The Penn sailing team is a top-20 squad and, thanks to some recent success, has the potential to stay there
Division I-AA Montana State recently upended a mediocre Division I-A
Colorado football team, the result was considered a monumental upset.
So imagine a sport in which top varsity teams are consistently threatened - and often beaten - by a club-level squad.
Such is the world of college sailing, where Penn's club team recently cracked the Intercollegiate Sailing Association Top 20 for the first time in over 20 years.
"In college sailing, you compete against everyone - varsity and club alike," junior sailor Garth Fasano explained. "We're competing against funded programs."
A recent transfer from the Naval Academy, Fasano joins over a dozen other students in embracing the rigorous undertaking that is Penn sailing.
This is not your typical club sport.
"It's a very competitive attitude," Fasano said. "With the new additions this fall, we have a good shot at competing at Nationals. … It's not easy. It's a large commitment when you're leaving Friday at 3:00 [for regattas] and not getting back until late, late Sunday."
Weekdays show no mercy on schedules, either. Sharing each other's cars, team members commute 15 minutes every afternoon to the Corinthian Yacht Club, located just west of the Philadelphia Airport on the Delaware River. A non-sponsored team, Penn sailing keeps its privately owned boats at dock space it rents from Corinthian.
"We are pretty independent and in charge of ourselves," senior captain Bryce LeFort said.
According to LeFort, even their coach plays a minor role.
"The coach is out there to organize the practices. He really helps us out a lot with boat maintenance and keeping practices running smoothly."
While practices are not mandatory, there are few things that keep the sailors from the water everyday. Team members even utilize school breaks for extra practice.
"Over the winter break, we go practice in Florida," LeFort, a Florida native, said. "Over fall break, we stay in Philadelphia and practice."
And, while the team doesn't have the benefit of a regular coach, they do have Larry Suter, a former United States national team member. The America's Cup participant will accompany Penn to the fall season's final and most important regatta: the War Memorial.
By winning the Ocean County College Regatta in Toms River, N.J., Penn has already qualified for the War Memorial. Not so long ago, however, Penn would not have even been invited to such a significant race.
"The team has gotten so good lately, and there is so much potential," LeFort said. "When I first got here three years ago, we weren't nearly what we are now."
During both the fall and spring seasons, the schedule is booked with sectional and intersectional races. Penn represents the traditional powerhouse Mid-Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association, one of the nation's seven regions. In addition to a win at Toms River, Penn captured the Riley Cup at Old Dominion University before faltering at Tufts University with an 18th-place finish. But the team rebounded with a winning effort at home at the Philly Fleet Race.
The team also won the Ivy League championship this year.
Like golf, less is more in sailing - the team with the lowest point total wins. Regattas are broken down into an A and B division. Each team has one pairing - a skipper and a crew - in each division.
These pairings race over and over again in each division, rotating boats with each run. Teams have the option, however, to substitute sailors in between races.
"They have as many boats as there are teams," LeFort said. "After you sail two races, you come in and switch boats so there is no unfair advantage."
At the end, divisions' point totals are factored equally to yield the team's total score for the regatta.
LeFort, Penn's most valuable skipper last season, continues to steer the A-division boat. Other notables returning to the water this fall are co-captain Caroline Keogh, B-division skipper Pat Curran, and Bri Morgan and Katie Buzby.
"This year is probably the best we've been in Penn sailing history," LeFort said.
Coincidentally enough, the Penn sailing team last enjoyed an era of victory when its captains were also named LeFort and Keogh. Bryce's father and Caroline's mother were co-captains in the 1970s when the team broke into the national Top 10. Their teammate, Edward "Skip" Swikart III, is still an avid Penn-sailing fan, and sees signs of greatness reemerging in the current team.
"Every year, a dozen or so top sailors nationally are … honored as All-Americans," Swikart, now a faculty advisor to the team, said in an e-mail. "Penn has never had an All-American, but last year [Curran] was mentioned as one of the top sailors in the MAISA. [LeFort], … along with fellow senior captain Keogh, has really been the beginning to the resurgence of Penn sailing."
Along with new additions like Kelley Millane, a sophomore transfer from Connecticut College, Penn could very well crack the top-10 again - and maybe make it in the women's rankings for the first time, too.
"Sailing is a co-ed sport everywhere," Fasano noted. "There are also women's teams, but we never have been able to support both teams."
If allowed to represent both the co-ed and women's teams, the female sailors might be competing in both categories as early as the upcoming spring.
College sailing's spring season begins after spring break and ends with the America Trophy at Old Dominion - a national qualifier - the last weekend in April. Last season, Penn placed ninth in the MAISA, failing to crack the top four and qualify for nationals.
While this year's goal is to reach nationals, the future looks bright for Penn sailing either way.
"We are recruiting the No. 1 women's sailor in the nation for next year," Swikart said. "We are going to be good for at least another four or five years down the road."