Linda Robertson

Miami becomes sailing mecca as Nacra catamarans race

Two-person team: Sarah Newberry of Miami and Matthew Whitehead of Tampa sail at ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami 2015.
Two-person team: Sarah Newberry of Miami and Matthew Whitehead of Tampa sail at ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami 2015.

As four dozen Nacra-17 catamarans rounded the second mark during an ISAF World Cup race, they caused an aquatic traffic jam in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The sounds of the sharp turn in a stiff breeze were unmistakable — rippling sails, clinking halyards, battering waves and, above the din, yelling sailors.

What else would you expect? Pensive, peaceful sailing does not apply to the Nacra cats, fleetest of the Olympic fleet and the only co-ed division. One man and one woman sail these $35,000 thoroughbreds of the sport, and they can reach speeds of 27 mph as they fly on one hull across the water, reminiscent of the supersonic America’s Cup AC72 hydrofoils.

Maneuvering the Nacras not only requires strength, agility and tactical prowess but also interpersonal skills. Impeccable seamanship and unflappable partnership characterize the top Nacra duos.

“The mixed-gender concept is quite interesting,” said local sailor John Casey, who is paired with Kristen Lane of San Francisco. “Men and women don’t communicate the same way. They are emotionally different. They don’t handle pressure in a high-performance environment in the same manner. Learning to talk to your partner is the biggest challenge of this class.”

The ISAF regatta featuring 800 sailors from 63 countries in all Olympic and Paralympic classes has turned Miami’s blue backyard into the globe’s sailing mecca through Saturday. The event gives still-evolving Nacra teams a chance to prepare for the world championships and Olympic qualifying.

The Nacras are like the mixed doubles division of tennis. Skipper and crew need the grace of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the timing of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the harmony of Sonny and Cher. Even when a squall blows through, as it did Monday, when five masts were snapped, including Casey’s.

“Men normally see things black or white, and women see more shades, more choices,” said Casey, who sails out of the Miami Yacht Club. “Men live in the present a little easier. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just different.”

Two-time U.S. Olympian and former Bacardi Cup and national Laser champion Mark Mendelblatt of Miami is partnered with his wife, Carolina Borges, a two-time Olympian in windsurfing for Brazil. They have not required a marriage counselor.

“Not yet, anyway,” said Mendelblatt, who decided to try Nacras when the Star class was removed from the Olympics. “She’s more patient; I’m more prone to get excited. She’s a natural crew because of her windsurfing strength. She’s not afraid of the speed and closing in on other boats while I’m the big, heavy guy accustomed to the slower, tactical Stars.”

They have handled stress well, such as on Monday, when they capsized and had to be picked up by another Nacra.

“We’re getting it together,” he said. “We try not to be rude, but we’re tough on each other. We feel comfortable saying anything to each other.”

The U.S. is not on pace to place any Nacras in Saturday’s top-10 medal round. The Americans are emerging from a state of flux, with many changes of partners since last summer. Casey and Miami’s Sarah Newberry decided to dissolve their alliance after finishing 30th in the 2014 world championships, about 15 places lower than they expected. Both are used to driving, and Casey felt out of position as crew.

Newberry, who is in 21st place as the top American, has been partnered with Matthew Whitehead of Panama City, Fla., for two months and likes their progress.

“Matt is so mellow, and I’m the high-strung one,” said Newberry, who has been reading books and articles on gender relations. “It’s such an exciting sports-car type of boat, with so many moving pieces requiring quick decision-making that you really need good chemistry.”

During Monday’s madness, when half the fleet didn’t finish, the jib of Newberry and Whitehead’s boat ripped in half when they capsized. On Wednesday, a mast cleat broke, but Newberry and Whitehead quickly devised a way for him to wrap the spinnaker sheet around the cleat.

“We took a deep breath, resolved it and only temporarily fell behind one boat,” Whitehead said. “We balance each other.”

For those with compatibility problems, sports psychologist Jerry May is available. But not on the water, when partners are pelted by salty spray, hiking out high above the waves, and there’s no time for a battle of the sexes.

Explained Casey: “To make the boat do what you want each second of the race when the breeze is blowing, you’re hanging off the trapeze and you’re on the edge of a wipeout, you really have to understand each other.”