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Fair Winds for a Sailing Champ

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 12:59
A perfect way to end her college career
Maxine de Havenon, hiking out above, is to compete for the United States soon in an international 420s competition on Lake Garda in northern Italy.
Robert A. Migliaccio

Maxine de Havenon, who sailed out of the Breakwater Yacht Club with the East Hampton High-Ross School team beginning as a seventh grader, graduated recently from Brown University as a national champion, an honorable mention all-American, and as New England’s sportswoman of the year, an award voted on by the national qualifier’s teams, perhaps the most telling of all when it comes to this lively 21-year-old East Hamptoner.

During a conversation Friday at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, where she got her feet wet so to speak as a 6-year-old — “my dad would give me the tiller and point” — de Havenon said she’d always been comfortable on the water, “though all kids have a couple of temper tantrums while they’re learning.”

To get over the hump, she said, “you have to really love it — something has to click, there has to be that moment when you put everything together, when you know where the wind is coming from, and how to trim the sails, and how to make the boat go with the wind, how to get the wind and boat to work in tandem.”

Sean Elliott, who’s been at Breakwater in Sag Harbor for the better part of the past decade, was her coach at Devon, in its summer camp and in its racing camp, “from the age of 7 to 10. He had a great sense of how to make things fun while he was teaching you. We’d break up when he — he’s a pretty big guy — would squeeze himself into an Optimist, which is a 10-foot boat, with the kids.”

She was happy to become reacquainted with Elliott at Breakwater as a 13-year-old member of the aforementioned high school sailing team, and as a counselor in training, an apprenticeship she parlayed into a summer instructor’s position there throughout her high school and college years.    

While she got her love of sailing from Devon — “it’s the most beautiful place in the world, with a great tradition,” de Havenon said, looking over her shoulder from the deck to the club’s beach and the bay — Breakwater, “a nonprofit community yacht club which costs $145 a year to join, and where anyone, you don’t have to be a member, can come to the Wednesday evening races and get on a boat,” sets a particularly good example, she said, when asked how sailing’s appeal could be broadened.

Sailing was, indeed, she said, a wonderful, fulfilling lifelong sport. “It’s hard to explain . . . it’s physical, but it’s also very mental. You have to have a feel for the boat, for how the wind is filling the sails and for how fast you’re going in relation to how fast you should be going, so you can make those tiny, tiny adjustments that can make the difference. I love the mental, tactical aspect of it. They compare it to playing chess . . . you have to be looking very far ahead.”

She knew she wanted to sail in college, and that she wanted to sail at the highest level — “a big commitment. . . . We’d practice Tuesdays through Fridays from 2:30 to 6:30 — 35 hours a week, beginning in mid-February when it was snowing and the water was half iced over. Unless there was lightning and thunder or it was under 25 degrees, we were out there. Every weekend from September through November, and from the beginning of March to the end of May we were at regattas.”

Still, she managed to graduate with a 3.8 grade-point average as a political science major. “I love having a busy schedule . . . I thrive on it.”

“No,” she said with a laugh in reply to a question, “you can’t sail and do homework at the same time. That’s one reason I love having that break when my 30 teammates and I are out practicing in 15 boats — it’s the best feeling.”

She also knew going into college, de Havenon said, that she probably would be a crew member on John Mollicone’s highly competitive women’s and coed teams, “not the driver of the boat. . . . I was a skipper in high school, but Brown had outstanding female skippers, one of  them, Ragna Agerup, a Norwegian who sailed for Norway in the 2016 Olympics, was this year’s women’s college sailor of the year. So, I decided that I’d rather get to the highest level as a crew rather than be the third or fourth female skipper.”

“A crew has lots of jobs other than trimming the sails; she’s the tactician, which, as I’ve said, is something I love about sailing — the whole chess game thing.”

“I have confidence in my sailing ability,” said the two-time defending champion of Breakwater’s OZ Cup, in which only women are at the competing keelboats’ helms. “If I’m in charge, I take charge, but I also love being a cog in the wheel.”

Tactics came especially into play in team racing, “three-on-three racing,” she said, the kind of racing in which she’ll be involved soon on Italy’s Lake Garda as a member of the United States’ seven-sailor team.

“There’s fleet racing, where every boat is looking out for itself, there’s match racing, which is one on one, and then there’s team racing, three boats against three boats, two people per boat. We’ll be sailing 420s on Lake Garda [in the Laser Performance Collegiate Cup]. I’ll be going there for the second year in a row.”

Asked about Lake Garda, de Havenon said, “It’s in the very northern part of Italy, near the Austrian border. It’s very, very long and not that wide. There are mountains on both sides, 1,000 feet deep. The breeze fills from the south in the morning and it will funnel straight up. You get the most beautiful, most steady winds every day, the steadiest breezes in the world. . . .”

“The course? It’s upwind, across and down and back up. The races are only 10 minutes long, you combine your scores, and the team with the lowest score wins, so tactics come into play. Your team’s boats might be first, fifth, and sixth, say, but the team with the second, third, and fourth boats would be winning. The idea is to help your teammates; you’re not just racing for yourself, so, if you’re the first boat, you might give up your spot and move two of theirs out of the way. There are a lot of tactics in team racing, it’s the most tactical form of sailing.”

“I could talk about sailing for hours,” she said.

Winning the women’s college sailing nationals as well as the national semifinals had been, de Havenon concluded, “a perfect way to end my college career. We won the nationals on Friday — the last time Brown won was in 1998 [around the time she was born] — and I graduated on Saturday. It was pretty great. After winning the nationals we all went into the water, the whole team piles in and capsizes the boat. . . .”

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