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Will Olympic mettle translate into success for first-time Rolex Invitational Cup competitors?

by Stuart Streuli 7 Sep 2017 20:26 BST 9-16 September 2017
Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup © Stuart Streuli / NYYC

If there's one common thread that binds all United States yacht clubs — if not yacht clubs the world over — it's an intense and unflagging pride in their home-grown success stories. So it's no surprise that two of the brightest sailing talents to ever emerge from Southern Yacht Club and Shelter Island Yacht Club will be calling the shots when their teams line up on Tuesday, September 12, for each club's first attempt at the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup.

The fifth edition of the biennial Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup will take place September 9 to 16 at the New York Yacht Club Harbour Court, in Newport, R.I. Amateur sailors representing 14 yacht clubs from around the globe will converge on Newport to race in the ultimate one-design, big-boat competition. The boats and sails are provided and the rig tune is standardized across the fleet. The Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup is sponsored by Rolex, Porsche, Nautor's Swan, AIG and Helly Hansen and will be broadcast live via the web.

John Lovell and Amanda Clark were teammates on the U.S. Sailing Team that competed in the 2008 Olympics in Qingdao, China. Lovell, of New Orleans and Southern Yacht Club, was competing in his fourth and final Olympic regatta in the Tornado class, having won silver in 2004 in Athens, Greece. Clark, a 470 skipper and a native of Shelter Island, N.Y., was competing in her first Olympics. She would also sail in the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth, England. After retiring from Olympic competition, both sailors returned to their respective hometowns to raise families and pursue non-sailing careers.

Finding enjoyment in their chosen sport after an Olympic career is a challenge for many athletes. But sailors do it better than most. Clark is excited to get back into international competition.

"I am really looking forward to racing with my Shelter Island Yacht Club in the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup," said Clark. "The club and its members did so much for supporting my Olympic sailing endeavours, I am honoured give back and get involved."

This devotion to the home town club is shared by Paul McDowell, Shelter Island Yacht Club's helmsman. Over the past few years, he's sailed across the Atlantic, up and down the East Coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean as one of the owners of the successful Prospector syndicate.

"It's hard to turn this invitation down," McDowell said. "The Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup is probably the premier Corinthian regatta in the world, and I was anxious to be a part of our team and help in any way I can. We have been sailing Prospector at a very high level, both inshore and offshore, but the Rolex Invitational Cup gives me the chance to compete in a level one-design format against some of the world's best Corinthian sailors. It's an absolute honour for our club to be invited, and an honour for me to be the helmsman."

Lovell has been a regular visitor to Harbour Court this summer. He sailed with the Southern Yacht Club team in July's Swan 42 Nationals and also skippered for Southern's entry in the Hinman Masters Team Race in August.

"I thoroughly enjoy all levels of racing," says Lovell. "I have always been honoured to represent Southern Yacht Club, and I am happy that [skipper Marcus Eagan] asked me to race with the team."

Eagan earned Southern Yacht Club's berth in the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup by winning the 2016 Resolute Cup, which is held on alternate years and provides a pathway for U.S. yacht clubs to qualify for the Rolex Invitational Cup. Eagan, sailing with his brother Andrew and Jackson Benvenutti, was dominant, winning six of nine races in the championship series and finishing 28 points ahead of second place.

The current challenge for Southern Yacht Club is to translate Eagan's tremendous touch in small, planing dinghies—he was second in the 2013 Melges 20 World Championship—to the more technical and significantly heavier Swan 42.

"I have a great crew that is holding my hand and providing feedback to help me adjust to a different style of sailing," said Eagan. "I guess I've changed [my sailing style] since in small boats I'm used to looking around and providing feedback to the tactician. In the Swan, I'm focused on boat speed and controlling momentum."

The Southern Yacht Club team has committed fully—or at least as fully as a crew of Corinthian sailors can and still keep their respective day jobs—to the effort. The club purchased a Swan 42 and raced in the Annual Regatta presented by Rolex and the Swan 42 National Championships, in addition to numerous days of practice.

The combination of this preparation, Eagan's skill as a helmsman and Lovell's experience in big regattas could prove quite formidable. But the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup is a tricky animal, and has proven elusive for first-time competitors.

"The team is committed and dedicated to the goal, but since we are all Corinthians our time on the boat has been restricted due to many other work and family commitments," said Eagan. "As a team I wish we had more time on the boat, but I think we took advantage of every opportunity to get on the water and improve."

Lovell was asked what advice he might have for his teammates who hadn't competed on this level previously. His response was just what you'd expect from a native of The Big Easy.

"First, enjoy the event," he said. "Second, try not to think too much about all of the distractions and treat the racing as if it were a regular weekend event."

Like Southern Yacht Club, the team from Shelter Island Yacht Club, which is located on the eponymous island between the North and South Forks of Eastern Long Island, has enjoyed access to a Swan 42 during the build up to the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup. However, as of the Swan 42 National Championships in July, the club was still sorting out who would do what position. Clark, for one, isn't concerned that this will negatively impact their performance.

"We've all raced with each other in different events," she said. "I am not worried about our ability to work together."

Shelter Island Yacht Club is one of the smallest clubs, if not the smallest, to ever challenge for the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup. But buoyed by the experience of Clark, McDowell and others who have sailed at the top levels of the sport, they won't be cowed.

"I sort of like the David and Goliath aspect to being the smallest club," says McDowell. "We have some really terrific sailors, and this gives us a chance to show that on a larger stage. The club membership has been tremendously supportive of the effort, with many sailors volunteering to be a part of the team both on and off the water. The membership has also stepped up financially to help get us to the starting line."

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