On Sailboats

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Expert promotes skills, drills

Expert promotes skills, drills

Ralf Steitz says regular training is necessary to become a competent seaman

Successful sailracers typically get nominated for awards like the Rolex Yachtsman/Yachtswoman of the Year or the Nathanael G. Herreshoff Award for outstanding contribution to the sport. But in November, during its annual meeting in Phoenix, US Sailing presented the Timothea Larr Award to Ralf Steitz, who has handled foredeck duties for the likes of Dennis Conner and Paul Cayard.

This has produced collateral benefits. It put the spotlight on a lesser-known award, which has been given out since 2002 and recognizes individuals “whose vision and guidance have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of sailor education.” Simultaneously, honoring an accomplished racer who gives back to the community as a teacher highlights the efforts of thousands of individuals who are toiling “in the trenches” — in clubs, schools and community programs — building the foundation for the sport’s future by training the next generation of sailors.

Steitz, 45, who is married and lives in Port Washington, N.Y., still races but has found another professional calling as the offshore sailing director at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., and as a member of the Safety at Sea Committee at Storm Trysail Club in Larchmont, N.Y. He also has been teaching the Junior Safety at Sea Seminar at the Larchmont Yacht Club, a program that borrows big boats to train more than 200 young sailors each summer.

As sure-footed as Steitz is on a heeling and pitching deck, he is equally able to speak his mind, especially about safety issues. “Practice makes perfect. It’s the only way to get good at anything, be it golf, tennis or boat-handling,” he says. “How can anyone expect to become a good seaman without regular training? And by regular I don’t mean twice a year in calm conditions, but twice a month, preferably when it blows because that’s when things go wrong. Don’t use a life ring, but put a live person in the water, wearing a survival suit, a PFD and a helmet so he won’t get dinged up.”

Books and computer courses, he maintains, can provide guidance, but that won’t be enough if you have to yank down the main in 60 knots of wind and get a trysail up. “To be performed safely, such a job requires every one of the crew to know every move by heart,” he says. In other words, there’s no substitute for training at sea, and coming from Steitz that’s hard to dismiss, because he’s been there. And in at least one incident he got more than his fill of excitement.

I met Steitz March 5, 1995, a date that’s etched into memory because of the sinking of oneAustralia during the last America’s Cup held in San Diego. With a headliner like that, all other news was relegated to the back pages, so few noticed Ralf’s story, which unfolded not far from the spot where the Aussies had sunk. Team Dennis Conner was racing the all-women America3 syndicate on the defender course, but things weren’t going well. The boat had performance issues, and the track of the new mast was acting up, so they had to drop the main and send someone aloft to deal with it.

Wearing a special climbing harness, bowman Greg Prussia had been hauled up three times, and Steitz was aloft for the second time. It was a wet and windy day with high swells and steep seas. The mast was wet and slick with lubricants, and suddenly Steitz lost his grip and swung free, 30 to 40 feet from side to side and 10 to 15 feet fore and aft as the boat rolled and pitched.

“I hit the jib like a trampoline, and it shot me around the back of the boat,” he remembers. “I grabbed the first thing I could, which was the backstay.” But then he was turned upside down and twisted around several times, some 65 feet above deck. “I was spinning around like a top … too dizzy to get hurt,” says Steitz.

Prussia managed to pull him back to the mast, where he switched him to a different halyard before helping him down. “If I said I wasn’t scared, I’d be lying,” Steitz admitted before limping away. He was battered and bruised, but he wasn’t going to complain, since the alternative could have been a trip to Davy Jones’s locker.

A native of the German island of Helgoland in the North Sea, Steitz knew boats before he knew the alphabet. “All I wanted to do then was to sail, sail, sail,” he says. “In all these years that hasn’t changed.”

But much has happened in the meantime. He got his taste of big-boat racing with successful German campaigns at Kiel, Cowes and in Sardinia in the early 1980s, and apprenticed as a sailmaker. In 1984 he was conscripted by the German military, and when he got out he was ready to escape. He packed his duffel, borrowed cash for a plane ticket from yacht designer Rolf Vrolijk, and headed for Australia to sail in the 1986 Sydney-Hobart race.

The Australian summer beats the German winter, so he got stuck Down Under and went to work for spar builder Z-Spar. He was on location in Fremantle for the 1987 America’s Cup — “sailing and partying, partying and sailing” — and built a boom for Stars & Stripes. Eventually this connection turned into stints with Conner in the 1992 and ’95 Cups, but he also did time on the match racing circuit and aboard maxis like Il Moro di Venezia, owned by the late Raul Gardini and skippered by Cayard. In 2000 he joined Cayard’s AmericaOne to challenge for the Cup in Auckland.

Today, Steitz is replicating the success of his training programs at Larchmont and Kings Point in such venues as Annapolis, Md., Newport, R.I., and Marblehead, Mass. Thus far more than 2,000 young sailors have attended, according to US Sailing. But old habits die hard, so Steitz still likes to compete. “I don’t want to talk about safety all the time. It’s a priority, but there must be some racing, too,” he says, pointing out the Merchant Marine Academy boats that sailed the 2007 Sonar Worlds in Marblehead and the showing of the two Academy teams at the ’06 Farr 40 Worlds in Newport, where they battled 36 well-funded teams with top-notch talent and scored a top-10 finish in one of the races. “Sure we had old boats with old sails, but our students had an outstanding experience racing at that level.”

And that kind of experience is precisely what sailing educators want to provide to teens and college students who might drop out of sailing if they lose interest. “We want to keep young sailors in the game when they graduate from dinghies,” says Sheila McCurdy, vice chair of US Sailing’s training committee. “We introduce them to competitive sailing on bigger boats, which requires different skills and a different level of teamwork.”

Clubs around the country are beginning to implement big-boat programs for juniors, encouraged by Steitz’s successful revival of the intercollegiate big-boat regatta at Kings Point in 2006 that attracted more than 30 entries.

Steitz has moved a lot since he began to dedicate his time and expertise to education, but he is far from finished. Next on his list is making safety courses available to more people, more frequently and in more locations. “Seamanship is about self-sufficiency and confidence,” he says, “but it requires different skills and drills on different boats.”

He also thinks about BYOB (bring your own boat) clinics that target both skipper and vessel, taking into account the different needs of the different sailing demographics. “Safety training is not just for offshore sailors,” says Steitz. “It’s important for all kinds of sailors who do all kinds of sailing and all kinds of boats.”

Even though he has the ear of the right people, he knows that changing attitudes takes time, especially in a sport that’s deeply rooted in tradition. In the meantime, he says, there are things everyone can do to become a better and safer sailor. “Sailing up to your mooring without using the engine would be a good start.”

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings. You can order a signed copy of his book, “The Folkboat Story” ($35, plus shipping) by sending an e-mail to scribe@thefluidpen.com (put “Folkboat Story” in the subject line).