Newport Harbor skipper Troy Treaccar was moments away from finishing a national championship high school sailing race last week when he stopped his boat dead in the water.
The sail on the 14-foot Collegiate Flying Junior flapped in the light late-afternoon breeze off Coronado in San Diego Bay. Treaccar and his crewperson, Kassy Thompson, were yards away from the finish line, but made no effort to cross.
They were waiting to set the sailing equivalent of a screen in basketball, holding position to prevent an opponent from finishing before two other Newport Harbor boats.
The strategy worked. The skipper from St. George's School in Newport, R.I., decided to cut between the Newport Harbor boat and the buoy--called the mark--that defined one end of the finish line. There wasn't enough room and the boats collided.
"It's called a mark trap," explained Treaccar, a junior. "And this guy cruised on in there. I can't blame him though. It's either that or go around me and lose anyway.
"It was kind of a last-gasp effort."
Judges at first ruled Treaccar had committed an infraction, but at a post-race protest hearing, he was found to have had the right of way over the St. George's boat skippered by Curtis Flood.
Moments later, Newport Harbor sailors were pushing each other into the water to celebrate winning the Baker Trophy, which goes to the nation's best high school team sailors.
It took quick thinking by Treaccar to pull out the victory, but the tactic was grounded in hours of preparation. He and his teammates are products of a program that is among the best in the United States.
Newport Harbor has won six national titles, five since 1993. Last year, the school won the Mallory Trophy regatta, the fleet racing national championship, and finished as runners-up for the Baker Trophy. In the summer of 1997, the team finished third at the world championships in England.
This year, the Mallory and Baker finishes were reversed, but Newport Harbor's Baker Trophy victory was convincing. The team was undefeated in 15 races.
Of course, that Newport Harbor is a sailing power shouldn't surprise anyone. The school's nickname, after all, is the Sailors , and the school is minutes away from one of the most active marinas on the West Coast.
But in the beginning, high school sailing at Newport Harbor wasn't as natural a fit as one might expect, said Bill Wakeman, the team's founding coach.
Wakeman, a Newport Harbor graduate, got involved in high school sailing in the mid-1960s when he was sailing for Long Beach State and living at the Balboa Yacht Club. He was asked by Dave Ullman, a Newport Harbor student who in 1996 was named the U.S. yachtsman of the year, and Kim Desenberg of Corona del Mar to organize some races between the schools. He agreed and although the competition was informal, it became "quite a rivalry," Wakeman said.
In 1972, Wakeman was hired as an English teacher at Newport Harbor and with the help of Judy Franco, then the PTA president and now a Newport-Mesa School Board member, persuaded the school to sanction the sport.
The athletic administration went along reluctantly, Wakeman said, putting the coed sport under the jurisdiction of the girls' physical education department.
"Athletic directors have a tendency not to understand any sport that doesn't involve a ball," Wakeman said, "especially back then."
But blessed with a steady supply of sailors from youth programs at local yacht clubs, the Sailor program soon was thriving.
Interscholastic sailing got its start in 1930 in Greenwich, Conn., and New England prep schools have been dominant from the beginning. Currently more than 200 high schools nationwide have active sailing teams, about 25 in Southern California.
In Orange County, Corona del Mar also has a consistently strong team--the Sea Kings won national titles in 1987 and 1992. Dana Hills, Foothill and Mater Dei were the only other Orange County schools with active teams in 1998.
With its 25-member team, Newport Harbor dwarfs many of the powerful eastern teams. Such a large talent pool means the Sailors have plenty of opportunity to hone their skills in practice.
It also means competition is fierce for spots in the boats, of which there were only six (with three alternates) for the Baker Trophy regatta.
"The competition, of course, just makes everyone better," Treaccar said. "If you don't improve you're going to get left behind."
And the Newport Harbor program comes out ahead. It stays strong because of strong coaching and support from parents. Wakeman relinquished his on-the-water responsibilities in 1991, giving way to two former UC Irvine standouts, Jaime Malm, from 1992 to '97, and Eric Knopf, the current coach.
Wakeman, who now teaches at Costa Mesa High, remains the volunteer advisor and fund raisers are held to pay Knopf's salary. Money raised also subsidizes travel costs, paying for about half of those expenses. Parents must cover the remainder.
That leaves the students to concentrate on sailing, which has to be one of the most enjoyable ways to earn a varsity letter. But it's no easy cruise.
"We have people show up to our practices occasionally trying to get out of PE by taking up an easy sport like sailing," Treaccar said. "The only thing to say about it is, yeah, sailing isn't as physical as football or some other sports, but it challenges you mentally more than most.
"My coach [Wakeman] puts it best. He says it's like a chess game but the pieces are moving all at once and the board is always changing."
There are physical demands as well. During regattas, it's basically eight hours of sit-ups on the water, hiking--hanging out over the side of the boat--to prevent the boats from tipping.
When the weather is nasty, it can be tougher. At the fleet racing national championships on the Thames River in Connecticut in early May, it was rainy and windy, blowing consistently in the 20-knot range. Heavy rains upstream contributed to a five-knot flood tide.
Though the harsh conditions were unfamiliar, Newport Harbor finished second to Milton (Mass.) Academy.
Despite their success, Newport Harbor's sailors face an uphill battle explaining their sport to classmates. If the football or volleyball team wins a championship, no one has to ask what it's all about.
"People are clueless about sailing," Newport Harbor senior Cryssa Byers said.
Misconceptions range from people thinking they race for days over the open ocean or on giant America's Cup-style yachts to believing being on the sailing team is a relaxing experience.
"I took one of my friends sailing," senior Alison Hill said, "and all he was doing was lounging and trying to work on his tan.
"I wish my friends could see me sailing in competition. You are a totally different person, especially being a crew. You have to be so subservient to the skipper."
However, the benefits of joining the team are abundant. It teaches you to think for yourself, for one. "It's a very cerebral sport," Wakeman said, "that takes individual initiative, teamwork and encourages networking, which are all things that big business is looking for."
Besides, what other high school team gets to compete all over the country or spent time the last two summers in England? Lasting friendships are formed with sailors on opposing teams, sometimes making the first year of college a time for a reunion.
Byers has a friend from another team who will join her at Boston College next fall and knows two others who will be at nearby Harvard. "It's far away," she said, "but it's not like I'm going to be by myself."
High school sailing is modeled after collegiate sailing with most competition among two-person boats. There are two main categories, fleet racing, which is like a swim meet, the first boat to complete the course wins, and team racing, which is more like a cross-country running meet, rewarding the team that works together best.
This Newport Harbor team proved especially adept at team racing at the national championship in San Diego Bay. Brian Bissell and Hill, Scott Hogan and Byers and Treaccar and Thompson and alternates Gray Dougherty, James McCormick and Tyler Haskell didn't lose in 15 races.
The object is to win a match race over a triangular course against another three-boat team. For instance, a first, second and third sweep would give a team six points and an easy victory. Ten points (second, third and fourth is nine points, for instance) or better is a winning combination.
Traditional sailing rules on rights of way apply, and violations are called on the course--the offending boat having to complete a 360 degree turn as a penalty. Within the rules, there are plenty of tactics to spring on the competition.
"All the rules get stretched to their limits," said Knopf, an Edison High graduate who took up sailing at Orange Coast College before transferring to UCI. "It's like basketball. Basketball is supposed to be a noncontact sport but when Shaq plays there's definitely some contact in there."
Contact is definitely penalized in sailing, but short of that.. . .
"You are continuously tying to screw the other guy up," Bissell said, "and put your team ahead."
In the final race against St. George's, Newport Harbor went around the final mark in second, third and fourth place. Treaccar and Thompson, in fourth, took a leftward angle toward the finish, the other Newport Harbor boats, in second and third, went right. Then the wind shifted and boats on the left gained enough speed that Treaccar and Thompson moved into second.
One of the crewperson's duties is to watch what is developing on the course, and Thompson determined that the St. George's boat about 20 boat lengths behind them would beat the other two Newport Harbor boats to the finish and therefore win the race.
"She turned to me and said, 'We'd better do something, now ," Treaccar said. "And I agreed."
That's when Treaccar set the trap that clinched the title and provided some finish-line fireworks.
"It's a pretty big adrenaline rush when it's that close," said Bissell, who will sail for Georgetown next year. "The guy he collided with I'm going to school with next year so we'll have some stuff to talk about."