Penny Joseph's family had a sail boat, but she didn't get to travel through the waves on it too often. Yet, those few experiences on the open water piqued her interest, resulting in her joining the competitive sailing team at Buffalo Seminary.
What does the freshman think about the sport after some extended exposure to it?
"It's really fun. I like it here," said Joseph, before a recent weekly regatta for area teams at the Buffalo Yacht Club. "I think it's nice that there's a lot of thought and strategy that goes into it. It's always not entirely unphysical. You have to move a lot. You have to think a lot."
While sailing is not as well-known in competitive circles as football, soccer or basketball, like most sports it's one where the combination of mind, muscle and teamwork are the keys to success.
"Kids have to work together to create a plan," said Katie Braungart, one of the coordinators of the High School Sailing Program of Western New York. "It's like the game of football. You have a plan in place beforehand but in sailing you create a new plan every time before you head into a race."
Game plans are based on wind conditions and course set up. It forces the two members of each boat (the skipper and crew) to form strategy based on what conditions may be like, what conditions are like and then communicate adjustments on the fly during a race. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the course for a race is always changing because it's all based on Mother Nature's mood. On light wind days, the course will be short but on a heavy gust day it’ll be longer and the competitive juices flow easier since it's a challenging condition.
It's not uncommon to see the 16-foot-long boats in the water rocking side to side as sailors do their best to capture the wind and increase the speed of their craft.
"You can't sail directly into the wind," St. Joe's coach Paul Grenauer said. "You have to go into a zig-zag pattern on the course. As the wind is shifting it either takes you away from the mark or closer to the mark."
Competitive sailing may be somewhat new to the Western New York scholastic sports scene, with the first team believed to have been formed in 2009, but the sport has been around for centuries. It was first contested in the Olympics in 1900.
The number of local teams has fluctuated, but the goal remains the same: to make high school sailing as accessible as possible to as many high school kids as possible – with prior experience not being a prerequisite for joining a team. All competitors wear lifejackets.
This year there are six teams competing in Erie County: Nichols, Buffalo Seminary, St. Joe's, Canisius, Frontier and a Williamsville Schools District squad. There are also sailors from schools without teams, including Park and City Honors, who participate on a mixed squad with the program. The scholastic sailing program consists of 55 sailors. Boys and girls can wind up racing against each other or there can be a boy and girl on the same team. Each team practices twice a week at the Yacht Club with regatta race days on Friday.
There are also three teams in Chautauqua County: Southwestern, Panama and Maple Grove. The 12 sailors operate out of the Chautauqua Lake Community Sailing Foundation in Lakewood. They practice Monday-Thursday with regattas on the docket for the weekend.
Each boat consists of two positions: a skipper and a crew. The skipper controls the main sail, steers the boat and keeps the craft moving as fast as possible. The crew position's job is to control the forward sail (jib) and to look for the best opportunities to move forward. He or she keeps track of angle of the wind changes and must look out for other boats.
The season has two parts – a fall portion that runs through early November and a spring one that's from mid-March to late May.
In addition to the weekly regattas for the Buffalo-area teams on Friday, there are also other races on the split-season schedules for the teams – including regional events that serve as national qualifiers in fall and spring.
Several area teams will participate in the Buffalo Open on Saturday at the Buffalo Yacht Club -- including the Chautauqua County ones. St. Joe's will take a trip downstate to participate in the SUNY Maritime Regatta on Saturday.
Regionals, which include programs from the Rochester area, are Oct. 7 in Lakewood. The organizing body for regionals and nationals is the Mid-Atlantic Scholastic Sailing Association.
On weekly regatta day at Buffalo Yacht Club, there are nine to 12 races on the schedule with each no more than 10 minutes in length. Wind conditions determine the length of the course. The stronger the wind, the longer the course is for each race. A short course is about 50-75 yards.
While a good number of Western New Yorkers enjoyed last Friday's balmy conditions, it wasn't an ideal day for sailing since there was hardly any wind on an 80-plus degree, sunny day. That meant it was a short track with competitors using their minds more than their muscles to negotiate the course.
Windy days are the most physically and mentally challenging ones for sailors, according to Grenauer. Sailors must know how to handle the boat in heavy air, the physics behind it to keep heading in the right direction, or otherwise be overpowered by the elements. That includes the boat being flipped over and expending a lot of energy righting the ship along with getting in and out of the water.
"It's really a team effort," Nichols senior Harris Padegs said. "The crew is constantly adjusting their weight in the boat to make it go faster, communicating about what they're seeing wind-wise on the course and they are fine tuning the controls on the boat to help us go fast. Without one or the other you can't succeed in the sport."
The high school program was founded by several individuals – including current program director Peter Godfrey, Roy Jordan, Martha Mangan and Jimmy Carminati. Nichols coach R.J. Bouchard has been with the scholastic program at the club since the beginning, having instructed current program coaches Connor Godfrey, Braungart and Peter Schiavoni, who in addition to being a coordinator also coaches with St. Joe's.
The program launched because Connor Godfrey and a couple of his friends at Canisius wanted to start a high school sailing program. The first year, Canisius practiced and participated in a few regattas with teams from Rochester, which already had programs established.
Their venture into the water caught the attention of others, and it became clear the Buffalo Yacht Club could open its doors and form a circuit for high school competitors.
While a good number of the sailors in the program have had prior experience, about a third of them never tried it until joining their school teams.
"A lot of kids get into it looking for an opportunity to get on the water," Bouchard said. "Doing an activity that's focused on the water is a big draw. … It's the kind of sport you can get good at quickly with the right drive."
One of Bouchard's sailors is an example of that.
Sophomore Sam Thompson, who participated in a short summer program at the Yacht Club, decided to give it a try on a more permanent basis last year because he had an issue with his shoulder from playing baseball. He's enjoying the competition and camaraderie that comes from being part of a team.
"Sailing can be a range of what you want it to be," Thompson said. "It can be hanging out with friends on a boat to Olympic-level sailing. It's a difficult sport but it doesn't strain your joints as much as other sports do.
"I just really loved it. It's fun being out in the water. It's pretty relaxing when you're out there chilling and then you can make it really competitive during races and really get into it and have a lot fun with it."
He's not alone.
"My passion and enthusiasm for racing has grown every year since I've been doing the sport," said Padegs, who hopes to sail for a collegiate team. "There's a huge range and there's something for everyone. That's really the great thing about sailing."
"It's really fun being in the water," Joseph said.