The Village Vanguard

For fifteen years, college sailors have flocked to the Vanguard 15 for their graduate studies in small-boat sailing. A feature from our January 2009 issue

village vanguard 368

Allen Clark

They spent the daylight hours bobbing around Long Island Sound, waiting in the heat for wind that never came. Then, just as the evening festivities began, the sky unleashed a torrent that drenched the majority of the 114 teams assembled at Western Long Island Sound's Larchmont YC for the 2008 Vanguard 15
Nationals.

Yet, there wasn't a disappointed face in the crowd. Beneath the awning where the racers took shelter, a thunderous applause greeted the return of one soaked coed team, caught in the deluge when they snuck off to "put the cover on the boat." The kegs had been tapped, and before long someone yelled, "MAISA versus NEISA!" which served as the three-minute gun for current and former members of the Middle Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association to line up across a chain of picnic tables from their New England rivals and commence a spirited round of flip-cup, the ubiquitous post-race drinking game. In the Vanguard 15 class, you don't have to race during the day to play flip-cup at night. In fact, you don't have to race at all to have a blast. Two windless June days yielded at least 200 sunburns and nearly as many hangovers, but no complete races and thus no national champion. Yet as event chairman Peter Beardsley says: "After the regatta somebody came up to me and said, 'I've never had so much fun at a regatta where we didn't sail.'"

Normally, when an event goes belly up due to the weather, everyone chalks it up as a lost cause and hopes for better luck next year. Not in the V15s. Not with Beardsley running the show. Having poured his heart and soul into staging the event, lining up sponsors and volunteers, recruiting the largest V15 fleet ever, this 29-year-old corporate lawyer wasn't about to let his magnum opus go unperformed. He decided to retry the Nationals at a later date. "I sent out hundreds of harassing emails after the first event," says Beardsley. "Eventually, I think people realized it would be easier to just come back and sail than to try to deny me. You don't deny the Beardsley!"

More than 75 boats returned to Larchmont in July for the second go-round, and the event-still the largest Vanguard 15 Nationals ever-went off without a hitch. That the class was able to pull off a "take two" is largely the result of Beardsley's persistence, but also a testament to the enthusiasm and spontaneity of its membership. Former college All-American and international team-racing ace Danny Pletsch won the 16-race series in commanding fashion, scoring three bullets and nine top-five finishes. For the 28-year-old tanker broker, the allure of the V15s is simple. "I just think the people are great," says Pletsch. "The main reason I go to these events is to hang out with fun people. Plus, I don't know of another class that is that competitive with that many boats."

This atmosphere of fun-loving, youthful competition is very much in line with the vision that launched the class. Bob Ames, Rod Mincher, and Steve Clark developed the boat as the next college dinghy back in 1985, but it wasn't until the fall of 1992 when Clark and Chip Johns, having purchased Vanguard Sailboats from Harken, finally got around to building the Vanguard 15 prototype. The duo abandoned the idea of having their 15-footer replace the tried-and-true Club Junior in the college circuit after realizing that the boat could accommodate a wider range of crew weights and reach a broader market. They also ran up against a wall pitching the V15 to the college sailing establishment "I talked to [Tufts head coach] Ken Legler about using Vanguard 15s for his program," says Johns, "and he was like, 'Gee, I love the boat, but our boathouse is only fourteen and a half feet wide!'"

Clark and Johns marketed the V15 as a strict one-design class for the post-college set. College-style racing, without the homework. Early advertisements featured the tag line "Simply Irresistible," promoting an uncluttered, spinnaker-less, two-person dinghy capable of planing upwind. "We wanted post-collegiate sailors to be able to continue the same type of racing they had done in college, only with their own boat," says Johns. "So we provided the boat and tried to create a class and regatta structure around that."

Vanguard put on the first major V15 event, Team Race Midwinters, in 1994. Johns drove a dozen brand-new boats down to the Miami YC, where he had assembled a who's who of former college stars. It blew 30 knots the first morning of the regatta, so they sent one team out to gauge the conditions. "They went ripping up on a beat, then came screaming back downwind, huge smiles on their faces," Johns says. "That's when I realized that the whole thing-the regatta, the boat, the class-was going to be a huge success."

The toga party that accompanied that first Midwinters set a bold precedent for future socialization. Ned Jones-who now works for Laser Performance, which bought Vanguard Sailboats in 2007-was among the attendees. "I think I slept on a piece of patio furniture outside the Miami YC," says Jones. "When I woke up in the morning, I didn't know where I was. But it was blowing 25, and we went out and raced all day."

By supplying free, or discounted, charter boats to talented young sailors, Johns and Clark jump-started the Vanguard 15 class. By running regattas with dozens of short, if occasionally imperfect, races, they provided a template for future events. The simplicity of the boat made it perfect for team racing, which was experiencing a resurgence in the United States at the same time the V15 was making its debut. In 1994, US SAILING adopted the Vanguard 15 as the official boat for the U.S. Team Racing Championships.

Linked to the growing popularity of team racing, Vanguard 15 fleets developed where there was an abundance of ex-college sailors versed in the discipline-throughout the Northeast and in places like San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston. Larchmont YC purchased an entire fleet of Vanguard 15s to start its team-racing program, in which Ted Ferrarone has been an active participant since 1996. "The way I see it," says Ferrarone, "the growth of team racing and the Vanguard 15 class are one and the same."

Like many in the first wave of V15 sailors, Ferrarone doesn't travel to as many events as he used to, but he takes full advantage of the local racing. "It seems like we all have less time to sail than in the past," says Ferrarone, "And the V15 really gives you bang for the buck."

Across the country, local V15 fleets are flourishing because the Vanguard style of racing-short, informal races scheduled with commuters in mind-meshes well with sailors' increasingly busy schedules. Members of the Larchmont fleet will hop a train from Manhattan, walk down to the club where their boats are waiting on floating docks, rig up, shove off, and compete against as many as 25 other V15s on a Sunday afternoon. In Westport, Connecticut, V15 racers cut out of work on Thursday evenings and head straight to Cedar Point YC. At Treasure Island Sailing Center in San Francisco, team racing takes place on Tuesdays, fleet racing on Thursdays.

The strength of self-sustaining local fleets perpetuates a degree of regionalism in the class. On the whole, V15 sailors don't travel. Some make the pilgrimage to Midwinters, or to the Buzzards Bay Regatta, or to Nationals if it's close, but the majority of V15 sailors don't hit the road regularly. Nor do they particularly want to. Ken Charles races in the Westport fleet. He made the trip to Larchmont for the Nationals, but doesn't see a reason to travel much further afield. "Our local races are so well attended," he says, "most of the time it makes sense to just leave the boat at the club."

Class president Matt Allen sees this same reasoning playing out across the country. "We've got strong fleets on the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, and throughout the Great Lakes, but most people sail fairly locally," he says. "We need to work towards building the class on a national level."

One reason regionalism is particularly evident in the Vanguard 15 class could be the distances between the major fleets. Ferrarone has traveled to venues between Annapolis and Cape Cod to sail V15s, but he's not about to take the next big leap. "To go to Chicago or San Francisco," he says, "It's just too far."

While nursing the Larchmont fleet to 60 strong, Peter Beardsley couldn't help but notice the fragmentation of the class as a whole. "It's sort of an amorphous group nationally," he says. "As a class, V15s aren't as tight a community as say Flying Scots or Lightnings."

So how has a class with so much enthusiasm amongst its members failed to come together on a national level? The same reason nothing ever gets done in student government-leadership turnover. The talented, young sailors who make up the heart of the class tend to age out of the boat quickly. Top sailors like Pletsch dabble in the far more technical 505. Even Beardsley acknowledges that his darling V15 is a "transition boat between college and family." Of the 15 class champions between 1993 and 2007, only Charles Higgins attended the 2008 Nationals. With turnover so high, it's no wonder there's no class newsletter. "Leadership has always been sort of sporadic," says Jones, "Guys like Peter Beardsley are few and far between."

As in the past, the fate of the Vanguard 15 class remains closely tied to its association with team racing. Due to the availability of decent used boats, Laser Performance doesn't sell a lot of new boats. And due to the high cost of production, the company doesn't profit much off the V15s it does sell. But because US SAILING contracts Laser Performance to supply Vanguard 15s for the U.S. Team Racing Championship, the builder continues to churn out new boats at the rate of about 100 a year. "We'd love for some of these pockets of V15 racing to cross pollenate and develop into a national class," says Jones, "but we're also resigned to the fact that that's probably not going to happen. At the same time, we're continuing to focus on developing team racing as a way to grow the class. That's its next life."

Of course, not everyone racing V15s cares about new boat sales, the lack of a newsletter, or developing a national racing circuit. Turnover is the nature of the class. And with gas prices so high, who can afford to travel anyway? "It is what it is," says Ferrarone. "The class does its own thing, and it does it really well."
For those who made it to Larchmont, both times, the event delivered on all fronts. And for those ensconced in V15 hamlets nationwide, the racing has never been better. Fifteen years after the first Vanguard 15 advertisements invited racers to "experience sailing the way it should be, simple, fast, and fun," the class continues to make good on that promise.