Sailing Team Hones Its Craft

October 26, 2016 | By Tim Pratt

Johnnies set sail on the Severn River in Annapolis.

The winds were blowing steadily as the launch boat full of St. John’s College students pulled away from the dock on College Creek in Annapolis.

Scores of Colgate sailboats tacked and jibed out in the nearby Severn River, their white sails standing tall against the bright blue sky. Fishermen cast lines lazily in the late-afternoon sun.

The Johnnies took it all in, joking, laughing and talking about the winds.

This is the St. John’s Sailing team, one of four intercollegiate athletics programs at the college.

As a member of the Middle Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association, the team competes in three to four regattas per semester. The team has a dedicated coach—MaryEllen Markuske (A15)—and practices several times a week, including occasional scrimmages with the neighboring Naval Academy.

It’s a sport that brings together experts and beginners, all eager to take advantage of the waterways around the Annapolis campus.

On this particular day, Markuske transported the team to its small fleet of FJs, in which two or three teammates would sail, located in a cove near the Naval Academy Bridge. The team spent the rest of the afternoon maneuvering around its practice buoys, battling the shifting winds and slight chop to hone their craft. Markuske used a megaphone to call out directions.

At the start of the season, Markuske practiced capsize drills with the team so members would know what to do if their boats overturned. The practice came in handy on this day as one of the FJs overturned due to the winds, estimated at 16 to 22 knots.

But the two students on board didn’t panic. One was quickly pulled onto the launch boat, and the FJ was up-righted moments later.

“St. John’s Sailing’s having fun,” says the student who was pulled from the water.

Some members of the team had little or no sailing experience when they joined. They thought it would be fun to try.

“It’s kind of like controlled chaos at times,” says Jonathan Gordon, a senior from St. Louis, Missouri.

Then they got hooked, working together, learning how to maneuver the boats.

“It requires a high level of performance that’s fun to try to achieve,” says team captain Madeline Edwards.

On Wednesdays, the team often goes over lessons before heading out on the water. It gives team members with less experience a chance to gain the knowledge that veteran sailors already possess. During one recent practice, Edwards went over a racecourse on a dry-erase board in Hodson Boathouse. More than a half dozen of her teammates watched intently. The sophomore from the foothills of western South Carolina discussed how to maneuver around the course; she talked about what steps to take when passing an opponent; she even went over the start sequence.

Sophomore John Monday, from California, says the team is “super inclusive and accepting,” regardless of experience level.

“We help each other get better,” he says.

The team recently competed in a regatta at the Naval Academy, beating a team from Canada. The Johnnies previously competed in regattas at William and Mary College in Virginia and Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

The fall season will be wrapping up soon. Then the team will take the winter off before resuming in the spring.

Charlie Carpenter, a freshman, enjoys the team aspect of sailing.

“It’s a group effort,” he says. “It reminds you that it’s more than just yourself.”

“On a shallower level,” he adds, “it’s just fun. I like to go fast.”

Carpenter has been sailing since he was a kid.

“I like feeling like I’m going out and working with nature,” he says. “It feels natural.”

Carpenter, one of the students on the boat that capsized, laughed about the experience and the blustery weather. He loves his time out on the water, sailing with his teammates.

“If it was any better it would be a sin,” he says.