Rhode Island is a state of mariners. That’s not a subjective assertion, or romantic hyperbole. Wedded economically to what the sea offers up and prone to government-sanctioned “beach days” when the weather is too nice to be landlocked, there’s an enduring heartbeat for oceanic adventuring here. There’s an anchor on our state’s flag, for crying out loud.
Put another way, I imagine that children in southern California grow up surfing, and Colorado-sired progeny get skis and hiking boots in their baby baskets. In Rhode Island, we’re coastal people through and through. We take to the ocean as often as possible, sometimes with big-engine boats, but more respectably with only a sail or two and the elements to speed things along.
It is little surprise, then, that sailing can be a serious pursuit here. Serious enough for Olympic aspirations, even. For this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, native Rhode Islander Louisa Chafee has her heart set on winning a medal as part of the U.S. Sailing Team.
To get the obvious out of the way, yes, Louisa is Senator Lincoln Chafee’s daughter. The surname is unmissable. But let’s dismiss notions of a privileged legacy: Sailing is hard work at any level, and all the more so at a world-class one. It requires discipline and smarts. It beats you up. I spent all four of my university years on a sailing team in Providence, with black and blue shins as battle scars of racing and more than my fair share of alarming sunburns, screaming muscle aches and even mild hypothermia in the colder months. My team jokingly gauged the temperature on a given day by how purple my lips had turned, since in my position as crew, one primary job was to use my body as a ballast – plunging myself into the waves to balance out my boat. In summer months, my task was a supremely enjoyable one. In the early spring and fall, however, “punishing” would be the most fitting word for it.
When I spoke with Louisa about the extremity of sailing as a sport, and people’s converse misperception of it as the blithe pursuit of lazy rum-aholics, she took a balanced outlook. “If people don’t understand it, they don’t understand it,” she says, laughing. “But the work is real.” Her day begins early, when she rises to check the wind and conditions for the day, and makes her sailing plan with her skipper based on that. And in case you’re wondering, the 21st century has indeed made its mark on the sport, as weathervanes and seaman’s almanacs have been replaced by (you guessed it) smartphone apps.
As an explanatory aside: the U.S. Sailing Team isn’t a gaggle of people who sail one massive boat, but rather an assemblage of people who sail in different classes of boats, in various partnerships. Louisa’s class is a two-person catamaran, in which she stewards as crew with her teammate and skipper. “Crew” generally means being in the center of the boat, using your bodyweight to balance it out given what the waves and wind are doing at any given moment, as well as adjusting the sails and heeding the skipper’s directions. A crew’s best assets are lightness, agility and strength. To that end, Louisa spends hours daily in the gym to help her withstand the demands of her time on the water. Afterwards, she and her skipper clock in 2-4 hours daily of practice at sea, and then she returns home with enough energy to ravenously inhale dinner and then fall asleep.
Although thrilling and satisfying, it’s hardly the pleasure cruise (apologies for skewering romantic notions, folks) that most people envision when they think of sailing. At the same time, Louisa’s path to Olympic hopeful hasn’t been as long-term or cutthroat as one might expect. After all, every ESPN special about an Olympian paints the picture of a maniacally focused individual whose entire life revolves around mastering their sport, winning a medal and earning a cereal endorsement or two on the side.
In fact, Louisa’s path into world-class sailing has been a refreshingly relaxed one, in which she slowly discovered something she loved and decided to excel in it. Growing up in Rhode Island, her family regularly sailed, and as a child she attended a camp for the sport but felt only mild interest. She enjoyed it, and was adept enough to score the encouragement of coaches to go further, but wasn’t hooked. Not remotely. A horrid sunburn was enough to turn her away for years, as she recalled with a laugh.
Later, as a student at Brown University, Louisa fell into the school’s sailing team through natural gravitation. Soon thereafter she realized that she had been sailing for hours every day, debriefing with the team post-practice and competing in regattas on the weekends. “It was an ‘oh’ moment,” she relays. “It just dawned on me that I had been spending so much time at it, and that that must mean something. When I got to the point of graduation, I was trying to think of what my next steps were, what I wanted to do. And sailing turned out to be it.”
After some research, Louisa discovered the catamaran category of the U.S. sailing team, and chose that to pursue. It had two strong things in its favor: First, the class is uniquely co-ed. Back in the 1980s, Olympic sailing trended towards gender separation – men with men, women with women – apart from catamaran racing. And, in addition to the appeal of equal-opportunity sailing that the class offered, there was the thrill of speed and force in the boats themselves. “It’s just... fun,” Louisa exhales, when somewhat at a loss to explain her particular draw to them. But really, what other reason does one need?
It’s not all about athleticism and thrills, though. Beyond the daily training and worldwide competitions that help keep skills sharp, fundraising is a fairly substantial part of a contender’s job. To put it bluntly, sailing is neither a lucrative sport nor a cheap one. Boats cost money, as does the gear. There are travel expenses across the globe to compete, not to mention the price tag of daily living. Advertising deals don’t stack up for sailors in the same way that they do for sports like, say, track and field, and in training phases there is no such thing as a side job. Sponsorships cover some costs, but the lion’s share is raised independently.
Louisa has a long path ahead of her. There’s Rio this year, of course, but her sights are set on both this upcoming set of games as well as the next one. She has no plans for a single competition experience. Godspeed, and let’s pour her a rum drink or three when she brings home some metal.