Weathering the Storm: the UBC Sailing team is gearing up for a new season

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and rain from the incoming storm has been hitting the streets of Vancouver since mid-morning. With winds predicted at up to 35 kilometres per hour and rain pelting the city, most people are settling in for a cozy night of refuge.

Yet, at Jericho Sailing Centre, a quartet of students is gathering for an evening of practice. A rare group that welcomes the weather, the UBC Thunderbird Sailing Team — a Thunderbird Sports Club affiliated with the UBC Sailing Club — is heading out to take on the white caps and winds of Burrard Inlet.

Led by coach Marie-Pier Alary, teammates Elmeri Hakkinen, Hanno Kite-Powell, Georg Lauritsen and Stephanie Stearman make up four of the five students representing UBC at the Canadian Intercollegiate Sailing Association (CICSA) National Championships later this month in Kingston, Ontario, alongside teammate Gregory Woollgar. With that responsibility comes practices, rain or downpour.

As the four start to prep their two flying juniors — 13-foot-long, two person sailboats — in the marina, the storm begins to die down. They check each sailboat meticulously, making sure everything from the tiller to the mast is secure, all the while chatting amongst themselves until Alary ushers them out towards the water. Above, the clouds are starting to part slowly.

They make their way down the launch, easing the boats into the water. Then, just as the pairs push off from the launch, the incredible happens — the rain stops.

Time to practice.

Established as a race team in the 1950s and later morphed into a school club, the UBC Sailing Club has a long history at the university. They relaxed back into a more recreational team from the 1970s to the turn of the century, but picked up the pace again since 2009, when they re-established the competitive racing team — the UBC Thunderbird Sailing Team.

Last season, the team placed first in the Western Canada Cup and second at the Canadian Nationals. This year, with some fresh blood adding to the team dynamic, UBC is aiming to take the top spot at nationals ahead of their toughest competition — Queen’s University’s varsity sailing team. The team is the only varsity sailing team in Canada and have won the last three championships.

“Last year it was very, very close for us, bringing home gold for UBC, so ultimately that’s our goal in our preparations [for this year],” said club lead Ashley-Belle Burns.

Having raced on Lake Ontario for several national events, team veteran Gregory Woollgar said the team has learned to sail in the different conditions out east. Putting that knowledge to good use, the team has started to practice for that different style of sailing here at home, in preparation for this year’s championships coming up at the end of October.

“They sail a different boat for that race, so … we’ve had to sail out of Royal Vancouver Yacht Club to practice on that boat,” said Woollgar. “I think it’s going really well … It’s a lot breezier [in Kingston] and a lot more waves than we get here, so we’re just getting ready for that kind of game.”

The team also has a newcomer joining their ranks — first-year student Georg Lauritsen. Though he is joining a group that has been sailing together for years, he is comfortable and confident with his new crew. 

“I think we’ve been pretty solid with our preparations so far,” he said. “We’ve fit in extra practices … in order to get to know each other better and work [out] the dynamics of how we sail as teams.”

Even so, the crew faces several challenges as a travelling non-varsity team. Although they receive a grant from UBC Athletics and Recreation to cover some of the costs to participate in nationals, it is still a hefty fee to send a crew to the other side of the country. What’s more, the team has an incredibly tight deadline between settling on a crew and going to the championships.

“[Nationals are] super far away. It’s been in Kingston the past five years at least — well no, I think it was Montreal one year — but it’s always a big burden for us to travel there,” said Burns.

“Second, it’s in October, so our team starts September and it’s kind of like you have a month to see how your team is, and then you pick people, and then they really only have a month … It’s not a huge amount of time considering the team is new, and you’re building teams and partners.”

The windier location in Kingston is another challenge for the crew.

“It’s very physically demanding, but we’ve had some gym sessions which have been good,” said Woollgar.

“I think we have high expectations going for our team — we’ve had a few good years going, but then with sailing, anything can change in a moment. The weather can change, the race can change, the boats can break, so you have to be prepared for anything. Especially going with these high expectations, to have anything less than what we expect is a little bit scary.”

Yet, all these challenges don’t seem to have fazed the racing team. In fact, the whirlwind of hurdles seems to have only added fuel to their fire.

“I’m not really afraid. I’m more excited to see how [other teams] sail — what the level is at,” said Lauritsen . “If the weather will be as they say, I feel like it’ll be fun.”

Past the national championships, Thunderbird Sailing Team has been invited to — and is hoping to attend — the EDHEC Sailing Cup in France this coming March. The event, according to Burns, is one of the largest student keelboat offshore races in the world, with 165 schools representing 23 nations worldwide. Should they find the funding or raise enough money, the team will send five to seven athletes to compete.