Coast Guard sailing on a championship mission

The Coast Guard Academy sailing program set some lofty goals at the beginning of the season.

The Bears have been championship-driven since their first workout.

They're not satisfied with just qualifying for national championships in both the women's and coed competition for the third straight year.

They'll head to San Diego, which hosts both regattas, on Sunday, May 22 with their sights set on making program history. The women's races start May 24, followed by the coed on May 31.

"We sat down in August and our goal was to win two national championships," coach Brian Swingly said. "That's what we all got on board for. So that's been the expectation and drive for the entire year. That's what we've been preaching in practices and debriefs. And that's been the team's mentality for this whole year.

"That's because we have the talent and expertise on the team to do that. This year, we really feel confident. It's an extremely lofty goal, no question about it. But it's something we feel we have the chance to do this year."

There's good reason for Coast Guard's title aspirations. The Bears enter the women's race ranked third in the nation, residing behind Rhode Island and Boston College. They're 11th in the coed team ranking.

Their talent pool is deep.

Junior Nikole Barnes was recently selected as the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association women's sailor of the year and named to the All-NEISA first team for skippers along with Avery Fanning. Robert Turley made first team for crews.

Barnes, who hasn't lost a regatta this season, combines with freshman crew member Anna Morin in the A Division. They also are race in the B Division for the coed team.

They come from different backgrounds — Barnes is from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, while Morin resides in Falmouth, Maine — but share a love for sailing and a competitive spirit.

It's been a highly successful combination this season. They helped the Bears capture their first Women's New England Championship by placing first in their division. The B Division duo of Dana Rohde and Hannah Herring also won.

"Although she's just beginning and I'm almost at the end of my career, we see where we're both at," Barnes said of Morin. "We realize that obviously we're going to make mistakes. But we have a mutual respect. If one of us is messing something up, we're going to fix it as a team. We're just always moving forward and learning."

While Barnes has competed in four different national championship events in the last two years, it will be the first for Morin.

"I'm really excited," Morin said. "I think it's just going to be really awesome competing against the all the greatest sailors in college sailing."

Experience is certainly on Coast Guard's side, as several key members return from last year's team that placed second in the coed race and 11th in the women's competition.

Fanning and Turley, two veterans who comprise the A Division duo in the coed competition, are attempting to end their careers on a high note.

"It's a little bit different sailing when all the pressure is on," Swingly said. "We have some athletes on the team now that have been under that pressure for a couple of years in a row, both at the New England championship level, the conference championship and national championship level. That definitely is advantageous to us."

To get a better feel for the venue and conditions, Coast Guard spent spring break training in San Diego.

By now, they certainly know what to expect competing on the national stage.

"The set-up at the nationals is different than any other regatta," said Rohde, who's following in her two sailing sisters' footsteps at the academy. "Any time you go there and get used to the stress and the importance put on the regatta is a good learning experience for the next year."

Last year's national championship taught them that anything can happen. They struggled with the extremely windy conditions in Newport and slipped to a disappointing 11th in the women's event.

Practicing in miserable weather this spring has helped them better prepare for potential challenges ahead.

Swingly feels good about his program's chances.

"I believe our women's team is the best team in the country," Swingly said. "There's a handful of (coed) teams in the country all very even at the top of their games. It's sort of whoever performs in the moment in the big regatta. And I think we're one of them. We feel like we have a really good chance."

g.keefe@theday.com

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