Sailing World - - Boty - BY ELLI­NOR WAL­TERS


Valle de Bravo and Lake Aven­tura, a wa­tery gem be­tween moun­tains in the coun­try­side. This pue­blo is noth­ing like Mex­ico’s coastal re­sorts. There’s a quiet lake and a quaint vil­lage, on the edge of which is Club de Vela la Peña, named for the dra­matic cliff that tow­ers above it. The club’s lawn and gar­dens are lush and man­i­cured, and a bright-blue pool and open-air porch look out over the race­course dot­ted with orange tetra­he­drons. Here, on the first af­ter­noon of the In­ter­na­tional Women’s Keel­boat Cham­pi­onship, an im­promptu gath­er­ing is un­der­way on the porch as women of different ages and back­grounds de­vour rice and beans and squash blos­soms cov­ered in cheese. The rained-out af­ter­noon race has brought them to­gether, spark­ing con­ver­sa­tion that ex­plores what brought each of them to Valle. As rain clouds drape nearby moun­tain­sides and fill the lake, the sailors trade sto­ries.

Beka Schiff, an an­i­mated 23-year-old sail­ing coach at San Diego YC, jaws about her all-women team beat­ing a group of pros at a ma­jor re­gatta ear­lier in the year. “When you’re sail­ing past coed boats up­wind, pinch­ing them off and gig­gling and hav­ing fun with your friends in their face, other teams seem to get real pissed off,” she says, “es­pe­cially when they are all pros.” Molly Noble, age 30, who is mar­ried to a pro­fes­sional sailor, laughs at Schiff’s scathing im­i­ta­tion of the guys. “It’s funny be­cause it’s true,” says Schiff. This prompts Betty Sher­man, age 58, to re­call her ex­pe­ri­ences racing off­shore with a team that was largely male. “I’ve sailed off­shore a lot; there’s no dif­fer­ence,” says Sher­man. “There are guys with bad at­ti­tudes, there are ladies with bad at­ti­tudes. There are guys who work hard and girls who work hard. When I’m off­shore, I’m one of the guys, or they are one of the girls.”

As light­hearted as the con­ver­sa­tion is, the gist of it re­mains about fe­males in the sport, and the rea­son they have gath­ered in Valle.

The pre­vi­ous day, sailors mostly from the United States ar­rive at Ben­ito Juarez Air­port in Mex­ico City, weav­ing through crowds with life jack­ets teth­ered to bags be­fore con­verg­ing at the home of re­gatta chair­man Roberto Es­calante. Pollo, as he’s called, is the rea­son why the In­ter­na­tional Women’s Keel­boat Cham­pi­onship is in Mex­ico for the first time. With a magnetic smile and bound­less en­ergy, Pollo is the most pop­u­lar guy at the re­gatta. He min­gles with the women as if he has known them for years. This is Pollo’s pue­blo, and he’s the one who cob­bled to­gether a dozen J/70s,

col­lege grads, es­pe­cially women, can come get out on the wa­ter with her,” says Noble. “I be­lieve sail­ing on an all-women’s team cre­ates op­por­tu­nity for women who aren’t as good to try some­thing new in a com­pet­i­tive set­ting, whether it’s trim­ming or some­thing else. To learn hands-on, girls will let you try.”

This re­gatta in Mex­ico tran­scends racing around the buoys. Many of the women use it as a net­work­ing op­por­tu­nity to share their meth­ods for grow­ing en­gage­ment in the sport for girls be­yond high school and col­lege sail­ing. On the wa­ter, the event is a cham­pi­onship, but off the race­course, it’s a con­fer­ence.

It was through Blecher’s pro­gram that Ali Blu­men­thal, age 23, got her spot in Mex­ico.

Blu­men­thal sailed at Charleston and is now the as­sis­tant coach at Dart­mouth. All of her team­mates live in different parts of the coun­try, so putting to­gether a crew and train­ing to­gether has been dif­fi­cult. Blu­men­thal bursts out laugh­ing when asked about how com­pet­i­tive she has been with her team in the J/70 gear­ing up for the event. Team BAAM, formed through Blecher’s net­work­ing, raced the event pre­vi­ously. The women use their down­time on­shore to share sto­ries, and lis­ten to oth­ers, about build­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for women in sail­ing.

“It’s inspiring to see women mak­ing their sail­ing lives work with their fam­ily lives through­out their en­tire ca­reers,” says Blu­men­thal, after lis­ten­ing to Sher­man, a sil­ver-haired Transpac Race vet­eran and past com­modore of San Diego YC, re­count how she made her fam­ily life bal­ance with her in­tensely com­pet­i­tive sail­ing ca­reer. “We can sit across the ta­ble en­joy­ing a meal and hear about these other women’s ca­reers and then head out on the wa­ter to com­pete against them to­mor­row.”

While cor­dial and aca­demic on­shore, the racing in Valle is as spir­ited as any other in­ter­na­tional tro­phy, and after days of bat­tling different sail­ing con­di­tions, four Amer­i­can and two Mex­i­can teams ad­vance to the finals. With con­sis­tent re­sults dur­ing the qual­i­fiers, Me­gan Ploch, an 18-year-old skip­per from Rye, New York’s Amer­i­can YC team, se­cures third place be­hind two fierce Mex­i­can squads. Ploch, who grew up racing J/70s with her fa­ther, is a stand­out in her club’s junior pro­gram, and when the skip­per of the de­fend­ing Amer­i­can YC team be­came preg­nant, Ploch found her­self in the per­fect po­si­tion to travel, with no obli­ga­tions be­fore start­ing her fresh­man year at Ge­or­gia Tech in fall 2017.

The top Mex­i­can team, skip­pered by Camilla Flores, dom­i­nates the first pair of races of the day, but Ploch’s team keeps it­self in

con­tention. In the third and fourth races of the day, Ploch comes through with two race wins, boost­ing her con­fi­dence and bring­ing the Bengt Tro­phy into fo­cus.

After record­ing a trio of top-three fin­ishes for Ploch and her crew, a storm blows in, can­cel­ing the last race of the cham­pi­onship round. The scores are so close that Ploch isn’t even aware she won. While sail­ing to the dock, notepad in hand, Ploch fu­ri­ously com­putes the re­sults to de­ter­mine her over­all fin­ish. Con­sis­tency pays off and, once again, the Amer­i­can YC team will be in­scribed on the sto­ried tro­phy.

The tall, ath­letic teenager sport­ing a long blond pony­tail looks as though she just stepped off the page of a J.crew cat­a­log; in all as­pects, she is the ideal spokesper­son for the fu­ture of women’s sail­ing: She’s a young and fresh face to the arena, but her age doesn’t match her ex­pe­ri­ence. She has a re­sume any racer would be en­vi­ous of, as well as a drive for suc­cess.

When asked about the im­por­tance of her win, how­ever, she seems gen­uinely sur­prised at her ac­com­plish­ment, but she knows she has more hours in the J/70 than any other skip­per in Valle; she’s been trad­ing the helm at re­gat­tas with her sis­ter, un­der her dad’s di­rec­tion, since she was 12. Yet, win­ning an all-women’s event holds ex­tra weight for Ploch. “I think it’s im­por­tant the women’s events are kept around be­cause the sport is so male-dom­i­nated,” she says. “It feels like ev­ery­one is on the same team, so you get to know them on a deeper level.”

Re­vived from cer­tain death, the suc­cess of the Valle de Bravo women’s cham­pi­onship prompts bids from clubs of­fer­ing to host the re­gatta in 2018. The com­mit­tee de­cides on Santa Bar­bara YC in Au­gust 2018, at which Ploch says she will re­turn to de­fend her ti­tle.

“Me­gan win­ning is a tes­ta­ment to youth sail­ing, which is strong in the United States, and the com­pet­i­tive­ness of youth sail­ing in the world,” says Ali­son. “It also shows that the short-course for­mat of the cham­pi­ons league lev­els the play­ing field for all com­peti­tors, re­gard­less of age or venue.”

Blecher con­firms that her team will chal­lenge again, and Schiff an­tic­i­pates more women’s-only racing at the lo­cal level. “Ev­ery­one who didn’t make it here wants to be here,” she says. “As long as there are yacht clubs that want to open their doors to women’s sail­ing, it will con­tinue. The path­ways are open­ing more as we move for­ward, for women to be sail­ing, even pro­fes­sion­ally. As this next gen­er­a­tion grows up,” she adds, “it’s get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. The more they sail, the more they do, the bet­ter it gets.” Q


The IWKC served as a fo­rum for can­did con­ver­sa­tions about high-level women’s sail­ing. The cham­pi­ons league for­mat of short, in­tense races mir­rors that of col­lege sail­ing, which or­ga­niz­ers say lev­els the play­ing field for young teams.


With only six boats on the course at once, the IWKC’S for­mat is much different than the re­gatta’s early J/24 fleets.


Ali Blecher (sec­ond from left) re­cruited fel­low Col­lege of Charleston Cougars Molly Noble, Ali Blu­men­thal and Beka Schiff for the women’s cham­pi­onship. Blecher uses her so­cial-me­dia net­work to help con­nect fe­male sailors with sail­ing teams.

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