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By New York Yacht Club | Photos: Ian Macinni, Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy (2)
Vertically challenged and pushing 50, Mark Liebel (above, right) knew that he wasn’t ideally suited to crew in the dynamic VX One, a sporty 19-foot keelboat that planes easily downwind and can require maximum hiking leverage upwind in heavy conditions. But a few years ago he bought one anyway, and named it Another Bad Idea.
The reality of the situation has proven to be completely the opposite. Liebel purchased the boat hoping his now 18-year-old daughter Kaitlyn (above, center), who also sails 420s and Nacra 15 catamarans, would continue to race with him.
“The reason I bought the boat was so she could drive,” says Liebel of Bradenton, Fla. “Without a doubt, she’s a better driver. I like calling tactics.”
In two previous regattas in Newport this summer, the father-daughter combo finished first and eighth. This week, they will be among 15 VX One teams eyeing the top of the podium at Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex.
The New York Yacht Club’s Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex was first run in 1998, and takes place this year from July 13 to 16 out of the New York Yacht Club Harbour Court, in Newport. R.I. The biennial regatta, run at the apex of the summer sailing season, has established itself as one of the premier summer race weeks in the Northeast thanks to the attractive combination of great racing conditions off Newport and the superlative shoreside hospitality at the Club’s waterfront Clubhouse overlooking Newport Harbor. Partners for the 2022 edition of Race Week at Newport include presenting sponsor Rolex and regatta sponsors Hammetts Hotel, Safe Harbor Marinas and Helly Hansen.
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Like many talented young sailors, Kaitlyn Liebel learned the sport at the feet of her dad, crewing on a J/24. She then moved through the youth sailing progression, Optis to 420s, and plans to sail for Jacksonville University this fall. But she hasn’t outgrown the thrill of sailing with her original sailing mentor. And the VX One has proven to be the perfect vehicle for efficient family bonding.
“Dad bought the boat a few years ago, he wanted something where we could travel pretty easily, go to a lot of different regattas and not have to put together a lot of crew,” she says. “The boat’s a lot of fun to sail, it’s so versatile. Off the water there’s a really good fleet bond.”
The VX One is sailed with either two or three crew. Together, the Liebels would be a little light, so they typically sail with a third crew. This could create a challenging dynamic, but Kaitlyn Liebel is wise beyond her years in that regard.
“Sailing with family is very different than sailing with friends or teammates,” she says. “There are some things you can say to family members that you can’t say to teammates. But there are definitely things you can say to teammates that you can’t say to your dad.”
When asked about the team’s eighth-place finish, of 22 boats, in last weekend’s Newport Regatta, the young skipper was unafraid to call it as she sees it.
“It wasn’t exactly where we expected to be,” she says, “We had quite a few different mistakes, but we know what the mistakes were and we know why we ended up in eighth as opposed to higher up on the podium.”
When asked about the secrets to success for this coming week, Kaitlyn Liebel didn’t hesitate: “Paying more attention to our different tactical decisions, definitely body placement in the boat since it will be pretty light, and paying a lot more attention to the what the fleet is doing and fleet tactics as opposed to focusing on wind-based tactics.”
Joseph Zaladonis, 21, a rising first-class at the U.S. Naval Academy took a much different route to a skipper’s position at the 13th edition of the New York Yacht Club’s Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex. In fact, he was the age Kaitlyn Liebel is now when he first starting racing.
“I really didn’t sail at all before the Academy,” says Zaldonis (far left). “I grew up powerboating; just showed up in Annapolis and knew I wanted to be around the water. I never looked back. No matter how bad a day is, I’m going out on the water every day and I’m sailing big boats that I hope to sail on for the rest of my life.”
This week, Zaladonis will skipper CHAOS, one of the Naval Academy’s two entries in Race Week at Newport. Both are Farr 40s competing in ORC D. The link between the Club and the Naval Academy goes back to 1845. In modern times, Naval Academy yachts have been regular participants in Club regattas.
“The Offshore Sailing Team is the only varsity sports team at the Naval Academy that serves as a professional development program,” says Jahn Tihansky, the team’s head coach. “Sports teams do work on professional development and leadership naturally, but sailing is very closely aligned with the mission of the Navy. You’re putting a small unit together and building the skills necessary to be effective leaders. It’s one thing to do it on a playing field, it’s another thing on the ocean where the variables are infinite and not in anyone’s control. Learning how to effectively manage risk is a critical skill that is naturally developed in the marine environment.”
Race Week is the first component of a one-month block of sailing and racing for these two crews, who will be fulfilling an Academy graduation requirement in the process. It’s also the first opportunity for Zaladonis and 1/C Patrick Michalik, the skipper on Zephyr, to lead their respective crews in a major regatta.
“I can’t speak highly enough of our offshore program,” says Zaladonis. “I came in and I was mastman and knew nothing, I was just absorbing. Then I wound up being a helm and learning and now I’m skipper/tactician and I drove for all of our collegiate regattas. It’s the best leadership training at at the Academy, by far.”
Earlier this spring, Zaladonis wrote down his goals for the summer, including a top-two finish at Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex. As he’s grown into the skipper’s role, however, his perspective has shifted subtly. He sees among his crew Midshipmen who remind him of himself four years ago, green but eager to learn.
“I care that everybody learns his or her position well and we can get around the course competently,” he says. “We’re shooting for top 3, but the main thing we’re looking for is can we get around the course well and compete honorably.”
Oh, and, beat the other Navy boat.
“We haven’t raced yet, except for little things in the [Chesapeake] Bay, so things are still friendly between the two boats,” says Zaladonis. “But as always happens between siblings, once you get on the racecourse, it’s going to be competitive. The teams are pretty even, so it’s going to come down to who has the better day.”
Racing in the 2022 Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex starts at 1100 on Wednesday, July 13, and runs through Saturday, July 16.