The first time Derek Pickell sailed on his own, he said he felt scared. He doesn't remember if he was 5 or 6 at the time, but he will never forget that first day in an eight-foot sailboat in Newport Harbor.
"I had to make decisions and steer around other boats," Pickell said. "I was all alone."
Ten years later, Pickell found himself by himself, in a same sized boat, just in another location. This time, he felt much better after his ride ended.
Pickell sailed to victory at the Junior Sabot National Championship gold fleet event in San Diego on Wednesday. The top prize had eluded Pickell in his previous six trips to junior nationals.
He literally came back to claim it. To think, most sailors at this stage of his career — Pickell is an incoming sophomore at Corona del Mar High — move on from competing in sabot races because they outgrow the boat, Pickell returned one more time to junior nationals.
Pickell's mother, Sarah, said she's glad her 5-foot-8, 125-pound son made it back.
Pickell, racing for the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, based in Corona del Mar, rallied on the final day of the three-day event to overtake Joseph Hou of Newport Harbor Yacht Club. Beating someone from a rival yacht club proved to be an added bonus for Pickell.
"He's always one of the top competitors," said Pickell, adding that Hou won the Junior Sabot National Championship gold medal a couple of years ago.
Hou appeared on his way to another gold medal on the last day of the event. He went into it in first place, ahead of Pickell.
Hou's first-place showing in the fifth race, combined with his second- and third-place finishes in the first and second races, respectively, helped him distance himself from the rest of the 34 competitors.
One sailor planned to catch Hou, though.
Not only did Pickell have to win the event's sixth and final race, but he also had to have Hou finish no better than eighth to pull off the dramatic comeback. Pickell, always thinking ahead, believed a come-from-behind win was possible, knowing Hou had placed outside of the top 10 in his third and fourth races.
Pickell saved his best race for last, taking the sixth race. After doing so, he, along with Cameron MacLaren and Mark Gaudio, his Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club coaches, and his family played the waiting game.
"We didn't know how Joseph was doing," Sarah said. "It was a nail-biting experience. We were all watching from the beach. I felt like throwing up."
Each time a sailor finished, and it wasn't Hou, Sarah's nervousness grew. When Hou wasn't one of the next seven sailors, she celebrated with Pickell and the rest of the family and coaches.
"I wound up beating him by 10 boats," said Pickell, referring to Hou's 11th-place showing in the sixth race, giving Pickell a 24-28 edge. "During the last race of nationals, I was still seven points out of first, so I spent the entire race in my bubble trying to sail rationally and intelligently. It wasn't until the finish when I looked back and saw my competitors far behind in the fleet. At that moment, after seven years of competing in nationals, it felt like a large weight just got lifted off my shoulders, a feeling composed of relief and content."
The feeling was nothing like Pickell's first as a kid in an eight-foot sailboat.