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A gold medal with a side of bratwurst

2009 August 12

Members of the U.S. Sailing Team Alphagraphics this week are getting their first chance to sail in the Elliott 6m-the new Olympic class keelboat that will be used for the 2012 women's match racing Olympic event. They're getting a feel for the positions on the three-person boat, and the boat's potential. They're tacking, jibing, starting and rounding marks, and sailing past fishermen who probably have no idea they could be watching the next gold medalists.

All this is happening in an unlikely place: Sheboygan, Wisconsin. A place better known for its love of bratwurst sausages than its lakefront, Sheboygan is about to play a crucial role in the quest for gold in the match racing event.

Monday, eight brand new Elliott 6m sailboats, that were finished being assembled just hours earlier, were dedicated at the US Sailing Center Sheboygan. The boats are the first in the United States and only eight others, that were sent to Germany for Kiel Week in June, are sailing.

"It's very exciting to see this center, which just a few years ago was just a distant goal, come to fruition in such an exciting way with the dedication of this fleet of Elliot 6m's," said Richard Reichelsdorfer, US Sailing Center Sheboygan executive director.

Women's International Match Racing Association Executive Director Liz Baylis was among those who lobbied to have the women's match-racing event in the Olympics. To see eight of the Elliott 6m's at the Sheboygan sailing center was the realization of a dream, she said.

"It felt great to see that the dream had been realized," she said. "It was fantastic that we were able to get the event in the Olympics and to get a boat that the women want to sail."

Incoming US Sailing President Gary Jobson, ISAF Match Racing Committee Chairman Henry Menin, sailing center supporter North Sails' Terry Kohler, US Sailing Coach Dave Perry and Baylis joined designer Greg Elliot, who flew in to work on the boats with sailing center volunteers, in dedicating the fleet.

All of those assembled share one ambitious goal: Gold in 2012.

Even though the Olympics are still three years away, the goal is always in the back of the minds of the competitors, too. In Sheboygan for the training session were skippers Debbie Capozzi, Genny Tulloch, Anna Tunnicliffe, Katy Lovell and Baylis. In addition to Perry, the coaching staff was rounded out by North Sails' Vince Brun and US Sailing coach Kenneth Andreasen.

Discovering Sheboygan-a midwestern town with blue-collar roots that has seen a renewed interested in the arts and a rejuvenation of its downtown in recent years-for the first time, some of the sailors might have suffered a bit of culture shock, having departed the often bustling level of activity at many sailing hotspots. One sailor even posted a photo to her Facebook page of one of the city's main streets at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. There was just one car parked on it and no one else to be seen. Still, the sailing center is in the middle of a great Lake Michigan port: to one side is the Sheboygan Yacht Club that boats an active and fun-loving membership, and on the other is the large marina and the Sheboygan Youth Sailing Club, which offers lessons to children and adults almost every night of the week.

The Wisconsin hospitality might have been warm but the Wisconsin summer was not helping the cause at the first training session, which was filled with light-air day after light-air day, Reichelsdorfer said.

"It's been challenging weather conditions for a few days," he said. "August can be a tricky month for sailing on Lake Michigan, and the Olympic team has certainly seen that. We're looking forward to them coming back for another training session in September, which typically offers some of the best sailing of the year here."

Baylis said despite the light air, the Elliott 6m's proved to be fun, fast boats to sail.

"The boats are very fun to sail and very athletic," Baylis said. "I sailed in the original design when we sailed with four, so everyone's very busy with three. We're fully hiking at 8 knots, so it's going to be interesting to see what we'll be doing at 15 or 20 knots."

Although the boats are keelboats, Baylis said they sail more like dinghies.

"Most of the match racers are keelboat sailors, so it will be interesting to see how the different techniques the keelboat sailors bring and the dinghy sailors bring come into play," she said.

Lake Michigan often serves up steady breezes and warm water in September, which is good timing for an extended stay in Sheboygan for many Olympic team sailors. Much of the team will return for a training session in early September, followed by the center's Buddy Melges Challenge regatta September 11 to 13, the first competitive event sailed in the Elliot 6m's. Organizers anticipate it will be a Grade 2 match racing event. The team will stay for more training following the regatta.

"That regatta will be a great opportunity for a number of Americans to get their first chance to really race the Elliots, and a lot is learned racing," Baylis said. "They'll also be able to test their abilities against some of the top international teams. There is a team from New Zealand coming, and they grew up sailing Elliotts. I think it's a real chance to advance our training program."

In addition to the Elliott 6m's, the US Sailing Center Sheboygan also has a fleet of Sonars as well as umpire, race committee and regatta support boats.

For more on upcoming US Sailing Center Sheboygan events, go to the Web site www.ussailingcentersheboygan.org

Photo captions, from top left (click on photo to view it larger): Harken CEO Bill Goggins (at bow) pitches in to help USSCS Executive Director Rich Reichelsdorfer move an Elliot 6m; an Elliott 6m at the center's floating pier; the cockpit has a super clean layout; the open transom was one of the changes made to the original design; Terry Kohler, Peter Harken, Greg Elliott and Gary Jobson helped dedicate the fleet; (bottom row) the Elliot 6m's out sailing; lined up at the floating pier for the dedication; WIMRA Executive Director Liz Baylis christens a boat; the sleek underbody of the Elliot 6m.