College Sports

Area sailor returns to Bellingham Bay to compete for national championship

Robyn Lesh grew up sailing the waters in and around Whatcom County.

“I have done it my whole life,” Lesh said in a phone interview. “Our family used to go out sailing when I was 6 years old. My dad (William Lesh) has sailed since he was young. ... I was home schooled, so I used to take my school work and we’d go out on the water for the week. My dad and I used to build model sail boats together. I guess you could say sailing has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.”

When she was 10, Lesh started racing out of Lakewood on Lake Whatcom and immediately was hooked the competitive aspect of sailing. She started racing on Bellingham Bay with the Bellingham Yacht Club and eventually with the Whatcom Community Sailing high school sailing program started and coached by Scott Wilson.

“There’s something about racing,” Lesh said. “It’s just you and the boat, and you have this atmosphere where you can learn from other people. It’s an amazing experience. You just go out and sail. It’s racing and learning and having fun. It’s just amazing. I just love that experience.”

Little did Lesh, now a junior ocean engineering major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, know then that that love would eventually bring her back to her home waters to compete for a national championship.

That opportunity will come Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 8-9, when the 2014 Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Singlehanded National Championships will be held on Bellingham Bay.

Lesh will be one of 36 collegiate sailors who will come to Bellingham to compete for the Janet Lutz Trophy (women’s championship) and the Glen S. Foster Trophy (men’s championship) over the weekend. She and the other competitors will race 14-foot single-sail lasers around a buoyed course on Bellingham Bay.

Races last about 25 minutes apiece, and organizers will attempt to fit as many races in on Saturday and Sunday (approximately 15 races total). Points are awarded for the order of finish in each race, and at the end of the weekend, the sailor with the least points will be crowned national champion.

The Interscholastic Sailing Association hosted a similar event for high school sailors on Bellingham Bay last weekend. But unlike that event, the collegiate event will feature a sailor who is already familiar with the the waters and challenges of sailing on Bellingham Bay.

“Coaches have been coming up to me from other schools asking what it’s like sailing in Bellingham,” said Lesh, who lists Everson as her hometown on the MIT sailing website. “They want to know what it’s like in November. I told them it could be any kind of wind, but I’m keeping a few secrets for myself.”

Ah yes, the home-course advantage, and you better believe Lesh will use it any way she can.

“I’m sure it will help her a little bit early on,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “It will help her feel a little more comfortable to know her surroundings. But when it comes down to it, she’s racing some of the best sailors in the country. It won’t take them long to pick things up, but just being comfortable should help Robyn a little bit.”

Not only will Lesh be familiar with the waters she’s sailing this weekend, she said she’s looking forward to seeing some familiar faces.

“I’m pretty sure my dad will be out the water, and I’ll see him sailing around,” Lesh said. “That will be great for support to see him out there smiling. I’ll know most of the race committee. It will be great to see familiar faces at a big intimidating event like this.”

Though this will be Lesh’s first trip to the ICSA national championship, it is not her first time qualifying for the event.

Lesh earned a spot last year, but was unable to compete after suffered a concussion two weeks before the event.

She earned a second chance to compete on Oct. 5, when she placed sixth at the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association Women’s Singlehanded Championship to grab one of six qualifying bids out of the ultra-competitive Northeast District.

Seeing Lesh have that kind of success on the collegiate level is no surprise to the man who coached her when she was in the fledgling high school program here in Whatcom County.

“Robyn was on the team for three years,” Wilson said. “All through high school she stood out because she was very focused and very smart. This sport requires that. Those that are smarter tend to do better. She stood out and asked a lot of questions, and because of that, she got better really fast.”

It’s obviously no surprise to learn that an MIT student is smart. And Lesh said she would have applied to go to MIT, even if the school hadn’t offered sailing as a varsity sport.

But the fact that they did certainly didn’t hurt to cement her decision to head to Cambridge, Mass.

“We have a beautiful sailing pavilion here,” Lesh said. “I remember coming to the dock with I was visiting as a pre-freshman. ... I just walked down to the dock and I was absolutely stunned. There were rows and rows of boats. It was like I was in boat heaven.”

She soon learned during her first year that navigating the tricky, shifty winds of her home course were anything but heaven, but that only helped her learn how to become a better sailor.

“College sailing is definitely a big step up from high school,” Lesh said. “I remember watching the fleet my freshman year, and I didn’t know how they were doing it. The wind kept seeming to change and come from every direction. It’s pretty stunning. But after a while, you learn how to read the wind and feel the wind. The coaches here are great. It’s amazing how much you learn in this sport.”

But sailing is much more than a sport just for brainiacs.

Lesh said sailing a laser takes a lot of athletic ability, and she worked hard to stay in shape by getting out on the water as much as she could while interning in Seattle last summer to make sure her fitness level matched her intellect..

Obviously the work has paid off, and now Lesh hopes she can return to Bellingham and have a good showing.

“I’m very excited to come back and race, and Scott is doing a fabulous job organizing the event and making everything possible,” Lesh said. “I owe a lot to Scott for his efforts on the high school team.”

Building interest for the Whatcom Community Sailing high school program is one of the reasons Wilson said he applied to host the national championships about five years ago. The event will be put on by the sailing program the Bellingham Yacht Club.

“We just wanted to get the interest in youth sailing going here,” Wilson said about building interest in the high school program. “I think it’s already working. People are getting excited about this event. Seeing competitors of this caliber from around the country come to Bellingham and compete is pretty exciting. This is a big deal for Bellingham and the sailing community here.”