Top of the World for Gardner, Again

Americans Annie Gardner and Sarah Kraft emerge as the top women at the Hobie 16 World Championships in Captiva Island, Florida; for Gardner it had been a long time coming

Hobie 16s starting at the Hobie 16 World Championships in Captiva, Florida
A light-air start for the Women’s fleet at the Hobie 16 Worlds in Captiva.Hobie Cat Company

Fifteen years since sailing her last Hobie 16 World Championship (and 34 years after winning Olympic windsurfing silver), Annie Gardner arrived in Captiva Island, Florida, adequately trained, with eyes wide open to the possibility that a younger generation of female Hobie 16 sailors could be faster. What she may have been missing in youth, however, Gardner, had two Hobie 16 world championship trophies (1991 and 1995) to qualify her as a favorite.

The three-day women’s portion of the Worlds was sailed in conjunction with the Great/Grand Masters and Youth championships the weekend before the Open Worlds. Winds were mostly light, which played into her and crewmate Sarah Kraft’s favor. Twenty-five women’s teams from five countries were represented, and Gardner says the competition was “pretty tough.”

Still, she was ready and relaxed as she could be.

Gardner and her husband, Eric Witte, are cruising the world on a custom catamaran named El Gato, but when they learned the 2019 Worlds would be in Florida, they decided to step back into racing. “Eric had worked at Hobie Cat back in the '80s, and I've had one since I was in my teens, off and on,” Gardner says. “So we thought it would be fun, because we'd see a lot of people that we hadn't seen in a long time. It's really quite a nice family, the Hobie family.”

The Hobie Cat Company provided 60 boats for the regatta, keeping four on reserve in case of breakdowns. “After a race, you come in and rotate,” explains Gardner, adding that everyone knew ahead of time which heat they would sail and which boat they’d rotate into. “So you can watch the other team rig it,” she says, “if you're on the beach sitting one out.”

Light air dominated that first weekend, a condition Gardner calls “pretty challenging” on any boat—but especially on a Hobie Cat. “It's important to keep the boat moving,” she says, “but you don't want to tack very often, because you lose a lot of boatlengths.”

Sarah Kraft, is from California. “She just got into the Hobie scene a couple years ago; she has a boat. That worked really well for me, having a much younger, strong crew,” Gardner says with a sigh. “My body's starting to show signs of a really good life.”

All of Gardner’s experience, though, helped the team win the opening race of the series—and then stay cool through a day and a half of waiting around for wind before they could complete the final two races. “We were in third place, a few points out of first, going into the last day,” Gardner says. “Here we are on this beautiful island, with white sandy beach and shells…It wasn't so bad.”

A young skipper ahead of her in the standings was quite emotional, she says, but Gardner was “super, super relaxed.”

When they finally had enough wind to sail, “it just felt so great to get out there,” Gardner says. Pamela Noriega Negrete, of Mexico, a previous world champion who was sailing with Katia Real López, won the last two races. “We got second twice, which was fine,” Gardner says. “We didn't need to win.” All they needed to do was finish ahead of the two teams that had started the day in first and second overall. “That’s what I was telling my crew; we can't make mistakes.”

Hobie Cat 16 Womens racing with Sarah Kraft and Annie Gardner
After winning the first race of the series, crew Sarah Kraft approves of their finish as they went to win the series after two more races.Hobie Cat Company

It had been 15 years since Annie sailed a Hobie world championship, and she says, “It was fun to come back, to be super focused on it. The cards all laid out nicely for me, but it also helped having the mental game pretty down in my head.”

The breeze ramped up in time for the Open Worlds, and even though Garnder relishes heavy-air sailing, she and crew John Williams failed to qualify for the finals. “We were light,” she says, adding that they had to carry 14 pounds of lead to meet the minimum crew weight of 285 pounds. The first day was, “like 20 to 27 knots, and I didn't raise my trapeze wires high enough. I underestimated how big the waves were, and once I was out there I didn't change anything and that was a big, big mistake.

“I kept getting knocked off the boat with the waves. But not completely. My feet were still dangling on the backend of the corners. I kept having to find a way to get back on without capsizing, and keep from tacking by accident. I've got a lower back issue, and it basically wrecked my back. After that race I did another race and then it was just like, ‘Ugh.’"

They missed the cut by only a few points.

Once eliminated, Gardner joined the media crew to help with live announcing from the beach. “That's been really fun. It really is a special group. And the sail colors, they just pop. They look like candy corn to me. They do! And I love candy corn…"

She also loves that the Hobie fleet is such a mix of ages and genders. “This is the one class that I've always known to be just so wonderful for having gender equality,” Annie says. “It's really cool.”

Now that their six-month racing break is over (in addition to Hobie training, Annie also led a team for the LEMWOD, a Women’s One Design regatta in Catalina 37s), she and Eric will return to El Gato with plans to sail to the San Blas Islands before transiting the Panama Canal, “and then we're going to do the puddle-jump all the way to New Zealand; we should be there for the next America's Cup.”

As for the transition back to cruising, Gardner laughs. “I went from full-cruise mode to full-race mode. And now I’m going to have to just dial it back again; OK, we’re just cruising. We don’t need to put the spinnaker up to go a couple knots faster.” Yet another time when experience and “having the mental game pretty down” will help her stay super relaxed. “We love the Caribbean, and we love the East Coast, but now it’s time to go west.”