In September, 18 junior women from yacht clubs across the country joined the "big leagues" for two days when they converged on Annapolis, Md., for the Rolex "Next Step" program.
Established in 1997 as a way to expose juniors to international women's sailing in a mentoring atmosphere, the program is now a traditional component of the biennial Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship, which for 2001 attracted its biggest fleet ever (61 teams) at a new venue (Annapolis), using a new boat (J/22). Directed by local coordinator Sue Mikulski, the program truly was its own event within THE event, allowing the girls to rub elbows with both rock and rising stars and seek inspiration from the masters as well as those only a step or two ahead of them on their competitive sailing journeys.
"By virtue of the mere design of the Rolex Women's event-where Olympic medallists start on the same line with up-and-comers, and the age of participants ranges from the young 20s up through the 50s-there is exposure to a more worldly sense about our sport," said Mikulski. "At the same time there is a learning component to the program, which encourages future participation in the regatta." (At the 2001 event, Clemmie Everett had the distinction of being the first Next Step graduate to compete. Everett trimmed for 1996 Olympic Bronze Medallist and Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year Courtenay Dey.)
On the busy agenda was a breakfast session with 2000 Olympic Silver Medallist and Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year Pease Glaser, who shared her experiences from Sydney with a special slide show presentation. Additionally, the juniors took part in an asymmetrical spinnaker clinic at JPort Annapolis, followed by a full day on the water aboard J/22s, practicing drills and racing under the guidance of Nan Walker and Tucker Thompson, both professional sailing coaches from the Annapolis area. Finally, the past president of US SAILING, Jim Muldoon of Washington, invited the group aboard his 70-foot race boat Donnybrook for a day of spectating on the racecourse.
"When I first met the girls," said Thompson, "I apologized for being a guy. I told them 'you've got me because all the best women sailors in the world are either on their way here or out there practicing.'" He pointed to the Chesapeake backdrop behind him and laughed as he suddenly remembered his own best moment from his experience with the Next Step program. "When we were on land, I had told the girls that they simply had to meet Betsy Alison (five-time champion of the event) at some point while they were here. We went out in the J/22s and who should come up and start pacing herself and positioning herself on the starting line with the junior teams but Betsy Alison! She knew what we were up to and she came to the junior cookout later that evening to interact with the girls, as did lots of the competitors. That was part of the plan all along to have that kind of give and take, but you could see the stars in the girls' eyes."
Originally scheduled to host 28 juniors, the Next Step program experienced some fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. While participants from California and Florida decided to forego flying across the country so soon after the disaster, still Ohio, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Illinois, Virginia and Maryland were represented.
"Something I learned was the transition from dinghies to keelboats," said Adele Wilhelm, one of two 15-year-old 420 sailors who came from the Chicago Yacht Club's junior sailing program. "It's really not all that different, but still I had never experienced a J/22 or getting to try the different positions on a keelboat."
According to David Martin, the father of Youngstown, N.Y., participant Anne-Marie Martin, for those who made it, the effort was well worth the while. "Anne-Marie had a great time," he reported after the event. "She was very reluctant to come home. She is inspired and determined to sail in the Rolex in 2003. In fact, we've negotiated the purchase of a J/22 already."
As the 2001 Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship sails into the history books, the next event in 2003 is looming larger than ever for those competitors who want to return and those who will attempt it for the first time. There is a good chance that among the fleet will be a few Rolex Next Step juniors.
The 2001 Next Step Participants were:
Meredith Adams, Davidsonville, Md., Annapolis Yacht Club
Sarah Braun, Southampton, N.Y., Shelter Island Yacht Club
Laura Browning, Plandome, N.Y., Manhasset Bay Yacht Club
Kate Brush, Burlington, Vt., Lake Champlain Community
Martha Fisher, Gahana, Ohio
Meredith Ginley, Franklin, Mass., Chapoquoit Yacht Club
Michelle Grocke, Novelty, Ohio
Jessie Guild, Cohasset, Mass., Cohasset Yacht Club
Abigail Logan, Richmond, Va., Fishing Bay Yacht Club
Maggie Lumkes, River Forest, Ill., Chicago Yacht Club
Sarah Marsh, Youngstown, N.Y., Youngstown YC
Anne-Marie Martin, Youngstown, N.Y., Youngstown Yacht Club
Elizabeth Rath, Villa Park, Ill., Sea Scout
Kate Schellie, Annapolis, Md., Annapolis Yacht Club
Kimberly Ulmer, Cohasset, Mass., Cohasset Yacht Club
Hanna Watt, Annapolis, Md.
Adele Wilhelm, Chicago, Ill., Chicago Yacht Club
Carissa Zill, Burr Ridge, Ill., Sea Scouts