February 4, 2011

An Unlikely Pair

Childhood Friends Sailing Together At Yale

Having trained exclusively with Olympic class boats, college presented Claire Dennis '13 with the challenge of learning an entirely new discipline: double-handed sailing. 

"Most Olympic-type sailors like Claire have dabbled in high school sailing with different types of boats, so it's not too difficult to make the transition. Claire had never set foot in other boats, so she was much greener than anyone you really see in college sailing," recounts coach Zachary Leonard. 

Luckily for Dennis, it turned out to be more of a reunion than a transition. Ten years after they first met in northern California, Dennis was paired at Yale with childhood best friend Heather May '13.

"The saying 'it's a small world' truly does apply to [our] friendship," said May.

May and Dennis became best friends attending the same elementary school, but lost touch when May moved south to Newport Beach. May picked up sailing after she moved, while Dennis began training with the youth national team system. Because Dennis focused on single-handed sailing and May double-handed, the two rarely ran into each other at regattas. Eventually, both girls set their sights on New Haven—and found themselves in the same boat.

"We never thought we'd be sailing together. It's absolutely phenomenal for both of us," says Dennis.

Dennis makes up for any double-handed inexperience with her unmatched work ethic. On top of her rigorous work in the boat, she bike rides four times a week, building a fitness base that is critical during regattas that are often several days long. Meetings with her coaches and teammates after practice help refine style and strategies.

"She's a really physical person and she loves being outdoors, so she's exceptionally fit, which is really important at the Olympic level," comments Leonard.

May adds, "if there is anyone on our team who devotes the most time and effort during the season to sailing it is Claire."

Her dedication to physical stamina paid off as she captured the title at Singlehanded Nationals last fall. Three days of racing in breezy conditions favored the fitter sailors, who could hike harder and stay more active in the boat. Dennis capitalized, jumping out to an early lead and holding on for a one-point win. She took first place in 10 of the 18 races, a tally she attributes to her endurance. "When it's windy, how much you train comes into play," she explains.

She attributes her single-handed success to the skills she has picked up from double-handed sailing. With shorter courses and a faster pace, college sailing has forced her to develop a different skill set.

"It's definitely been a process, but I've learned so much from it already," Dennis reflects. Her coaches and teammates have been crucial in her progress.

 "Heather is very patient working with me on different ways of communication," says Dennis, a Palo Alto, Calif., native. "We've developed a great working relationship and a positive, encouraging atmosphere in the boat."

They may not have known it as third-graders, but Dennis and May have grown up to make a fantastic team. The two will be looking to lead the Bulldogs to a national championship this spring.

Story by Miyuki Hino '12