Patience is not often the primary attribute of the young. But there is no better word to describe the winning performance of Alie Toppa (above, far left), and her crew of recent college graduates, at the inaugural New York Yacht Club Women’s Championship, sailed out of Harbour Court in Newport, R.I., this past weekend.
“We definitely kept it super consistent,” says Toppa, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but now lives in Newport and is a member of the host club. “We were just telling each other, ‘Single-digit finishes and just sail smart, sail fast.’ We did exactly that, so, we’re super happy with how it turned out.”
The inaugural New York Yacht Club Women’s Championship featured 20 teams of four or five women from across the United States, sailing in provided one-design Sonar keelboats. The Club received more than 40 expressions of interest to compete in the regatta, making it an accomplishment just to be invited. The regatta ran from Friday, June 17, through Sunday, June 19, with the winner receiving the Joan H. Towse trophy, named for the passionate sailor, race committee member and late wife of past New York Yacht Club Commodore Robert C. Towse Jr.
Toppa’s College of Charleston Yacht Club team, which included Kate Nota, Maisie MacGillivray, Jo Ann Fisher and Emmy Horowitz, was in the hunt throughout the 11-race regatta, but didn’t take outright possession of first place until after the final race was sailed. In fact, it wasn’t until well after the team hit land that they discovered they had won the regatta.
“We kind of said, ‘Let other people make mistakes, because it’s inevitable,’” said Toppa. “And we made a ton of mistakes of our own, but we came back from them. It was always, the next moment, next opportunity. My team was amazing, they helped me so much. They kept me calm, they made the right decisions and were level-headed. It was dynamic out there, so much current, so many shifts, but we did what we could, sailed with a good head on our shoulders.”
Going into the final race, it was Erin Maxwell’s 11 Less Distractions team—named for the team’s collective children between the ages of 3 and 9—that had controlled first place for the majority of the regatta. But the final race did not go their way.
“The biggest mistake was that we ended up fouling at the [second] weather mark,” says Maxwell, a former college All-American selection at Dartmouth and a 2008 world champion in the Women’s 470 class. “So we had to spin two circles and those were the points realistically [that we needed to win]. We also had a bad first downwind leg that race. We were upper mid-fleet before that. One boat rolled us, then it was really tight at the leeward mark, and we were just outside of overlap on a pack of boats. You can’t win every race, and that was just a bad one for us.”
Despite her track record in college and on the Olympic campaign trail, Maxwell came into the event with very low expectations.
“This is the second regatta I’ve sailed in the last 10 years,” said Maxwell. “In the last 10 years I’ve had five children. Now I’ve decided I’d like to do a little more sailing, and was very glad that my friends agreed to sail with me. My crew members also probably haven’t done as much sailing as they would have liked in the last few years, all of them with young kids like me.”
Maxwell’s team (at right) included Isabelle Kinsolving Farrar, with whom she won that world championship 14 years ago. Until the final race, they were the team to beat, with no single finish worse than eighth.
“Our team worked really well together and did a good job communicating and changing gears in the challenging conditions,” said Maxwell. “I think we surprised ourselves. All of us were shocked we still knew how to sail, and we really enjoyed it. We are already looking forward to the next event.”
The enjoyment of the weekend was infectious. It was written in the large smile on Susan Backus Starr’s face at the awards ceremony held Sunday afternoon overlooking Newport Harbor. She sailed the regatta with her three sisters (at left), as they have been doing for four decades.
“Heidi, our skipper, and Amy, the youngest sister, have been sailing together for 56 years,” said Backus Starr. “We first started sailing together as a foursome in 1982 in a J/22. In 1985, when the first Rolex Keelboat was scheduled to be in Newport, we bought a J/24 to campaign [for that event] and we have been sailing keelboats ever since. When we heard the event was going to be here, we knew we had to try and wrangle an invitation. We were thrilled to get one.”
The Backus sisters’ dreams of a win or even a podium finish came apart in a shifty and gusty breeze on the final day. But they nonetheless accomplished one of their major goals for the regatta.
“The competition was incredible,” said Backus Starr. “It was a great opportunity to meet young sailors, like two generations below us, and see if we could hang with the college kids. Everybody wants to win, but we certainly felt that we held our own.”
Indeed they did, winning a race, taking second twice, and, when the final points were tallied, finishing seventh, just 10 points off the lead.
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