INTO THE NIGHT

THERE’S MUCH TO LEARN ON AN OVERNIGHT TRAIN­ING RUN FOR A YOUNG OFF­SHORE RAC­ING TEAM.

Sailing World - - Contents - STORY AND PHOTOS BY AMORY ROSS

On an overnight train­ing run for a young off­shore rac­ing team, there’s self-dis­cov­ery with ev­ery pass­ing hour.

beau­ti­fully quiet, ma­jes­ti­cally serene off­shore mo­ments? Well they don’t hap­pen here.”

What Tay­lor Walker is re­fer­ring to is the con­stant drum of con­ver­sa­tion among the crew of Dream­catcher, a 1972 Swan 48 cur­rently be­ing sailed by the young Mu­dratz Rac­ing Team.

Sev­eral hours ear­lier, we are tied to a dock in Stam­ford, Con­necti­cut, pre­par­ing for an overnight prac­tice on Long Is­land Sound. Two weeks re­main un­til the start of the 51st New­port to Ber­muda Race, and with only a hand­ful of prac­tice nights on board, tonight’s ob­jec­tives are clear: gain ex­pe­ri­ence sail­ing in the dark, test new in­stru­ments and de­liver the boat 70 miles to Mys­tic, Con­necti­cut, where a morn­ing rig- tune ses­sion and evening fundraiser await.

Mu­dratz was born in spring 2014 from in­ter­est in cre­at­ing a ju­nior sail­ing “su­perteam.” With ad­vanced coach­ing and in­creased re­sources, these re­gional teams can fast- track the learn­ing process for the more com­pet­i­tive- minded. Mu­dratz founder Bran­don Flack didn’t want to can­ni­bal­ize lo­cal yacht clubs and their sum­mer pro­grams, so the ini­tia­tive be­gan life lim­ited to the wing sea­sons. The boat dona­tions started with a Melges 24, but the fleet of toys at Mu­dratz’s dis­posal has since grown, as has its rac­ing cal­en­dar. It now looks af­ter a Melges 20, a 49er, three Melges 24s, a Melges 32 and, most re­cently, a Swan 48.

It’s April 2018, and Dream­catcher sits high in its cra­dle in Jamestown, Rhode Is­land. “Wel­come to the new team club­house!” yells Flack from the el­e­vated deck to a con­fused 20-year-old Sarah Wilkin­son, stand­ing along­side the keel be­low. For a team with­out a phys­i­cal ad­dress, there is some truth to the state­ment. “Bran­don, what have you done?” she replies.

Sarah’s fa­ther, Don “Donzo” Wilkin­son, trag­i­cally passed away while sail­ing in 2010. As the found­ing com­modore of the Mys­tic River Mud­head Sail­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, Don was pas­sion­ate about bring­ing peo­ple to­gether over a com­mon love for sail­ing, and in his honor, the Wilkin­sons cre­ated the Donzo Wilkin­son Award, rec­og­niz­ing such qual­i­ties in oth­ers. The award was even­tu­ally given to Flack for his work with the Mu­dratz, and upon hear­ing of its pre­sen­ta­tion, H.L. Devore — a good friend of Don’s — called Flack the next morn­ing to tell him that Donzo would have wanted the kids to race to Ber­muda. That planted the seed, which led the group to Stephen Ky­lan­der, who was adamant that Dream­catcher, his boat of many years, find a wor­thy new home. The sto­ried racer was soon gifted to Sarah and the rest of the team now as­sem­bled in Stam­ford.

Sarah is one of 11 sailors pre­par­ing for the 635-mile voy­age to Ber­muda. There’s also 17- year- old Peter Cronin, di­ag­nosed with a de­gen­er­a­tive hip dis­ease that barred him from con­tact sports. He took up sail­ing at age 12, and he brings a fiery de­sire to win. Fif­teen-year-old Gan­non Trout­man, of Vir­ginia, the youngest sailor on board, saw an ad for sail­ing and thought it’d be fun.

“I don’t re­ally have an an­swer as to how I found this,” he claims, vaguely re­call­ing a toy boat he once owned.

Trout­man’s par­ents of­fered to put him through an in­tro­duc­tory course, and he fell for the sport im­me­di­ately. “I feel free when I’m on boats,” he says. “Es­pe­cially off­shore.”

Trout­man now helms the fam­ily’s first boat, a J/70, but he ul­ti­mately as­pires to sail pro­fes­sion­ally.

The re­main­der of Dream­catcher’s cast of young char­ac­ters in­cludes goof­ball Fitz Finke­nauer, 22, a first- year en­gi­neer at Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics, and Anne Longo, 20, who is prone to sea­sick­ness but vows to fight through. She’s given up sail­ing on Wed­nes­day nights so she can fundraise while babysit­ting for other rac­ers. Watch cap­tain and re­cent Stan­ford grad­u­ate Lind­say Gim­ple, 22, is also an en­gi­neer at Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics, and is joined by her younger sis­ter Me­gan, an 18- year- old go-get­ter and co­me­dian who’s miss­ing this prac­tice to be at prom. There’s the un­flap­pable Mor­gan Buf­fum, 23, a gen­tle giant who never com­plains. Dream­catcher boat cap­tain and coach Neal O’con­nell, 24, grew up sail­ing against Walker, and sim­i­larly pos­sesses an en­thu­si­asm for teach­ing kids how to sail. The adults, John Win­der and Ky­lan­der, are on board as coaches, along­side Walker.

When­ever I try to reach Walker, he’s busy with some­thing team re­lated. He’s in­stalling equip­ment, fundrais­ing with par­ents or help­ing kids through per­sonal is­sues. Even his fi­ancee is in on the ef­fort, cook­ing and pre­par­ing the on­board food. At 29, he’s ap­proach­able and largely in tune with the kids, yet ma­ture enough to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment of re­spect and dis­ci­pline. What Walker says largely sticks, and that’s im­pres­sive as a young leader of youth sailors.

Walker over­sees a small net­work of vol­un­teers, but the kids must also fundraise them­selves. When I ar­rive in Stam­ford, a few of them are writ­ing thank-you notes in the cock­pit. But tonight’s gath­er­ing is not about fundrais­ing, it’s about prac­tice, and as the team par­ents say their goodbyes, Walker tells me he’s just handed out the new wet- weather gear. “I didn’t want them to have it for the Block Is­land Race be­cause I wanted them to know how lucky they are to be get­ting it,” he says. “We were so cold, but they know this is an enor­mous priv­i­lege.”

Af­ter a brief pre-de­par­ture check­list, we shove off into a wind­less, foggy twi­light. Vis­i­bil­ity is ex­tremely lim­ited, and once out­side the nar­row chan­nel, Walker hands re­spon­si­bil­ity over to Cronin and Gim­ple, act­ing watch cap­tains for the trip. Gim­ple runs a short but de­tailed safety brief­ing that cov­ers emer­gency equip­ment on board and the planned watch ro­ta­tion, then Cronin di­rects the group to get the sails hoisted.

There’s a lot of in­de­ci­sion as the main­sail starts to go aloft. Crew move­ment is rough and un­co­or­di­nated, and no­body seems too sure of what is hap­pen­ing next or what needs to be done. Slowly, though, all of the right pieces go into place and we edge out into Long Is­land Sound un­der main and jib in 3 knots of wind. The en­gine is turned off, but the boat is no qui­eter — the ban­ter is ac­cen­tu­ated by the still­ness of the air. While ev­ery­one is set­tling in be­fore night­fall, ne­ces­si­ties like head­lamps and bat­ter­ies be­come a point of frus­tra­tion — who stole whose, who for­got theirs — the lit­tle things that re­mind me these are kids and largely in­ex­pe­ri­enced in the art of off­shore prepa­ra­tion. But that’s why they are here, and noth­ing is handed to them. They are learn­ing from their own mis­takes.

Dark­ness takes hold, yet still they talk,

THIS IS A COL­LEC­TION OF YOUNG DINGHY SAILORS DES­PER­ATE TO GROW INTO BIG­GER BOATS. THEY ARE UNI­VER­SALLY CU­RI­OUS.

five of them hud­dled around the helm like a camp­fire. The sto­ries are end­less, and Cronin has seem­ingly de­stroyed a mil­lion boat trail­ers through no fault of his own. A per­sonal fa­vorite in­volves a blaz­ing tire fire and an un­likely passerby with gal­lons of wa­ter with which to douse it.

The hours roll by. It’s now mid­night, and there’s a group in the nav sta­tion mon­i­tor­ing the radar. A big thun­der­storm is ap­proach­ing from the west, and they’re ap­pre­hen­sive. Walker has been check­ing his phone’s weather app, but the light­ning is a long way off. None­the­less, with no wind, con­cern leads to ac­tion and the en­gine is turned on.

Now un­der power, the ban­ter re­sumes, and I start to won­der if it will ever sub­side. I un­der­stand what Walker means when he says seren­ity doesn’t ex­ist with this group. But I lis­ten in­tently. This is a col­lec­tion of young dinghy sailors des­per­ate to grow into big­ger boats. They are uni­ver­sally cu­ri­ous about what it takes to make sail­ing their life, and they are ver­bally am­bi­tious.

Flack has man­aged to get a Q& A with Team Brunel as the Volvo Ocean Race fleet races to­ward Cardiff, Wales, so Walker starts film­ing ques­tions from the group. Cronin wants to know why Pete Burl­ing is called “Pis­tol Pete,” and Wilkin­son wants to know how Abby Eh­ler got to be a boat cap­tain in such a male- dom­i­nated event. Gim­ple is mak­ing a movie about the Mu­dratz ad­ven­ture and has been film­ing every­thing, a me­dia crewmem­ber in the mak­ing.

At 0100, the threat of weather be­hind us is gone, so the en­gine is switched off. But the fog is thicker than ever. Mirac­u­lously, a few kids suc­cumb to sleep. It’s FOMO, the youth­ful fear of miss­ing out, that has kept most of them awake un­til now, but fa­tigue is slowly win­ning over their will to stay en­gaged. Wilkin­son picks up a faint bow light off the port side. Who­ever it was passed very close, but she was watch­ing. The ves­sel wasn’t on AIS, but there’s also no­body mon­i­tor­ing at the nav sta­tion.

There’s a lot of talk about school, pend­ing ex­ams, grad­u­a­tion and sum­mer plans. It’s clear this is a di­verse group of kids that span in age and ma­tu­rity, but their love for sail­ing su­per­sedes all dif­fer­ences. Their cu­rios­ity for one another’s lives is gen­uine.

I cap­i­tal­ize on the tran­quil­ity to pick Walker’s brain and learn more about what makes the Mu­dratz dif­fer­ent from other youth big- boat ef­forts. He as­serts the dis­tinc­tion lies in the amount of prepa­ra­tion and work they do be­fore and af­ter rac­ing.

“They are learn­ing the work ethic nec­es­sary to sur­vive in com­pet­i­tive sail­ing. They have no build­ings, they have no fund­ing. Group peer pres­sure to per­form and work hard drives them,” he says. “There’s an ele­ment of self-se­lec­tion to it too, where the kids that don’t put in the work don’t sur­vive.”

Flack tries to re­ward that spirit us­ing his own con­nec­tions. For ex­am­ple, at the end of the pre­vi­ous Mu­dratz sail­ing sea­son, he had the team pick two of their own — the two who worked the hard­est — to join the crew of Hanu­man dur­ing a prac­tice day in New­port be­fore the J Class World Cham­pi­onship. The two Mu­dratz rep­re­sen­ta­tives were so em­braced by the Hanu­man sailors that they were in­vited to join the crew din­ner that night and come back the next day.

It’s now 0200, and we’re do­ing cir­cles in the fog. They’re get­ting tired and a lit­tle dis­ori­ented. Things are pretty loose, but it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that these are kids who aren’t home get­ting into trou­ble, wast­ing their time on their phones or sit­ting in front of a gam­ing con­sole or tele­vi­sion. It’s com­fort­ing to know that get­ting lost is still pos­si­ble in 2018. A while later, I find out the do­nated radar isn’t work­ing prop­erly. With the heavy fog, in­con­sis­tent winds, in­op­er­a­ble radar and an 0900 ap­point­ment in Mys­tic, we again strike the sails and turn to power.

We mo­tor through sun­rise, and the boat is fi­nally quiet save for the rum­ble of the diesel en­gine. They’ve talked them­selves to sleep (or run out of Coca-cola). I un­der­es­ti­mated how sig­nif­i­cant age can be in terms of sleep and time man­age­ment, and the ef­fects of this are ob­vi­ous with this young group.

The Ber­muda Race has non­nego­tiable “youth team” re­stric­tions, re­quir­ing that 50 per­cent of the crew, plus one, are age 14 to 23, with an av­er­age age of 17. The Dream­catcher crew are 15 to 23, plus Walker, Win­der and Ky­lan­der, but the am­bi­tion for the next Ber­muda Race in two years’ time is to have ev­ery­one on board un­der the age of 35.

Sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence aside, the main ob­sta­cle to that be­com­ing a re­al­ity is safety. Older peo­ple tend to make wiser de­ci­sions, and par­tic­u­larly in chal­leng­ing sce­nar­ios like sail­ing across oceans. But they are learn­ing at that too. Walker in­structs safety- at- sea cour­ses for the Storm Try­sail Club and has been drilling safe prac­tices through­out the night. As part of its train­ing ear­lier in the year, the Mu­dratz team sailed Dream­catcher to SUNY Mar­itime in 20 knots to par­tic­i­pate in a com­pre­hen­sive safety course with life rafts and he­li­copter bas­kets in a live wave pool ( from there, Cronin went straight to prom to hold court as king). Though tonight’s foggy con­di­tions are not fa­vor­able for a man-over­board drill, Walker main­tains they con­duct one ev­ery time they go sail­ing.

Near­ing Mys­tic, Dream­catcher is still wrapped in heavy fog. I’m down­stairs, talking to one of the kids, when through the hatch comes a loud cry. We had nearly run aground on Seaflower Reef, an iso­lated rocky out­crop­ping sur­rounded by deep wa­ter. Cronin, in the nav sta­tion at the time, claims some­what con­fi­dently, “Yeah, yeah, I got it.”

I put my head to the win­dow and there it is, right next to us. A sec­ond glance out the com­pan­ion­way shows our wake’s old tra­jec­tory run­ning it right over. He clearly did not have it.

Some­time later, when his youth­ful ego re­cedes, he of­fers a sin­cere apol­ogy. “Sorry guys, that was a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I prom­ise I’ll never make that mis­take again.”

Ul­ti­mately, this overnight jour­ney is about learn­ing what it takes to com­pete, but it’s clear that be­ing there for each other and car­ing for the team is para­mount, as is get­ting first­hand de­ci­sion- mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, work­ing hard and tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for ac­tions. Nowa­days, it’s far too rare that kids get such an op­por­tu­nity. Yet, I also think they know it, and truly ap­pre­ci­ate the chance to do Donzo proud.

THESE ARE KIDS WHO AREN’T HOME GET­TING INTO TROU­BLE, WAST­ING THEIR TIME ON THEIR PHONES OR SIT­TING IN FRONT OF A GAM­ING CON­SOLE.

Two weeks later, Dream­catcher will fin­ish the New­port Ber­muda Race in four days, 14 hours, 23 min­utes and seven sec­onds, win­ning its 15- boat Class 5 division and plac­ing sev­enth of 85 over­all in the am­a­teur St. David’s Light­house Division. The Mu­dratz are also awarded the Stephens Broth­ers Youth Prize for the best per­for­mance by a youth- division crew.

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