VALLE OF DREAMS
WHILE BRINGING THE ONCE PRESTIGIOUS INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S REGATTA FROM THE DEAD IN AN EXOTIC LOCALE, A GROUP OF SAILORS LOOK OUT TO THE HORIZON FOR WHAT’S NEXT.
NINETY- THREE MILES SOUTH OF MEXICO CITY SITS
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.