Prieto navigates rough waters for national title

COURTESY PHOTO | Southold High School senior Gary Prieto handled rough waters in Newport, R.I., well enough to win a national championship in the Laser Radial Rig.

One of the things that separates sailing from other sports is that the “playing field” is constantly changing. When the winds pick up, the current changes. Sails and strategy need to be adjusted. And then, just like that, things can calm down again.

An experienced sailor knows how to handle those situations.

Perhaps for some sailors from more southern climes, the cold, windy weather on Nov. 3, the second and final day of the Interscholastic Sailing Association High School Singlehanded Championship in Newport, R.I., was something they had never encountered before.

Not so, for Gary Prieto.

Prieto, 18, a Southold High School senior and a member of the Old Cove Yacht Club in New Suffolk, has been sailing competitively since he was 7 years old. Living in the northeast, he was no stranger to the conditions he encountered in Newport Harbor that day.

“I’ve sailed in some pretty cold regattas,” he said. “You have to understand that it’s going to be a long day. It’s going to be cold. It’s going to be just trying physically. It’s going to be tough.”

Following light conditions on the first day, with winds at about five knots, Day 2 saw winds reach about 18 knots, and Prieto was ready for them. He did a good enough job of keeping his boat flat upwind to win his first major regatta.

Prieto won three races and took second in another on the second day to help him finish first in the Laser Radial Rig. He tied Andrew Puopolo of Stuyvesant High School with 48 points, but won on a tiebreaker. Prieto’s three first-place finishes in the 10-race regatta gave him the edge over Puopolo, who had two firsts.

“This is probably my greatest achievement in sailing so far,” Prieto said. “I was just so relieved that I had finally won a major regatta. I felt that coming off last year’s collapse, sort of, I didn’t want to do that again. There’s nothing worse than getting second.”

This was Prieto’s fourth straight appearance in the national championship. He finished 12th as a freshman, fifth as a sophomore and second as a junior before winning this year.

“That was always the goal, to keep improving and to win it,” he said.

That second-place showing last year still irks him. Prieto said he held the lead before being passed in the final race and seeing Malcolm Lamphere of Lake Forest High School (Ill.) grab the title with 84 points to Prieto’s 95.

“I think last year’s experience really helped me a lot this year,” said Prieto.

Sailing in calm conditions on Nov. 2, Prieto took a 10th, a fourth and a pair of ninths, but he didn’t panic. After starting the second day with a sixth, he ran off three straight firsts, a second and then a fifth to top things off.

“I kind of got on a hot streak,” he said. “I think that was because I remained patient.”

Referring to the 10th race, which Puopolo won, Prieto said, “It was kind of nerve-wracking because he sailed like a perfect race.”

In addition to receiving a plaque and a medal for his achievement, Prieto’s name, as well as that of Southold High School, will be engraved on the perpetual Cressy Trophy.

Prieto will compete in an international regatta in February, the Laser Midwinter Championships in Clearwater, Fla.

Prieto said he wants to sail in college. In September he was accepted by the United States Naval Academy, but he hasn’t committed to a college yet.

When the time comes for him to head off to college, he will have quite a memory from Rhode Island to take with him.

Prieto’s father, Richard, was with him in Newport for the regatta and got to experience his son’s triumph firsthand. While on the way home, Gary Prieto made the call to tell his mother, Julia, the news. He said, “That was probably the happiest ride home I ever had.”

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