The traffic plying New York City's crowded East River was even worse last week, being snarled by a fleet of racing dinghies manned by the best women sailors from 16 U.S. and Canadian colleges. In the murky water off the Bronx, home port of host Maritime College, they battled for the top awards in the 11th annual women's intercollegiate championships, while trying to avoid collisions with tugs, speedboats, tankers, destroyers, yachts, fishing boats and each other.
In the mid-'60s women, who had long been barred from college sailing, decided to hold a regatta of their own. The event has not yet outlived its usefulness, though it someday may as coeds become more proficient and find increased acceptance on college varsities. In small boat racing, women can compete on an equal footing with men. Two of the skippers in the intercollegiates, Allison Jolly of Florida State and Anne Preston of Princeton, have proved that.
Jolly, America's Yachtswoman of the Year for 1976 and defending champion in the A Division of the intercollegiates, had finished second in the Timme Angsten Trophy race in Chicago, which draws the best male college skippers. The only other woman skippering in the Timme was Preston. She did not do well on that occasion but is considered the finest sailor of either sex at Princeton and one of the top 10 in the country. She had won the B, or second. Division skipper award for two straight years at the intercollegiates. Now she was moving up to A to do battle with Allison Jolly.
The 20-year-old champion very nearly did not defend. To get to the East River races, a school had to survive regional eliminations and send an A and a B team to New York. Because it was exam time, Jolly had difficulty rounding up the requisite three women to accompany her. In the end, she convinced a 4'11", 80-pound sophomore. Karen Kolnick, whose sailing experience consisted of a six-week beginner's course, that she was ready for national competition. Florida State would not have depth but it had warm bodies. Next came the drive north. 20 straight hours in a car Jolly rented at her own expense. Allison's crew would be Anne Batchelder. The B boat would be handled by Susan Stone and Kolnick.
The triangular course for the 32 races lay between the mighty Throg's Neck and Whitestone bridges, near where the river flows into Long Island Sound. The current is strongly affected by the tides and in the words of Commander Dick Chesebrough, Maritime's sailing coach and chairman of the races, "It goes the way it damn well pleases." On Sunday morning when the regatta began, it pleased to pull in the direction of the Sound, and that, combined with light winds from the north, made sailing the 12-foot 420s up to the starting line and on the windward leg a struggle for the crews.
The University of Rhode Island A team correctly assessed both wind and current and led through much of the one-mile course to win the first race. The wind was fitful: dying, springing up, then faltering again. "What can you expect when they're sailing in the middle of the Bronx," said one observer. The situation was further complicated by Sunday sailors who every few minutes roared through the course at full throttle, their wakes threatening to swamp the racers. Jolly finished second in two of the first four races and Preston was well placed near the head of the fleet. By the fourth race the current had reversed. As the day progressed and the wind built, it became harder and harder for the less experienced women to deal with the conditions. The B team from the University of Texas was the first to capsize. Jeanne McCarthy of Austin came up sputtering, "Filthy water." Her skipper, Kit Fugate, said, "It's not so bad if you don't look at what's floating around you."
Homeward-bound fishing boats, their rails lined with anglers, plowed through the racing triangle, and two U.S. Navy destroyers steamed slowly by to dock at the nearby Naval Reserve Station. The University of Washington, British Columbia, Rhode Island, Yale, Princeton, the Naval Academy and Florida State took A races. Rhode Island also won the first B race when Skipper Becky Wood of Newport gained the lead at the jibe mark and held it to the finish. Other B winners included Yale, University of California-at Santa Cruz, Princeton, Miami of Ohio and British Columbia.
A brief delay occurred after the sixth race when four men and a dog in a Boston Whaler stole the large red ball used as the weather mark. Chesebrough took off after the thieves in the judges' boat, and with the boat's siren wailing and the dog barking, the chase headed toward Manhattan. The culprits were caught at the Whitestone Bridge, herded back to the college and turned over to the police. At the end of the first day and eight races in each division, Anne Preston led Allison Jolly by one point in the A Division, and Becky Wood, with four seconds and a first, headed the Bs.
Jolly had more to worry about than the one point, however. The 80-pound crew she had recruited was having difficulty coping as the wind increased. Watching the final B races of the day. Jolly groaned, "Oh no, Karen's going to kill me." The Florida State boat finished last in the two contests.
The next morning the difficulty was no wind. Chesebrough assured the women that when the haze lifted so they could see the skyline of Manhattan, a breeze would be on the way. They waited all morning, sunbathing in bikinis and shorts on the docks and balcony of the Sailing Center. The Princeton team read trash novels, while the Navy A skipper, Kathy Karlson, studied an engineering text. The Naval Academy had entered the women's championships in style. With Navy pride at stake, the all-plebe team was determined to do well. Unlike the Santa Cruz women who showed movies on campus and tapped local merchants and their parents to raise money for the trip, or the Miami of Ohio sailors, who tried a candy sale ("It bombed"), Navy was well financed and organized by a very vocal and visible coach, Patrick Healy. Karlson's engineering exam was to be held that evening at Maritime, a Navy professor having accompanied the team to administer final exams on the spot.
At one o'clock the haze lifted, a breeze rippled the water and the women returned to the boats. The second event of the day almost ended in tragedy. Preston and her crew, Caroline Penfield, were around the weather mark first and heading for the jibe mark when a tug, pulling two 50-foot barges loaded with sand, crossed directly in front of them. Preston, aware that as fleet leader she would be penalized the most by any delay, tried to round the end of the second barge with only 20 feet to spare, but, suddenly, her boat was sucked into the wake. She was thrown overboard as the 420 slammed into the barge. Luckily, Preston kept a grip on the mainsheet, or she might have drowned in the powerful undertow. With the help of her crew, she struggled back into the craft, but it took the assistance of two men from the race committee to free the dinghy from the suction of the barge. Returning to the competition, the Princeton team, demonstrating superb sailing skill, worked up through the fleet and finished a respectable seventh.
When the A crews returned to shore, one contestant berated the men for interfering—they might have caused Preston to be disqualified. Allison Jolly interrupted the coed. "A girl's out there drowning and you're worried about him upsetting the race? Where are your priorities?" That ended the discussion.
The wind increased until it was piping along at a brisk 15 knots, with stronger gusts. Boats began to capsize, some turning turtle, their crews being either too light or too tired to right them. The 13th A race was won by identical twins from Penn State, Carol and Mary Park, and the 14th was taken by the Navy crew of Karlson and Becky Olds after Coach Healy had shouted, "Hey, I've got your nails ready for dinner."
Jolly returned from that race to discover that Kolnick had given out completely, a victim of the wind, exhaustion and a dunking. The Florida State B team suffered two disqualifications when it was unable to enter the final races. On Monday evening, with only two races remaining in each division, Preston led Jolly by five points, and Rhode Island looked solid in the Bs.
The next morning a first and a second clinched the A title for Preston. The Princeton B team of Dorothy Bedford and Lucy Sutphen won the remaining races, but that wasn't enough to catch Becky Wood of Rhode Island. For Wood, who was fired from her summer job as a waitress for attending the championships, the trophy was nice compensation. Princeton won its fourth consecutive Nancy Fowle Trophy as the top school.
When it was all over, Preston, who plans to go on to get a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard, expressed the hope that there would soon be no necessity for a women's intercollegiate sailing championship.
But for now? "Well," she smiled shyly, "it's nice to win."