Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship preview

Team Lucy leading the fleet - Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship 2010
© Rolex / Dan Nerney
US Sailing’s Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship (IWKC), being hosted by Rochester Yacht Club (RYC), NY, starts on 28 August and concludes on 1 September.

Many of the women competing aboard the 36 teams – which represent 16 U.S. states and three foreign countries (Canada, Great Britain and The Netherlands) – are packing their pantries with non-perishable groceries, setting up auto reply on their emails, compiling lists for their loving families, and, with any leftover time, squeezing in a few last minute tacks and jibes. Then it’s off to RYC where four days of racing on Lake Ontario under the leadership of Principal Race Officer Hank Stuart will culminate with the crowning of a new champion on September 1. This biennial regatta, marking its 14th edition in 26 years, will offer these multi-tasking sailors the opportunity to experience top-level competition along with social activities designed to promote camaraderie. The Rolex Gala will conclude the event with the presentation of US Sailing’s Bengt Julin Trophy and a Rolex timepiece to the winning boat’s skipper.

Of the 36 teams competing, almost one third have never sailed in the regatta before including the Pacific Northwest team, skippered by Jaime Mack (White Salmon, Wash.), that will represent Hood River Yacht Club. 'This is the crème de la crème of regattas and we decided that if we were going to spend all of this time doing something then it had to be big,' said Mack who will be taking time from her job as a structural and mechanical engineer and leaving her three-year-old daughter for the longest time ever to compete with close friends Kass Bergstrom, Susan Sutherland and Kateri Lohr (all Hood River, Ore.).

'Between us we have seven kids between the ages of three and 16 and this [the Rolex IWKC] is the perfect reason to give ourselves permission to have fun,' added Mack, explaining that the team has yet to experience a night of practice where the breeze has been below 20 knots in the Columbia River Gorge. 'All of us are big into windsurfing and kite boarding, but the light air work will be much more of a challenge in Rochester,' said Mack. 'Nobody on the boat, except for me, has ever done a national or international competition so going to the East Coast will be a total change and a lot of fun. If we have a few good starts and all have a good time then we’ll be golden.'

Kellie Hawkins Schaffner (Avon Lake, Ohio) first competed in the Rolex IWKC in 2001 and is back this year after taking off the last two events to balance a busy professional life while also raising a daughter and son. Schaffner will race with an all-Ohio crew that is completely new to the regatta: Mindy Sminchak (Euclid), Meredith Dreshar (Westlake) and Hilary DiCenzi (Lakewood).

'In 2003 I was about four months pregnant with my son, and in 2005 three of us on the boat were pregnant. This year a few of us will be missing our children’s first day of school to be here,' said Schaffner whose team has been practicing hard all season while juggling busy schedules. 'It’s such a wonderful opportunity and I like sailing against other women and with women. It adds a different angle, and the Rolex-sponsored events do a great job of putting together a great competition.'

Kathy Parks and crew on Sundog rounding the mark on day one - Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship 2010
© Rolex / Dan Nerney

Returning for her sixth Rolex Women’s is Kathy Parks (Shady Side, Md.). 'I crewed for a friend in 2001 and had such a great time that I bought my J/22 right after,' said Parks. She has been driving ever since and returns this year with Lisa Simpkins, who sailed with her in 2009, plus new additions Sarah Phelps and Regan Weaver (all Annapolis, Md.).

'We’re all busy professionals so when it comes to practice it has been very difficult and we must be strict with our calendar,' explained Parks, an Account Executive at State Farm who manages 26 agents across southern Maryland. 'In sailing I’m mid-fleet and in business I’m on top. It is one thing for me to motivate and coach my agents, but out on the water it is humbling and I have to remember to stay focused, not give up and have confidence. I really try to have a great team spirit out there. We are treating this like a vacation, but all of us love that sense of accomplishment and doing well. We’re looking forward to a really great competition and hope to be close to the strong sailors and learn from them.'

There will be plenty to learn with many world-renown sailors returning to the event, including all three podium finishers from 2009: defending champions Anna Tunnicliffe (Plantation, Fla.), Molly O’Bryan Vandemoer (Stanford, Calif.), Liz Bower (Rochester, N.Y.) and Debbie Capozzi (Bayport, N.Y.); hometown team and second-place finisher Cory Sertl (Rochester) with Amy Moran (Pittsford), Annemarie Cook (Rochester) and Jane Mastrandrea (Webster); and Carol Cronin (Jamestown, R.I.) with Margaret Podlich (Severna Park, Md.), Kim Couranz (Annapolis, Md.) and new addition Karina Vogen Shelton (Watsonville, Calif.).

Not only will all four corners of the U.S. be represented with teams coming from northern Massachusetts down to the tip of Florida and out west from Washington state to southern California, but also Canada with four teams and The Netherlands with the return of the sixth-place finishers from the 2009 Rolex IWKC. The Netherlands team has been sailing together for the past five years and skipper Marike Poulie (Amsterdam), an international attorney, first sailed the Rolex IWKC in 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island. Since then she has sailed many J/22 events with Bregje Lodewikus (Haarlem), Renske Verbeek (Amsterdam) and Leontien Benders (Hilversum).

The 2011 Rolex IWKC begins with registration, measurement and practice racing, followed by the official start of the championship: the Opening Ceremonies at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 28. The first warning signal for racing each day will be given at 10:00 a.m., with daily awards and social events taking place at the conclusion of racing each day.

Rolex International Womens Keelboat Championship website