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Boys to Men: Growing Up Sailing at StFYC

Editor’s Note: Paul Cayard, the Executive Director of US Olympic Sailing, cut his teeth as a youngster at St. Francis Yacht Club Now he’s on to “the hardest job I’ve ever had.” To raise the game for Olympic hopefuls, one of Cayard’s goals is to build squads of sailors who will learn together, share together, leapfrog each other again and again and push the lot of them toward excellence. In a recent edition of the uniquely-international publication, Seahorse Magazine, Paul shared his memories of growing up at StFYC. In our adapted version, you can see where he’s coming from as he recounts his own road to excellence.

– Staff Commodore Kimball Livingston, for St. Francis Yacht Club

 

Every period of our lives has a special significance. It seems that the ones in our youth leave the strongest impressions. Such is the case for me and my junior sailing.

I started sailing at eight, by accident. A classmate in second grade invited me sailing on a boat borrowed from the Rec department on Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. My classmate’s family weren’t big sailors, and no one in my family sailed. From there, I had a 35-year professional sailing career, and now I’m leading the US Olympic Team. How random is that?

My father built me a boat in our garage in San Francisco in 1968, and I raced on lakes around the Bay Area. While sailing in the Sears Cup, I met older kids, godly 16-year-olds, who were members of St. Francis Yacht Club’s junior program. They had 420s and invited me to go for a sail. I got my 1971-era wetsuit on and went out for a burn with Zan Drejes, a hippy kid from Marin. A 420 with trapeze and spinnaker seemed so big to me at 13. Soon I was crewing on Fireballs while still racing my El Toro, and I won the North American Championships in both classes in 1975. It was then that the powers at St. Francis Yacht Club asked me to join.

 

 

The Junior Program at St. Francis was led by Paxton (Packy) Davis and Don Trask. Both are still with us at the age of 90. These outstanding humans gave of themselves to cultivate a Squad that included John Bertrand, John Kostecki, Craig Healy, Ken Keefe, Steve Jeppesen, Zan Drejes and Russ Silvestri. We invited Jeff Madrigal to hang with us even though he was from another club. The Laser class had just started. StFYC bought 10 and doled them out. Don was building the Lasers in San Rafael. The Club bought a van, and Don and Packy built a custom trailer that would hold all 10 Lasers. They gave us a gas card. (Amazing what you could buy on a Chevron gas card!) We travelled up and down California, from Newport Beach to Clear Lake to Tinsley Island. We had big rivalries with Jimmy Buckingham, Scott Mason and Tony Watson of Newport Harbor YC. Every weekend was an adventure.

While we were having fun, unbeknown to us, we were building a powerful Squad. A pocket of talent that would go on to win the America’s Cup, Round the World Races, and Olympic Medals. We were always together…a gang, a squad, a band. We learned to drive together, we played basketball together, we dated girls together, we land-surfed on skate boards with maxi bags as sails. Mostly, we sailed together…even weekday afternoons, after school. Don and Packy would often join us in a Whaler (no RIBS back then). We would race around fixed marks on a short track. Laps, Reps. Inflatable marks weren’t invented yet. If you hit steel, it hurt.

Our playing field was San Francisco Bay. On a summer afternoon, with the current going two knots out the gate and a 59-degree wind pushing in at 25—that’s when we would rig up. I can’t remember ever rigging up in 10 knots. When we would go to So Cal, we would get our tails kicked by Buck & Co. But when they came to SF, we owned them. Remember the Opti Heavy Weather Slalom? Dave Perry does. Carl Buchan does. Fourth of July weekend. Two courses, side by side; four buoys over 100 meters, top to bottom. 32 competitors, 4-minute races in 25-30.  Winner goes forward. Loser goes home. Best regatta ever!

I remember training heavy-air gybes just outside the south tower by the red nun buoy in 2+ knots of ebb, gybing every 20 seconds for 30 gybes in a row. If you made all of them, you luffed for two minutes to catch your breath. If you capsized, you had a long sail downwind to get back to the group. We always went out as a Squad to cover each other’s backs. One day, Billy George broke his boom out by Point Bonita (three miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge) in a 2.5 knot ebb. There were no reinforcements in the booms in those days and there was no coach boat.  The vangs were three-strand!  Anyway…I took his mainsheet, tied it to my traveler and towed him in. The challenge of keeping my boat upright in 25 true, while planning down four-foot waves and being yanked backwards every time his boat loaded up, was something I will never forget. I got us both in after two hours of hard work. Maybe that was my first training session for the Whitbread!

[Editor’s note: Keeping up with changing standards for youth sports in America, the StFYC junior program has since tightened our procedures and oversight by great gobs. But those were halcyon days, and there was a lot to like.]

 

 

Because of where we sailed, all of us looked forward to windy races, in any class of boat, because we knew we would be racing and not just surviving. That is a gift for any sailor who grows up on San Francisco Bay.

The yacht club gave us grants to travel. I remember having to answer to the Board for crewing to 4th in the Star Worlds and 2nd in the 505 Worlds in a six-month period: “Why don’t you focus on one class?” I was cross-training; just didn’t know it. Bertrand had a great coach in high school named Bill Monte. Bill was important in the psychological development of John. He spent time with the rest of us as well. John also took ballet lessons because he felt that agility and body control were paramount in the Laser. John went on to win two Laser Worlds and the Finn Gold Cup before getting a Silver at the LA Olympics of 1984. John took his sailing to the next level.

In 1980, R.C Keefe, a Staff Commodore and leader of the St. Francis 6-Metre program, saw fit to pass the torch to the 22-year-olds. StFYC Sixes had won many World Championships and Australian-American Match Race series under the helm of Tom Blackaller. Now, with Bertrand as skipper, myself as tactician, Ken Keefe and Craig Healy on the sheets and Steve Jeppesen on the bow, we took over the Club’s flagship, St, Francis VII. We won everything there was to win in 1981 and continued our growth into big boats. For Ken Keefe and me, that meant landing in our first America’s Cup in 1983, with Blackaller skippering and Gary Jobson calling tactics on Defender.

The takeaways are these:

  1. Without the leadership, mentorship, nurturing and financial support of Davis, Trask and St. Francis Yacht Club, none of this would have happened.
  2. Without the desire to work together, to compete constantly and openly every day, none of this would have happened.
  3. And maybe, just maybe, without the ice-cold water, the 25-knot winds, the wild downwind rides…all that seems like such a turnoff to many, none of this would have happened.

This is why, for me, St. Francis Yacht Club is my Church. Everything I have achieved in sailing can be traced back to my opportunities at St. Francis. A big thanks to Packy, Don, Tom and many, many, more who have supported me not only in the 1970s but through my America’s Cup efforts and my Olympics.

Now comes my turn to pay it forward.