve learned sailing together holds true in everyday life.”

The Backus Sisters
In their professional lives, the four Backus sisters take charge. Three are public school principals and one is an assistant athletic director at Yale University. But when they’re sailing together the sisters know their roles. “I drive,” says Heidi Backus-Riddle, 52, whose sisters have been integral to her successful sailing career. “Gretchen trims jib. Amy trims the spinnaker and calls tactics, and Susan is in the hot box. She makes a hell of a sandwich.”

Heidi, and sister Amy, who is a year younger, began sailing Jet 14s together in Ohio at age 11. They later bought a Thistle and included their sister Gretchen. In 1982 and again in 1983 the three won the US SAILING Women’s Championship for the Adams Trophy. In 1983 they also bought a J/22, but eager to include their eldest sister, Susan, they soon purchased a J/24, which carried them to second place at the 1985 Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship. Later that year Heidi was awarded the Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year award. Since the early 1990s the sisters, along with Heidi’s husband and daughter, have been sailing their Tartan 10 together.

Heidi credits their success to complementary summer schedules and a lifetime of honing sibling candor. “You don’t feel bad asking your sisters for money,” says Heidi. “You can share expenses. When you buy sails you just ask everyone to chip in.”

Although onboard discussion once grew heated when they were teenagers, they mellowed once they started to travel. “We saw people yelling and didn’t want to act like that.” Now, says Heidi, she doesn’t say too much, instead focusing on steering and simply sharing time with her family.

“My father had a real influence on us,” she says. “He instilled the importance of being together on the water. I think when you grow up you sometimes don’t stay in touch with family, and this enables us to do that. We don’t have a big, serious campaign on the Tartan. We just have a good time together.”

The Coleman Brothers
As kids, the Coleman brothers shared a bedroom. Peter and Paul, identical twins, and Gerard, younger by a year, laid in bed at night and talked about sailing. They whispered about rules and tactics, often a continuation of their dinner conversations, which over the clatter of five other siblings, often involved maneuvering forks and knives around saltshaker turning marks.

They learned to sail at Larchmont (N.Y.) YC and started a sailing team at Mamaroneck High School, until the twins left for SUNY Maritime and Gerard, the Naval Academy. After competing in the 1976 470 Olympic trials, the twins teamed up with Gerard in the Soling. “Our primary goal was to always sail together,” says Gerard. “That was a given and added an element of confidence. Other teams might wonder whether they’re going to stay together or if someone’s going to get booted. We never had that added pressure.”

Their sense of family loyalty was an asset, but their fraternal familiarity made them particularly effective. “It’s not a sixth sense,” says Gerard, “but Peter and Paul were always on the same wavelength. They would talk below my hearing level. If they agreed, they’d tell me. If they disagreed, they’d ask me what I think. But often we could sail most of a race without even talking.”

With Gerard on the helm and Peter and Paul in the middle and on the bow, they campaigned the Soling again in 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996, when they finished a close second in the Trials. Now a professor of Marine Engineering at Texas A&M Galveston, where he also coaches the sailing team, Gerard, 50, says he’d like to team up again with his brothers, now both bankers, but only when the time is right. “I’m proud of what we could do,” he says. “I had 100-percent faith in the way they had the boat set up. We knew exactly each person’s role in every procedure. Don’t forget, we shared a room together.”

Trevor and Tina Baylis
“Tina and I can start a fight by raising an eyebrow,” says Trevor Baylis, 47, who with his wife of 24 years finished second at the 2006 International 14 World Championship in Long Beach, Calif. “If you get mad at yourself, there’s no way of saying anything without that anger being reflected in your tone, and your spouse is definitely going to be able to pick that up.”

There’s no doubt that sailing a technical skiff at blazing speed against one of the most competitive fleets in the world could lead to anxiety, but for the Baylises that’s part of the draw. “The highs are higher and the lows are lower,” says Trevor, “so you’re going for those high highs. And when it works, it’s a lot of fun.”

The Baylises met in 1982, while Tina, a Canadian, was winning the Laser II Australian National Championship. Two years later they were married. An experienced 505 and 18-foot Skiff sailor, Trevor parlayed his penchant for high-speed foil and sail shapes into his Oregon-based windsurfing company. There, the two windsurfed almost exclusively, Tina winning the 1986 Gorge Pro-Am tournament. After a shoulder injury, she stopped windsurfing, and in 1996 the couple purchased a 49er, which with Tina at the helm and Trevor as crew, they campaigned full time, honing a style of sailing that complemented their strengths.

“We have different skills,” says Tina. “Trevor’s often the one who gives feedback on mechanical things and I with psychological things.” To mesh their skill sets the Baylises visited a sports psychologist who found that Tina made decisions by consensus, while Trevor was determined to find one correct answer. Once they had reconciled these differences, they tailored their sailing partnership to meld their approaches. This synthesis paid off in the I-14. Despite an OCS in the first race of the Worlds, which could have led to paralyzing frustration, they overcame the hurdle. “We know we do it in different ways,” says Tina, “and that’s what allows us to get along and sail together.

“In any relationship you have one person who’s particularly gifted at one aspect. Then you have someone who’s good but maybe not quite as focused and intense. I don’t have any problem thinking of Trevor as the more focused. I learned a lot from him about what it takes to do well.”

Did we miss anyone? Do you know of another family team that’s produced some impressive results? Or do you have an interesting story about sailing with members of your family? Join the discussion at


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