Miami sailing making its case for varsity status

Team Orange and Team Green go head-to-head in a team race during an afternoon practice in Biscayne Bay on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo credit: Sam Peene

Across the United States (US), there are 276 universities with a sailing program. Miami’s sailing team is climbing the ranks and currently sits in the top 25 with three national medals in the last four years.

It made national headlines during Easter weekend by dethroning the College of Charleston at the SAISA Open Championship for the second time ever.

Miami sailing dethroned the reigning champions and the near-undefeated varsity Gamecocks for the second time in the history of the championships, all within the constraints of being a club team.

The Hurricanes will now head to Team Race Nationals with the top 16 teams in the country after being selected for the 14th of 16, beating out 17 varsity teams and every club team – other than the highly-funded Pennsylvania – in the country.

The conversation about elevating the team to varsity status has been ongoing since the genesis of the club in 2004 but has seen little success. Miami has watched as other collegiate teams have achieved varsity status, but UM’s Athletic Director, Dan Radakovich, said there is no chance of that for the ‘Canes.

Because they are a club team, they lack funding, coaching, recruitment priority and all the other major advantages varsity sports benefit from.

“We only sponsor sports that would have an NCAA Championship,” Radakovich said. “It sounds like a really great organization … (but the) sponsor would be more along the lines of student affairs or club sports.”

To compare ‘Canes Sailing to the sports that Miami does sponsor, it is nationally ranked higher than all but four of the 16 varsity sports listed, being topped only by baseball, women’s tennis and men’s and women’s basketball.

The athletic director went on to compare the nationally successful team to the likes of UM’s debate team – also a successful organization, just not recognized as a varsity sport by any US school – by saying that since they are also not sponsored by the NCAA, a request to transition the sailing team to varsity would be along the same lines as the same request for the debate team — even though the most athletically successful schools across the country view sailing as a varsity level sport and sponsor them as such.

“The world of varsity sailing is dominated by programs like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT … the kind of schools that UM would like to be compared to; don’t we want to be part of the club?” ‘Canes sailing volunteer coach William Johns said.

Crew member Danielle Ketner rigs her boat before heading out into Biscayne Bay for a Tuesday afternoon practice with Miami sailing on Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Crew member Danielle Ketner rigs her boat before heading out into Biscayne Bay for a Tuesday afternoon practice with Miami sailing on Nov. 14, 2022. Photo credit: Sam Peene

The team was formed in 2004 and has quickly elevated itself to land on the podium at sailing’s College Singlehanded National Championships in three of the last four years, with one silver and two bronze medals.

The Hurricanes also took first place at the 2022 South Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association (SAISA) Fall Open Championships and became the first team in 14 years to dethrone Charleston and walk home with the gold at the SAISA Fall Championships in 2022.

“We are getting the most votes outside of the top 20, and with a good performance this spring, we should break into it,” Johns said.

Marshall McCann, a fifth-year senior and three-time medalist at College Singlehanded National Championships, believes the transition to varsity would have a huge impact on the school as well as the team.

“This school could be an absolute feeder for Olympic-class athletes,” McCann said.

He explained how the team’s home base is also the US Sailing Center, which is home to the highest level of sailing in the United States.

With three podiums in the last four years, McCann holds the most national hardware of any current Miami athlete.

He believes that if Miami were a varsity program, it would be desirable for the country’s best sailors.

“I’ve had conversations with people high up at US Sailing … There are athletes and coaches that decided to go to other schools over Miami because of their varsity programs,” McCann said. “These are people I have competed against at the Olympic Trials.”

McCann initially chose UM because it is “the sailing epicenter for the US during the winter and spring months, as well as the training base for the US Sailing team.”

The 2024 Olympic trials that McCann will be attending will also be held right off South Beach. The graduating fifth-year McCann is able to train for both ‘Canes sailing and his Olympic class races from the same base.

Being a club sport that races among the best varsity teams in the country, Miami sailing faces considerable disadvantages compared to its competition.

The status of being a club sport causes the athletes to depend on volunteer coaches, as well as donations from alumni and parents for travel, often restricting them from attending a full varsity-level race schedule.

Recruiting is another challenge for the program, as once recruits look beyond the disadvantages of a club program, many are struggling to get accepted into the university because they do not receive the same academic advantage that other incoming student-athletes do. This year, 22 potential sailing recruits applied for either early action or early decision, but only four were accepted.

Atlee Kohl, captain of UM sailing and 2021-22 All-SAISA 1st Team Skipper, spoke about how he is frustrated by the limitations of being a club team amongst the best varsity teams in the country.

“Even though we’re competitive against all of these varsity teams, it feels like we have no support,” he said.

“We’re by far the lowest funded club team anywhere near the top.”

Currently, the Hurricanes are well into their spring season, already seeing success and moving forward with big goals for the coming months.

In terms of competition, there are three formats of racing that they take part in.

Single-handed racing is the first and has one individual per boat who competes in fleet racing. This is where Miami has seen the most success.

The single-handed boats race in a fleet. In this format, individuals race on a set course, and the first across the line wins. It was in this division that McCann earned his hardware in three of the last four years. In 2020, he was unable to attend due to COVID-19 policies set by the school, leaving his twin brother to walk away with the gold medal for Georgetown that year.

Co-ed and women’s fleet racing is next, and Vice President of Miami Sailing Natalie Elder explained that this is the most important category on a national level for college athletes. Similar to the single-handed races, the boats are racing against each other in an every-boat-for-themselves set-up, with the first across the line taking the win. In the co-ed division, the boat can consist of two males, two females or a mixed pair. In the women’s division, the boat is made up of two females.

Last spring, Miami made its breakthrough in co-ed fleet racing. Through the season, the ‘Canes recall being ranked around 50th. They made it to nationals as one of the top 36 teams and finished the championship in 28th.

“Now that we’re already ranked 21st … we can make it in the top 10 and be solidified as a sailing school,” Kohl said.

The University of Miami’s club sailing team in December 2022.
The University of Miami’s club sailing team in December 2022. Photo credit: Sam Peene

Finally, there is team racing. This is the most complicated of the races, as each team sends three boats into a race. To win, it must work together to establish a winning combination over the other teams. Only 16 of the top teams in the country make it to team racing nationals, and Miami has its sights set on being one of those teams.

“If we’re top 16 in team racing, it’ll really start to attract recruits and make the school see that we are amongst the top sailing schools in history … No club team has ever done that,” Kohl said earlier in the 2022 fall semester.

In early April 2023, this goal came true.

Hurricanes sailing continues to climb the ranks of college sailing to prove that if they can accomplish greatness within the constraints of being a club sport, they would be unstoppable as an official University of Miami varsity sport.