Coco Claypoole was one of about 150 youth sailors to compete in the Sarasota Sailing Squadron’s 74th Annual Labor Day Regatta over the weekend. The 12-year-old Longboat Key resident has been sailing half her life, but this was Claypoole’s first time sailing in this regatta. To see what it takes to be a kid sailor, Longboat Observer reporter Lesley Dwyer followed the seventh grader around for the day.
Claypoole pulls out a sail more than twice her height and walks it over to her Optimist-class dinghy. The “Opti,” for short, is a beginners' sailboat for children under 15 years old. They're 7 feet, 9 inches long and rigged with a single sail, designed to be handled by a single sailor. Claypoole says right away that it’s made of fiberglass. “You can’t bang them into things or they break.” No bumper boats must be the first lesson in any youth sailing course.
The Opti is ready to race, so Claypoole uses the SailFlow app on her mom’s phone to check the local wind. She reports that the wind is supposed to go flat around 1 p.m. and explains what the numbers mean for race day. A three or above is workable, but a one or two causes delays.
“When I did the spring regatta here, we postponed the regatta for a while because we were just sitting in our boats,” Claypoole said.
Claypoole is front and center for the team meeting, led by coach Marcos Darcy of Sarasota Youth Sailing. It’s against the rules for Darcy to coach the kids on the course, so he guides them on weather and wind direction ahead of time. His advice for the day’s southerly wind: “Go towards the clouds, however, don’t let that override what you see on the race course.”
Claypoole stands out in head-to-toe pink as the team walks over to the pavilion to find a table and continue strategizing. “On my team, it’s all boys,” she said. Claypoole is not the only girl in the program; there are just more boys. Gender doesn’t put her at any disadvantage. She was the first on her team to have her Opti rigged.
Adults and youth sailors meet under the pavilion for the Skipper's Meeting, which welcomes the sailors and gives them an overview of what to expect from the day and courses. Some have come from around Florida to compete. It's also a chance to have a snack, hydrate and ask any questions before the launch.
It's time to launch. Claypoole pushes and pulls her Opti into the bay on a trailer.
The Opti is in the water, but Claypoole still has to get her daggerboard in place. "It goes in the slot and keeps you from sliding," she explained. A daggerboard stops the boat from going sideways when the wind is pushing on the sail.
With the daggerboard in place, Claypoole hoists herself into the Opti and sets sail for her first of six races over the next two days. Her weight on either side of the boat will keep it upright, though most sailors are prepared for the inevitable tip over.
Claypoole is off to meet up with her coach and teammates. They need to warm up on the water and check in for the race.
Claypoole has a new sail, which needed to be finely adjusted, it's far more than just a sheet. "When you get a sail, you trim it, tune it and figure out what adjustments need to be made," Darcy said.
Practice is over. Claypoole heads to the starting line with her team. This is her first time racing as part of the Red White and Blue Fleet. She graduated from the Green Fleet. Coaches can assist their sailors on Green fleet because they're beginners. Claypoole is on her own today.
The race should be starting, but there's barely any wind. The team huddles as they wait. Darcy can't coach them on the water, but he stays close by in a powerboat. "I'm on the water to make sure if there's a breakdown or a health issue, I can address it." Teams are eight children or less to keep the teacher/student ratio low.
After the first start was abandoned due to low winds, Claypoole is off to sail her first race solo. She placed 48th out of 57 and was happy with her performance. "I sailed pretty good for my first Red White and Blue regatta, I think."
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.