The Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship was a week of relentlessly tough racing, with the shifty and patchy north-westerlies that blew across Chesapeake Bay testing the mental stamina of 61 J/22 crews to the limit.
The only one who came close to making the 10 race series look easy was '95 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, Cory Sertl, but even she did not take her success for granted. Sertl's crew comprised two other Rolex Yachtswomen of the Year, Pease Glaser ('00) and Susan Taylor ('87) along with top coach Dina Kowalyshyn, all joining forces for an assault on a title that skipper Sertl had been trying to win since 1985 when she won as crew for Betsy Alison.
Of her success at this intensely competitive one-design regatta, Sertl commented "It's great for someone of my age with two children to be able to compete at this level. It's been wonderful to sail with three great friends this week, and I have to say winning the Rolex regatta is one of the high points of my sailing career."
Sertl said of her three crew members: "Not only are they all great sailors, they are all very dear friends of mine and it is really special to be able to race with them at an event like this."
Sertl had made a longstanding commitment to sail with her good friend Pease Glaser in this regatta for some years now, but other things had always got in the way. In 1999 it was the small matter of preparing for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where Glaser won a silver medal crewing in the ultra-competitive 470 class.
Sertl made sure of getting Glaser's commitment for the 2001 Rolex IWKC early in the year. "We'd promised each other that we'd do this regatta together for some years now, so we were determined to see that commitment through this year," said Sertl, who won this event crewing for Betsy Alison back in '85 but had never yet managed to win as a skipper. After finishing runner-up twice in the Rolex IWKC, she was looking forward to the opportunity of finally winning this regatta.
There were plenty of other women with their mind on the same thing though, including some others who had won as crew and like Sertl now wanted the glory of winning at the helm. Carol Cronin won crewing for defending champion Pat Connerney and Nancy Haberland had done the same for Betsy Alison the time before.
Alison, a five-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, has dominated this regatta over its 16 year history, but relinquished her usual role of skipper to call tactics and run the cockpit for new girl on the block, Deneen Demourkas. By comparison with most of the sailors here, Demourkas is relatively new to the sport of sailing, having only raced for little more than two years, but she has taken to one-design sailing in super-quick time.
The first day of the championship saw the J/22s at their best and their worst. Crews were either surfing at maximum speed downwind or broaching and gybing out of control. Nancy Haberland however took the bull by the horns to notch up a 1,4,4 score ahead of Sertl with 2,6,2. A sign of Sertl's promise came early in the regatta. "We got T-boned by a boat on port tack soon after the first start, so we were forced out to the right to find clear air. But it worked out okay for us and we pulled up to second in that race," she said.
The Bermudan team skippered by Paula Lewin was new to the J/22 and not all that familiar with fleet racing. Her expertise lies in the one-on-one intensity of match racing, but she appeared to make the transition to big fleet racing with remarkable ease. She lay in third overall after the first day but, like Sertl, her second place in the second race was not without incident. Lewin admitted to gybing too soon for her foredeck crew Leatrice Roman, who fell overboard. "I'm so used to Leatrice being able to respond to any situation that I throw at her, that I was surprised when she didn't come through that one, but at least she didn't let go and got back on board quickly."
Connerney relished the tough conditions with a 10,3,1 on Monday, but she would suffer in the subsequent lighter winds. The defending champion eventually finishing 10th in this regatta.
The next four days saw the fleet battle it out in predominantly light to moderate conditions. The only thing that was consistent about the breeze was that it was inconsistent in the extreme, with big holes and massive shifts setting the fleet up for a game of Snakes & Ladders.
Day two proved the beginning of Haberland's undoing, and the beginning of Sertl's unwavering dominance in the seemingly unpredictable conditions. Deneen Demourkas clearly felt more at home, winning the first of the light wind races by some margin. Betsy Alison said their success came down to patience. "We were patient with the shifts and we were patient with the gusts. We were happy to let things come to us and they did in that race."
Day three, and for the second day running Sertl notched up a 4,1 scoreline while all her major opposition had suffered at least one result in the 20s or even 30s. Perhaps one factor in her success was the free tactical role given to Pease Glaser. "Normally I'd share in the trimming of the sails," she said, "but this week the way we've arranged our crew I'm freed up to look around at the wind and the other boats all the time. This leaves Cory and the rest of the team to focus on boatspeed, and it loads the tactical pressure onto me," she smiled.
Their stunning consistency was also loading the pressure onto the other leading sailors. Nancy Haberland commented: "I usually like those shifty conditions but today we just weren't getting it. It's time to start taking some risks."
Olympic bronze medallist Courtenay Becker Dey had a similar day to Haberland, and was hitting some corners hard to try to get back into the fight. "I'm normally a more conservative sailor, but if I see a risk for a potential big gain, then I'll certainly take it," she said.
Sertl's position of dominance, by contrast, allowed her to take a conservative approach to day four. It was a case of 'if you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs', as Sertl sailed off to another solid 7,3 to win the regatta with a race to spare.
Glaser was delighted with the way the team had kept their cool. "It was easy to lose your head at this regatta, seeing other boats sail 30 degrees higher than you in totally different wind. But the key was to work with what you had and be patient. It was a lot like the Sydney Games where it paid to have the same approach. The Games were very stressful and I think once you have dealt with those high-stress situations you are better equipped to cope with them the next time."
Sertl and company opted to sit out the final day's race, choosing instead to watch their friends and rivals lug it out for the other podium positions. Carol Cronin was lying second overnight and stamped her authority on the fleet in Sertl's absence, taking the final winner's gun by a healthy margin in another race fraught with yet more Snakes and Ladders.
Paula Lewin broke the American dominance in this regatta to wind up third overall, way ahead of her pre-event expectations. "I haven't done too much fleet racing over the past few years, and we came here with hopes of a top ten finish. After the first couple of days we thought maybe a top five was possible, but to get third here is incredible. The calibre of racing here in Annapolis has been fantastic, we have had a great time."
Lewin has certainly got the taste for this Rolex regatta now, and intends to return for the next one in two year's time. Just behind the Bermudans came a group of three boats who all finished on exactly 56 points for the series. Using the tie-break system, Nancy Haberland was awarded fourth place ahead of Margaret Podlich in fifth and Jody Swanson in sixth overall.
At the Rolex Gala and Prizegiving, held at host Annapolis Yacht Club, Sertl surprised her fourth crew Dina Kowalyshn, the only non-Rolex Yachtswoman on the team by giving her the Rolex timepiece she was awarded for being the victorius skipper.
Based upon this year's enthusiastic response to this established event, for Sertl, the winner, and the other 60 competing teams 2003 and the 10th Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship will not come soon enough.