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Meet the naval officer, skipper and math whiz of SAILING cover fame

2016 May 3

Readers, I’m going to introduce you to one of your mates, a fellow sailor whose story comes with a touch of serendipity while telling us something about the diversity of the sailing clan and the esteem that is held for sailing as a pursuit that offers character-building challenges. I think you’ll be glad he’s one of us.

Most of you have met him already—the same way I did, in the photograph by stellar lensman Onne van der Wal on the cover of the February 2016 issue of SAILING

Editors chose the photo for composition that seemed made to order for a cover and for its dramatic action and compelling color. In it, three young sailors work furiously on the foredeck of a dark-hulled boat to control a swirling mass of spinnaker cloth that frames the action in brilliant gold and blue.

The caption reads, “The Navy 44 Integrity rounds a mark during the New York Yacht Club Annual Regatta on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.”

Notice the caption does not identify the people in the picture. That’s because we didn’t know who they were, but now we know who one of them is, and that’s the serendipitous part of the story.

A few days after the issue was mailed, a man walked into SAILING’s headquarters in Port Washington, Wisconsin, half a block from Lake Michigan. He asked to see the February issue, looked at the cover and promptly bought half a dozen copies and ordered reprints of the cover. He told the staff he had heard his son was in the cover picture and, sure enough, he was.

The conversation continued, and it turned out that the man and his family lived nearby. He had grown up virtually in SAILING’s back yard, and his parents—the grandparents of the sailor on the cover—lived a short distance away from the magazine’s office.

That was good small-world stuff and it resulted in a story in the local newspaper under the headline, “A familiar face on the cover.” The subhead explained: “U.S. Naval Academy midshipman featured on the cover of national magazine published in Port Washington turns out to have strong family ties to city.”

But there was more, and this is the bracing part about the rewards of sailing. Our visitor, whose name is Joe Wester, told us about the sailor in the photo, his 23-year-old son Tom Wester.

About the time this issue of SAILING reaches subscribers, Tom will graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy—at the top of his class. He will leave the Academy with not only a splendid academic record, but with the skills learned and practiced, the judgment honed, the challenges met and the enjoyment experienced in sailing 8,000 ocean miles.

When his parents dropped him off at Annapolis for his plebe summer before his freshman year at the Academy, Tom didn’t know anything about sailing. Even so, at the suggestion of a friend, he tried out for the offshore sailing team. He didn’t make it, but then he did, by talking coach Nancy Haberland into giving him the last spot on the team.

It’s safe to say that was a decision the coach does not regret. Tom excelled at sailing, mastering its plethora of skills and disciplines, reveling in the teamwork essential to competing in a powerful offshore racing sailboat, advancing steadily to leadership roles. When that cover photo was made, Tom, though he was forward of the mast pitching in with his crew in a spinnaker douse, was skipper of Integrity.

The young man who came to Annapolis not knowing a tack from a jibe or a mainsheet from spinnaker guy skippered the David Pedrick-designed 44-footer in numerous offshore races and regattas, through rough Atlantic conditions including a tropical storm and in last year’s Marion to Bermuda race, in which Integrity competed in the celestial-navigation-only class (no GPS allowed, perish the thought).

Tom credits his experiences on the offshore team with teaching him not just sailing skills, but skills of organization and leadership. His performance off the water is testament to that: He is executive officer of the first regiment, the leader of 2,250 midshipmen, about half of the Academy enrollment.

This explains why the Navy makes a significant investment in the Naval Academy sailing program, maintaining a fleet of Colgate 26s, Navy 44s and donated offshore racing yachts and hiring professional coaches. Beyond what the sailing program teaches about seamanship and navigation, dealing with the sometimes harsh demands of offshore sailing abets preparation for careers as naval officers.

Most of those officers will apply the lessons learned in sailing to their duty on warships. Tom will be one of them, but probably not right away. He is expecting to go to graduate school first to continue his work in mathematical biology. He’s done research in mathematical modeling of HIV and cancer to develop new therapies. His work is so highly regarded that he was chosen to present his findings at international conferences, most recently one in Portugal. He’s done similar research with Ebola, which he described to scientists at a conference in Italy.

Yes, glad he’s one of us.