With Hurricane Hermine streaking up the west coast of Florida last week, it would seem incredible that the 70th Annual Labor Day Regatta at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron would get off to a late start Sunday due to lack of wind.
But both Alana O’Reilly, executive director of Sarasota Youth Sailing, and Craig Bridges, manager of the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, were still patiently waiting for some breeze during a frustrating postponement at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the final day of the event. They finally got the breeze they were looking for around 1 p.m., and sailing began at 1717 Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota.
“This time of year we wait for the sea breeze to fill in,” O’Reilly said.
You drop them off here to practice and one day you discover they can rig their own boats. They know what to do. They are prepared and they launch from the beach and they go out there and race and they do know the wind and they do know the current and they have to make their own decisions and that is what these fabulous coaches teach them. When they get out there it is truly up to them to decide how to make their boats go fast and both of these girls work hard to make that happen.
Karen Liebel, mother of 12-year-old Manatee sailor Kaitlyn Liebel
Among the Labor Day competitors waiting on Mother Nature were good friends Kaitlyn Liebel, 12, a seventh-grader at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, and J.J. Smith, 14, who attends Manatee High School. Nearby was Bryce Tone, also of Manatee High.
The trio represents a new wave of young Manatee County sailors who are hooked on what is both an individual and team sport. And they enjoy the physical and mental challenge that competitive sailing represents.
The three sail for Sarasota Youth Sailing and on Sunday raced their eight-foot Opti sailboats around a roughly mile-and-a-half course consisting of four buoy markers. They raced against each other and other individuals from around the world.
The Manatee youth were among 200 sailors age 8 to 80 competing in all classes of sailing vessels. The entry list was down from last year due to the threat of bad weather, Bridges said.
When it was over, Bryce finished first in the red, white and blue class out of 60 competitors. J.J. finished seventh and Kaitlyn finished 38th.
In green fleet, which is the beginner class, Bradenton’s Eva Speck-Ewer, 11, took 11th place. Bradenton’s Jack Groves finished eighth in the 420 two-man boat.
Youth sailing is trending up locally
Sarasota Youth Sailing’s competitive team competes year round and has about 60 competitors, O’Reilly said. Of those, between 15 and 18 are from Manatee County.
“We would always welcome more,” O’Reilly said.
Kaitlyn and J.J. are ambassadors for competitive sailing at their schools. J.J. has gotten four people to start a sailing club at Manatee High. Kaitlyn hasn’t been able to start a club at Saint Stephen’s, but fellow students are curious and ask questions.
“Kaitlyn is still learning everything,” O’Reilly said. “She’s very competitive. She’s a great sailor. She’s working really hard to get to the top of her fleet. We’re really proud of her.”
A multiple regatta winner for Sarasota Youth Sailing over the past few years, Kaitlyn said she loves sailing because she just can’t stand to be out of the water.
Kaitlyn mowed lawns to earn $900 which her father, Mark, matched so she could buy her used Opti sailboat for $1,800, according to her dad.
“My dad and all my uncles sailed competitively,” Kaitlyn said. “I like it because it’s an individual sport but at the same time you are part of a team. I also love the fact that it is on the water so you are not on a field where there is no water around you. My life is in the water.”
The Liebels are a sailing family, with Kaitlyn’s dad, Mark, and her mom, Karen, traveling to regattas along with Emily, 10, who is the one-girl pit crew for Kaitlyn.
“I want to be a real good sailor when I grow up,” Kaitlyn said. “It would be cool to be a professional sailor, but that isn’t on the top of my list. I want to go into the U.S. Coast Guard.”
J.J. is also from a sailing family.
“My mom is a big sailor,” J.J. said. “Sailing is kind of calming. It is just you out there, and you can use your mind. You have to read the wind, read the currents, know how to sail into the wind. When the wind shifts we can adjust our sails or tack.”
These young Manatee sailors generally compete in Optimist — or Opti — sailboats. They are small and dinghy-like with a fiberglass monohull.
The girls laugh when asked if they know how to tie knots and the difference between port and starboard and stern and hull. They do. They even know the sailing terms leeward and windward.
“You have to learn to tie knots to be a sailor,” Kaitlyn said. “We have to tie our sails.”
Karen Liebel, Kaitlyn’s mother, has noticed remarkable changes in her daughter since she has been sailing competitively.
“You drop them off here to practice and one day you discover they can rig their own boats,” Karen Liebel said. “They know what to do. They are prepared and they launch from the beach and they go out there and race, and they do know the wind, and they do know the current, and they have to make their own decisions and that is what these fabulous coaches teach them. When they get out there it is truly up to them to decide how to make their boats go fast and both of these girls work hard to make that happen.”
Sarasota Youth Sailing offers Learn to Sail classes starting Sunday and continuing every Sunday until daylight-saving time ends in early November, O’Reilly said. The cost is $150 for four Sundays. Information: 941-504-4236.