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Ladies, First

The new season of Turnabout frostbite racing gets underway in Newport, Rhode Island, and come to find out, the fleet newcomer is no newcomer at all.

January 6, 2021
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two sailors in foul weather gear and lifejackets fold a sail on the dock
Amanda Callahan (left) and Bea Grimmitt fold a new Turnabout sail at Newport YC. Dave Reed

Up there, way ahead and rounding the weather mark is a new familiar sight in Newport YC’s frostbite fleet these days: the seasoned pink PFD and the Turnabout transom of one Amanda Callahan.

She’s fast. “Wicked fast,” they might say in her hometown of Canton, Mass., southwest of Beantown, USA.

And, whoosh! There she goes, effortlessly gliding down the run, her diminutive white sailboat heeled to windward as her head swivels forward and behind, expertly gauging her angle to the leeward mark and the arrival of a catspaw puff that silently fills her sail.

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The rest of us play chase, perhaps hoping she’ll somehow miss a shift, forget to lower her centerboard, or catch her mainsheet on a mooring winter stick’s zip-tie…any one of the maladies of wintertime harbor sailing. Can’t anything to slow her down?

Not a chance.

She’s just too good, too smart, and way too relaxed as she recently cruises across the finish line with 11 bone-chilled sailors in her rippled wake. She wins the opening race of the 2021 Newport YC Frostbite Series. It’s New Year’s Day, and yes, there is a new champ in town. A shift in the force in Newport Harbor.

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The ladies in the fleet are thrilled to have her company amongst all the machismo, but Amanda Callahan is genuinely tickled to be back in the ‘ol Turnatub she grew up sailing and racing as a kid at Wessagussett Yacht Club, in North Weymouth, Mass.

Usually doublehanded, and as a pint-sized pony-tailed lass having a heck of time keeping the Turnabout flat, she still has the fondest memories of those early years, the friends and the adventures that made her the talented sailor she is today. By talent, I mean the All-American college sailor who as a coach at Tufts, Stanford, and now Roger Williams, has groomed a heap of heady youngins into All-Americans themselves. National championships, and all that. And, by the way, she won the Sunfish North Americans last November—the second woman in Sunfish class history to do so.

colorful junior sailboats being towed behind a powerboat in the late 1980s
Wessagussett YC junior sailors were once towed in their Turnabouts to venues across Quincy Bay, Massachusetts. Courtesy Amanda Callahan

You could say her resume is as a long as her approachable smile, and that would be true. It is also true that this same smile, and the friendly twinkle comes with it, could trick you into thinking she’d be easy prey on the racecourse. Not so. Years of highest-level team racing have taught her well in the fine art of whipping any quirky dinghy around in tight spots. On the open course, she slices and dices shifts and has a trained eye for the movements of dark puffs and glassy lulls.

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And you better bet she’ll be two moves ahead of you. Every time.

I learn this firsthand on the second day of the Frostbite series. It’s the last race of the day in a raw 5-knot northeasterly blowing through the gaps of nearby hotels and over the roof of the clubhouse. I nail my start at the pin end of the line, and all the chubby white bows are over my shoulder, lined up nicely as we race out the left. On my hip is Bea Grimmett, stalwart and top woman of the fleet for decades. I sense Amanda is somewhere up there beyond her. Soon enough, we all tack to starboard and I’m feeling pretty chuffed with the fleet stacked below my boom. But there’s Ms. Callahan, poked out just enough and zipping along.

The wind fills nicely for me, with a little lift in it, so I settle onto my butt, straddling the centerboard thwart and leaning into the bow to will it forward. I don’t believe I’ve ever concentrated as keenly is I do in this moment, so deeply that I zone out on the sound of the ripples rhythmically lapping at the bow chine…slap…slap…slap. It’s so Zen.

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If my memory serves me right, Amanda is the first to tack onto the starboard layline and all it takes is one glace below the boom to skewer my confidence. Marginal cross. Should I force the tack, likely foul her, and spin my way to the back of the fleet?

No. What a dumbass move that would be. One more duck under the boom and that’s it. Party over.

“Not gonna happen,” I tell myself, pulling the tiller toward me and ducking behind both Amanda and Ms. Grimmitt.

As Amanda passes by, merrily on her way to the mark, she smiles, laughs, and says, “I had you all day! All day!”

As Amanda passes by, merrily on her way to the mark, she smiles, laughs, and says, “I had you all day! All day!”

She does, indeed, have my number, and goes on to win the race and claim tip-top honors of the 2021 Newport YC Frostbite racing season results. It’s worth noting, on account of outstanding races by Ms. Grimmitt and 2020′s top woman, Susan Besse—who pulled off a few horizon jobs of her own in the B-fleet races, that the Ladies of Newport YC Frostbiting own the top-three places after six races. History is, perhaps, made on this very day.

With COVID and all, and on account of the yacht club bar not being available after racing, I don’t have a chance to congratulate Amanda after sailing, so I call her out of the blue a few day later and find her at the Roger Williams boathouse where she’s scouring results of the various junior regattas down in Florida, scoping talent for her Hawk squad. It’s quiet. She’s the only one there; it’s her getaway to get things done.

I eventually muster the courage to draw some insight and go-fast tips from her deep bag of tricks. First a few of her observations: the crispy new sails (thank you, frostbite committee) from Jasper & Bailey Sailmakers are nothing like the multi-colored and big-bellied rags she grew up with, so she’s still experimenting with what her go-fast settings (oh, dear…). And thankfully, she showed us how to fold them a better way (old dogs and new tricks).

Second: A-fleet starts are perhaps a bit more aggressive than she anticipated, so now she knows it’s best to avoid any congestion, if possible.

Third: The Turnabout is weight sensitive in light winds, so she pays special attention to where her weight is and the balance of the boat. Don’t be afraid, she tells me, to use the rudder in the pre-start. Also, the downwind submarine bow-mode is exactly as she fondly recalls.

Fourth: She’s always looking for breeze, and then looking for more. In her only bad race thus far, she regrets going back to the middle too soon, allowing a few too many boats on the edges of this wacky breeze direction to come roaring past in the final yards.

And finally; the food. She’s looking forward to the between-race all-day potluck that was once a highlight before COVID (and who are we kidding…the smorgasbord is a perfectly good reason to come down and sail on cold winter’s day). In the meantime, the Panera Bread around the corner is her go-to pre-club stop. Can’t be smart if you’re hungry, right?

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