U.S. Sailing hopes Long Beach competition helps improve its Olympic results

Off the shores of Long Beach, where sails could catch wind, a white fleet clustered around orange buoys shaped like tetrahedrons.

A horn sounded. Once. Twice. A few more times. A flag went up, and the sailors prepared to take their marks on the waters that will host sailing events for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. Humans have sailed for eons, but the people from around the country who glided across the Pacific waves Friday for Day One of the Long Beach West Marine U.S. Open Sailing Series call the primitive activity their sport.

Shimmering streams of water trailed the variety of boats operated by mariners of all ages as they exited the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club and headed for the courses. To provide training waters for Olympic hopefuls, the series hosted three regattas this past winter off the Florida coast before resuming this summer in San Diego. San Francisco is the last stop after Long Beach.

“When we have 150 to 200 kids in a pool, we’re going to plop two out that can go get on the podium,” said Paul Cayard, executive director of U.S. Olympic Sailing and a 1984 Olympian.

Sailors spent their day on the water completing courses, at the will of the sun, wind and waves. They’re scored on a point system — the lower the score at the end of the day, the better the performance.

ILCAS, traditional sailboats operated by pulleys, made up the white fleet . Across the way, formula kites with foils mirroring an airplane wing painted the sky with vibrant colors as the athletes raced at high speeds. Windsurfers zipped by in a red blur. Meanwhile, coaches circled around to give them water or food.

Regardless of what an athlete sails, it’s all core, leg strength and physics, as they seek out dark spots in the water — the pockets of wind that launch them forward. U.S. Sailing wants to return to its status as a world leader. No American won a medal in any of the sailing classes last year in Tokyo.

Looking ahead to Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028, U.S. Sailing hopes to change that narrative along with others. Participating in the sport has made members more aware of the issues plaguing the ocean. When a sailor’s equipment hits kelp, or worse plastic, it’s like colliding with a concrete wall. Moving at such high speeds, formula kite surfers could lose a limb at the impact. They want to clarify the waters.

As the sailors returned to the water Saturday, Kilroy, a leader in sustainable real estate development and a sponsor of U.S. Sailing, hosted the Sea Change Festival beach clean-up to further their collective efforts to protect oceans. But U.S. Sailing realizes that, because of accessibility issues, many don’t know the water needs protection.

The series launched from a yacht club where people in the community park their boats and socialize. Sailing equipment costs thousands of dollars and venturing out on the water costs time. The mariners mostly share the same profile.

“It’s a rich, white person sport,” Cayard said. “How do we get everybody involved?”

U.S. Sailing started a community sailing program that exposes inner-city kids to the sport. Cayard said they’re working on outreach to locate youth outside of the typical sailing demographic.

Leo Boucher does not fit the sailing status quo as a biracial Black sailor, but he’s skilled at navigating the waters. The 22-year-old, who is from Annapolis, Md., and attends St. Mary’s College of Maryland, won the 2022 ILCA North American Championships in Canada earlier this month.

Boucher started sailing at eight when his parents put him in a summer camp. He began racing in subsequent years and has since become an emerging star. The Maryland native said he placed in the top three of each of his four circuits Friday. He loves the sport but is also aware of its homogeneity.

When asked how to increase diversity, Boucher responded, “Access to the water, however that may be.”

Boucher attributed his success to discipline. Much of sailing is mental, “like a constantly evolving chess game,” said Allison Chenard, U.S. Sailing media and communications coordinator and active sailor.

Sailors must watch the wind and the current moving beneath them. They must stay on their toes, figuratively and literally as they hold strong against the elements. They must be responsible.

That sense of danger and independence is what makes traversing the waves alluring.

“I think I started when I was 8,” Cayard said. “It’s adventurous to come out here. Even as an 8-year-old kid, you untie your boat in the dock, you gotta have the self-confidence to think that you can get the thing back to the dock.”

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