East End junior sailing circuit in full swing

Sailboat racing is one of the few sports where boys and girls compete with each other. And every week on the East End, hundreds of young people are sailing and racing with the Peconic Gardiners Junior Sailing Association.

“Kids start as early as 7 years old and continue until they’re 18,” explained PGJSA secretary Bill Lenhert. “Our job is to organize and help facilitate the nine clubs on the North and South forks that are part of the PGJSA racing scene.” On the North Fork, Orient, Southold and New Suffolk have clubs; on the South Fork, it’s Shelter Island, Breakwater, Devon, Shinnecock and Southampton. Each club has two representatives on the PGJSA board.

“Youth sailing is one of the few sports — if not the only one — where boys and girls enjoy the fun of competing next to each other,” said Sarah Apgar, a board member at Old Cove Yacht Club in New Suffolk. “Gender lines disappear on the water and kids enjoy the camaraderie of sailing with their peers without being divided based on sex.”

Earlier this month, on a sunny, breezy Friday morning at Old Cove Yacht Club, roughly 60 eager boys and girls gathered on the lawn for a pre-regatta skipper meeting. They were reminded about the jetty near the shore and also to sail to the left of the shipwreck of “The Old Murphy,” a 100-foot sailing schooner that went down during the infamous 1938 hurricane and became an artificial reef.

Then the race officer described the triangle-shaped course, pointing to the round orange buoys in Great Peconic Bay.

“Greenfleeters,” the group of 7- and 8-year-old sailors, then got aboard their nine-foot “Optis,” or Optimist Dinghies. “Separated from the main fleet, they are on a shorter course closer to shore because this is their first regatta season,” Mr. Lenhert explained. “They’re just getting their feet wet, if you will.” 

Simultaneously, the “whitefleet,” consisting of 9- and 10-year-olds, the “bluefleet” 11- and 12-year olds and the 13-and-up “redfleet” group boarded their boats and set out for the waters just off the coast of Nassau Point, with safety boats and coaches in close proximity. 

Once all the boats were lined up, the blast of a horn signaled the beginning of the race. There was a good wind, but nothing strong enough to overpower those in the greenfleet. For the next hour, all the young sailors assessed the wind and current direction, and adjusted their sails and centerboards to give them the edge over their competitors. And they did this for five races that day. 

Sailing friends Emmett McCall of New Suffolk,10, and Parker Elliot of Mattituck, who is “9, but very close to 10,” said learning the sport together is where the fun lies. “We started out as ‘guppies’ and now we’re learning more,” said Parker. Emmett’s dad and grandfather also sailed out of Old Cove. Throughout the PGJSA circuit, many of the junior sailors have a multi-generational connection to the water. 

“Living in New York City during the week, this is a great way to connect with the community and make new friends,” said Ann Raimondi of Cutchogue, who has four children participating in the PGJSA. “What my kids have learned here is something they’ll have their whole lives.”

Each fleet consists of about 70% boys and 30% girls, but organizers say neither gender has a clear advantage when it comes to racing. It’s all about critical thinking, overall ability level and making tactical decisions in a competition that’s always changing when the boats are on the water.

Thirteen-year-old Molly Siewert of Shelter Island, who’s been sailing since age 7, said, “A lot of my friends are in [the PGJSA] and I love being on the water.”

The PGJSA’s 2023 Championship Regatta will be held Monday, Aug. 14, at Southampton Yacht Club.

“When summer approaches, my kids can’t wait to get into their sailboat,” Christina Minaudo of Mattituck said. “It’s sort of a family here. It’s much more than sailing.”