Almost in perfect synchrony, the line of boats tilts toward the Boston shore of the Charles River. As the booms swing over their heads, the pairs of sailors pivot their bodies from one gunwale to another in one smooth motion, ropes running through their hands.
As the teams settle in on their gunwales on the Cambridge side of the river, they maneuver their bodies, the sail, and the boat to bring it back to upright. With all attention on the task at hand, the sailors’ eyes sweep around to take in the direction of the wind in their sails, the rigging of their boat, and the location of their competitors.
The low late autumn afternoon sunshine bathes the Northeastern Sailing Team’s practice in a warm glow. Splashes of water sparkle and the sunlight glints off the shiniest buildings in the Boston skyline. But the buzz of the city, the planes and helicopters that fly overhead, and the traffic on nearby thoroughfares fade to the background.
To the sailors and their coach, the swish of the wind in their sails captures all of their attention.
“There is a factor of separation from the rest of our lives that I think is particularly pronounced in college sailing,” says Carter Brock, a senior and captain of Northeastern Sailing. “You’re in a totally different setting, on a boat, out in the elements and everything. You have to be in a different headspace than you are throughout the rest of your day.”
The mile and a half between Northeastern’s Boston campus and the MIT Sailing Pavilion in Cambridge, where the Huskies and several area teams practice, serves as more than just a physical passage from campus life to sailing practice for the student-athletes.
“I found the walk [to be] a really great way to get myself in the mindset and transition from school to sailing,” says Elizabeth Lonergan, a senior on the Northeastern Sailing team. “If you have a giant test or a big paper, it’s always a kind of drag your feet, but then you get out here and everybody just kind of switches into sailing mode.”
Some sailors traverse the Back Bay streets and Massachusetts Avenue bridge to practice on foot, others by bicycle or skateboard. Some make the trek in groups, while others prefer to travel alone, using the time to note the wind conditions of the day and set their minds on sailing.
“When we come to sail, we put school away for a few hours and just really focus on what we’re trying to accomplish in practice,” Lonergan says.
The Northeastern Sailing Team competes throughout the fall and spring in regattas up and down the East Coast, from Maryland to Maine. Sailors typically compete in 420s or Flying Juniors, both of which are two-person boats. The regattas are often co-ed, but Northeastern Sailing also has a competitive women’s team.
At the university, the sailing team is a club sport. On the water, the team competes mostly against varsity programs from around the country. As the fall season wraps up, in the regional district, the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association, Northeastern Sailing is ranked 14th both in the co-ed and women’s categories, out of 42 member schools.
“We’re in one of the most competitive conferences,” says Morgan TerMaat, a fourth-year student and president of Northeastern Sailing. “If you look at all the teams above us, they’re mostly varsity.”
Northeastern sailors have set their sights on breaking into the highly competitive national championships in the spring.
“We’re right on the edge right now of making it into the national tournament,” says Jonathan Farrar, head coach of Northeastern Sailing. Teams across the country must qualify for the College Sailing National Championships through Conference Championships, and only a handful of teams earn spots.
“We have a good shot of making it in there in the spring,” Farrar says. “So it’s exciting times for Northeastern.”
When the student-athletes arrive at the dock and sailing pavilion, they change into life jackets and set up the rigging and sails on their boats. Then, Farrar calls a pre-practice meeting.
“Today, we have a beautiful day,” he says, going on to describe the wind patterns. “It’s definitely a day not to be sailing with your bang on,” Farrar advises the sailors about how to respond to the conditions.
On a small whiteboard propped against his legs on the dock, the coach illustrates the drills planned for practice. Once all questions are answered, the sailors are off to launch their boats into the sparkling water.
Farrar follows in a motor boat, but only once his dog, Slocum, has hopped up onto the bow.
Northeastern Sailing is one of the oldest college sailing teams in the country. Founded in 1940 by Rudolf Oberg, Northeastern alum, engineering professor, and the first Director of Alumni Relations at the university, the team got in on the ground floor of college sailing along with a friend of Oberg’s that had led the creation of a sailing team and facility at MIT a few years earlier. That facility—known now as the MIT Sailing Pavilion— is considered the birthplace of collegiate sailing. The Huskies still practice there today.
The Northeastern Sailing team doesn’t just sail in parallel to MIT and Harvard on the Charles River. The student-athletes often merge practices to scrimmage, enjoy intercollegiate friendships at the dock and beyond, and Northeastern also hosts a regatta named for Oberg in both the spring and the fall seasons.
“The thing that really sets us apart is we’re a club team that competes pretty competitively at a high level. Most teams at our level are varsity,” says TerMaat, the team president.
As a club team, the Northeastern sailors take responsibility for many of the team logistics. Led by an executive board, the student-athletes arrange van rentals and other necessities for travel to regattas, navigate the relationship between the team and the university, lead recruitment, and manage the financials and public relations for the team.
“They’re super responsible, where I think a lot of other teams, they just don’t have that structure, and they just don’t have skin in the game,” says sailing coach Farrar.
On top of their responsibilities maintaining team operations, he adds, “I fully get the scope of how hard Northeastern is [academically] and how hard these kids work. I’m always in awe of what they’re studying when they break out the books at a regatta while waiting for wind or something.”
“The work ethic that these student-athletes have at, you know, being able to balance their school and and then compete at a high level, I think that’s a real testament to the character of the team,” Farrar says.
Sailing, too, is a mental sport, Brock says.
“There’s a lot of variety in the conditions, so you have to approach each practice and each regatta a different way,” he says. “You get a lot of practice with your patience and not getting too stressed about if something’s not going well, because there’s no way to really fight your way through it. You just have to work through it mentally.”