Two weeks ago, the UC Irvine women’s sailing team caught the wrath of a heavy gust, causing a death roll that nearly blew their chances at the national title. At the Pacific Coast College Sailing Conference Championships, the Anteaters were holding onto a third place slot, which meant grabbing the last spot to qualify for nationals. On the second day of racing, skipper Ashley Simpson and Martha Davis were attempting a counter maneuver, known as a jive, in order to slide into better placement for the finish. With two teams ahead of them and three behind them, they flew downwind, pinched on both sides. As Simpson, the driver, nearly completed the maneuver, a pop wind caught the sails and drove the front of her boat into swell-driven waves.
An ill-fated “death roll” ensued. As the front of the boat was driven down by gathering water, the wind caressed the sails even more, whipping the back of the boat around. With the front of the boat now in the water, and the back out of it, the entire vessel rolled over, sending the sailors to the water.
Their race was over, but their chance at the qualifying spot remained. The wind that flipped the Irvine boat also snagged the three trailing teams, thus not changing the point spread.
Irvine held third place by one point and would not let it go. As the second day of racing came to an end, Irvine finished in third by that one point and qualified for the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Women’s Dinghy Nationals. The Anteaters last qualified for nationals in 2007, but did it with a completely different approach.
This season has proven to be filled with setbacks and obstacles. Those struggles, however, have brought perseverance and now a trip to nationals. Simpson and Davis will be joined by Danielle Richards, Blair Johnston and Monica Orphan as they compete in the San Francisco Bay against 33 other schools on May 25.
They have a rather small roster of five people compared to other schools who bring upward of 20 sailors. Due to some out-of-the-water issues, the program lost a chunk of its sailors and has been forced to sail undermanned throughout the last parts of the season, which has created a huge challenge because it is very important in sailing to be able to rotate the right person in when the wind dictates. With a small roster, the option of putting the right person in diminishes.
But for these ladies, a small line-up only means more chemistry.
“This season has been a lot of fun. The team has surprised me,” Simpson said. “Everyone is on the same page and if you have a lot of people, doing that can be hard sometimes.”
It also helps to have the conference president on your team. Richards was elected to represent the Pacific Coast Collegiate Sailing Conference three years ago and has picked up the title of Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association vice president since. Her role as a representative has paid big dividends for the PCCSC and the team, with her attending nationwide conference meetings and making sure the right people have a say. She is the only athlete on campus that can boast that she heads the conference her team plays in.
But that makes sense for a program like sailing. It was established before any students ever set foot on the campus in 1965 to help promote enrollment.
And when you are that old, you hold some political clout. The program has won more conference (15) and national (12) titles than any other sport, and with this most recent bid to nationals, it has a fighting shot at reeling in another.
But it will not be easy.
There is a major difference in style between teams from the East Coast and West Coast. The East Coast schools produce heavy competition in their invitational only format races. Considering that only the best teams are invited to most of the races, it breeds a staunch competitive environment. The West Coast schools run with fewer people and are able to sail year-round, creating a more laid-back environment.
UCI embraces both of those elements in the West Coast style of sailing, but the San Francisco Bay does not. The forecast for this week has heavy winds throughout, and with the limited amount of resources on the roster, it will take precise driving from the skippers to produce results, which can be difficult considering that nature dictates everything.
That is why this team has set out a goal: Make it past the semifinal round of sailing and see what happens from there, but making sure to enjoy it throughout. And for this tight-knit group, the latter will pose no problem. Not even the wind can stop that.
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