A local program teaches Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students and others the art of competitive racing
Just before 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in April, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students joined others from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., on the Anacostia River in the District as voices and music from nearby restaurants and Nationals Park wafted through the air.
The students, who are members of the DC Sail High School Racing Program, dropped their bulky duffel bags—stuffed with life jackets and other gear—onto the docks. They huddled around a whiteboard to review the day’s drills with their coaches. Then the teenagers rigged 16-foot sailboats and hit the water, where they wove around orange buoys as the coaches, in motorboats, blew their whistles and advised them on techniques.
“Depending on the weather, it’s anywhere from exhilarating when it’s really windy to relaxing when it’s nice,” says Nick Budington, 16, a rising junior along with his twin brother, Matt, on the sailing team at B-CC, one of several local schools that field squads through the DC Sail program. “It’s a break from all the stress of school, just being on the water.”
While rowing may be more well-known as a high school water sport in this area, sailing is growing in popularity among local students who relish the challenges of dealing with changing winds and maneuvering against competing boats during races.
“It’s like chess on the water,” says DC Sail coach Dan Levy, a former collegiate sailor who lives in the District. “It’s about skill, strategy and tactics.”
DC Sail, a community sailing program of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation, has run a coed high school racing program since 2005, with as many as 60 sailors participating during the fall and 80 in the spring. Participants whose schools don’t have sailing teams are placed on teams created by the program. In addition to those from B-CC, participants have included students from Landon School, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and Walt Whitman and Walter Johnson high schools in Bethesda; St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac; and Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.
Nick and Matt Budington have been sailing with their family since they were 3 years old, and racing competitively since they were 12. Most participants coming into the program have some experience, but beginners are welcome. The sailors practice for two hours on three afternoons each week during the 12-week fall and spring seasons and participate in regattas, which are held most weekends in the Mid-Atlantic region.
When Friso Grolleman, 17, joined the B-CC team as a freshman in 2017, there were only three members. By his junior year there were nine—in part because he recruited his sister, Anna, who is a year younger and the only girl on the team. “We have new energy, and now we are more competitive than we used to be, which is cool,” says Friso, a rising senior.
B-CC is one of about 100 active teams in the MidAtlantic Scholastic Sailing Association. The team has consistently scored in the top five at regattas this year, according to Levy, who coaches at DC Sail along with Abby White of Arlington, Virginia. Last fall, B-CC qualified for the Mid-Atlantic region fleet and team race championships in New York and New Jersey. In the past year, the team has been invited to several regattas, including events in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina. B-CC was the only DC Sail team invited to compete for the Founders Trophy at the National Invitational Tournament Regatta in Cleveland on Memorial Day weekend.
At the regattas, DC Sail members may compete in as many as 10 races a day. In fleet racing, pairs of sailors compete in boats representing several schools. In team racing, two schools each field three boats, which try to outmaneuver each other as they race. “It’s not just based on speed. There are plays,” Matt Budington says. “You are not only trying to race to the finish line, you are trying to mess up the other team.”
Boats may capsize, but the sailors are trained to handle such situations and injuries are rare, Levy says. Friso says he recovered quickly after suffering a concussion two years ago when a boom (the metal rod that holds the sail down) hit his head, knocking him into the Anacostia River during practice.
Nick Budington says he likes the focus required of sailing as well as the friends he’s made at regattas. “Sailing is something I love now, and something I can love all my life,” he says. “I can do this wherever.”