Teaching Young Sailors

A local high school sailing program provides students valuable skills on and off the water

BY Taylor Hammeke

The Azalea Bowl skipper’s meeting 2023 at the start of the regatta. David Usher
The Azalea Bowl skipper’s meeting 2023 at the start of the regatta. David Usher

High school sailing spans the country, broken into seven districts. The South Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association (SAISA) governs high school and collegiate regattas in a region that includes the Virgin Islands, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina. Each year, there is a SAISA district sailing championship that leads to the national championship.

Local high school sailing was started by Bill Smith and Cape Fear Academy in fall 2014.  In the fall of 2016, Jim Harris began the Viking Sailing Team (students from Hoggard).  David Usher got involved in 2017 because his oldest son, Jacob joined the team. He took over in 2018. Son Ben joined two years later. This is a family affair, wife/mother Denise has been the official photographer for years. 

When their sons graduated and went on to sail at NC State, Usher wanted the program to live on. He started what he describes as a journey to grow sailing at all area high schools.

“My personal charter is to get sailing in every school,” Usher says.  “Bill Smith and I worked on building the teams in 2018 – 2022.  The teams have grown from about 10 sailors in the early years, to 40 sailors in 2021-22, 50 sailors in 22-23, and approximately 60 sailors in 2023-2024.”

The local high school sailing community has a combination of non-affiliated and school recognized club teams depending on the high school. The sailors vary from beginners to those with international experience.

This year there are sailors from nine schools participating in some form of high school sailing: Cape Fear Academy, Isaac Bear, New Hanover, Hoggard, Topsail, Laney and Ashley high schools, GLOW (GLOW Academy), Southeast Area Technical High School, and homeschoolers.  

“In 2022-2023, beyond the countless local sailing opportunities, we sent 37 teams to various district regattas. Viking Sailing participated in four national invitational regattas, GLOW participated in one and Cape Fear Academy participated in one,” Usher says.

Viking Sailing also competed in two of the three district championships (different fleets). Sailors from the program also competed in all four U.S. Sailing Youth National Championship Regattas.

Alicia Smith got involved in 2020, working with Usher and a committee of eight to 10 community members interested in expanding high school sailing in the region.

“We added structure and formalized the program a little bit,” Smith says. “If you want to sail, we will find a way. The goal of high school sailing is to build lifelong sailors.”

“There was a massive amount of effort from the community to give access to people who want to be on the water. It took countless parents, the coach, all willing to work with the community and the sailors coming together,” Usher says. “It is not just about racing. What’s more important is creating a love for the water. If you love the water, you will sail and be in the water your entire life.”

Each sailor practices twice a week, once with their respective school and once with their skill level. There are practices for advanced and intermediate sailors.

“All the area high schools cross paths on different days and different practices,” says John Jarvis, the parent representative for the Eagles Sailing team. “Coach Jack [Gower] does a phenomenal job of giving each school their independence but also encourages all the schools to push each other to bring the entire high school team to the next level.”

“This is the only sport I know of where they train as one team: public, private, girls, guys, all practice together,” says Usher.

The most common boat is the two-person 420. The team also sails one-person Lasers and less frequently a three or four person boat, or FJ.

In the 2022-2023 season, 37 teams from the Wilmington Area High School Sailing team went to the SAISA district regattas. Hoggard’s Viking Sailing team participated in four national regattas, and goes to the Rose Bowl Regatta in Long Beach, California, every year. In 2023 the team traveled to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and regattas in Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C.

“I really love all aspects of high school sailing,” says Elizabeth Lennert, a sailor from Hoggard. “It’s a great experience being on a team, getting competitive, and finding friends along the way.”

The format of high school regattas is typically a two-lap, 15-minute race, with rotations between races.

“We try to get as many sailors on the water as possible,” says Usher.

The teams typically have an A team and B team, with each racing twice and then swapping out. It is very much a spectator sport as the races end near the dock to enable rapid rotation.

Another aspect of the Wilmington Area High School Sailing team is the opportunity to prepare for college.

“The focus is to get people greater experience so they can sail in college,” says Usher.

In the past few years, graduates have gone on to sail for the U.S. Naval Academy, Georgetown, UNC, NC State, UNCW, Roger Williams, Jacksonville University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Each year, the Rose Bowl Regatta serves as an event for college and high school sailors, as well as for colleges to recruit sailors. Tavia Smith sailed in the Rose Bowl Regatta in 2022 with Andrew Simpson.

“When I got home from the Rose Bowl, I was looking at colleges at the time,” she says. “So many of them were on the West Coast. I was looking for an event like the Rose Bowl Regatta on the East Coast and didn’t find anything.”

She decided to start one and was the organizer for the inaugural Azalea Bowl Regatta at Wrightsville Beach in April 2023.

“So many people were willing to jump in and help” Tavia says. “I learned so much from doing that event, including communicating over email, raising thousands of dollars, and opening a new 501c3. The major takeaway was so many people were willing to help, and I overcame people saying no. I am resilient, and it improved my resilience.”

Fifteen colleges came to the race to recruit high school sailors, including Northwestern, UCLA, Georgia, Duke and Jacksonville University. The event attracted 12 high schools, including one from the Virgin Islands. There were 40 races over two days.

“The magic happened in the afternoon and evening after the first day of racing,” Alicia Smith says. “They had tables set up and all the colleges had a spot. They had information from the admissions office. The high school kids and their parents got a chance to talk to all the coaches and sailors from the universities. Each college had three minutes where they could talk about their school and program. They had a contest where you could vote on the college that did the best presentation. It was really a magic event. The whole point was to expose high school sailors to college sailing, for the opportunities to sail beyond high school.”

In her senior year, Tavia was president of the Wilmington Area High School Sailing team.

“The day of the regatta I could not have been happier,” she says. “It felt like a real community all day. Everyone eating breakfast together, everyone walking around the boatyard and chatting. A mom came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for making this possible for my kids.’ It really makes a difference in people’s exposure. It was very rewarding.”

Tavia also created a scholarship program with the additional funding she raised.

Tavia now sails at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

“High school sailing gave me my love for sailing, mostly because of the people,” she says. “I had a great group of friends that were dedicated. We all pushed ourselves to get better and that made me want everyone to have that in their lives.”

The Viking Sailing team 2023 at the Rose Bowl Regatte College and High School Invitational, Long Beach, CA. David Usher
The fleet rounding the windward mark and heading to the leeward gate at Jordan Lake (North Points 2 district regatta). John Jarvis

In addition to sailing opportunities, the team provides real-life experiences that Usher says “are off the chart.” There are seven captains that are elected by the team. Each captain leads a committee varying from boat maintenance, practices, team building, social media, mock regattas, workouts in the winter, fundraising and more. Each committee lead has a mentor as well.

Jack Gower is the head coach.

“In 2020 we started our year-round high school program, growing from around 15 sailors to 60 this fall season,” he says. “We have one of the fastest growing high school programs in the country. Our biggest team (30 sailors), Viking Sailing, is a top contender in the region, competes at invitational events all over the country, and scored a history best of seventh at the district championships last year hosted on home waters. The program’s success is due to the commitment from our sailors and the massive numbers of parent volunteers who steer the program in the right direction.” 

“I think the best part of being involved as a parent is just seeing the sailors grow into their skill,” Jarvis says. “Sailing is a sport that is very independent. It’s the opposite of soccer or football. You don’t have that striker or that quarterback that carries the entire team. It’s just the skipper and the crew. You get instant feedback, instant consequences. There are so many real-time variables to this thing and it’s beautiful.”


  1. Jay Smith (Tavia's Dad) on January 7, 2024 at 12:47 am

    If you would like to learn more about the Azalea Bowl you can look here: https://capefearcommunitysailing.org/

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