How the Game Can Win

The Big Sail, and how an innovative intercollegiate regatta is a win for everyone

It came down to the last race. Stanford and Cal were tied 1-1 in a best of three competition. As both teams prepared to start, the spectators went wild. The marching bands roared, the cheerleaders flew and the live commentary rang out. No, this was not a football game; it was the Big Sail, an intercollegiate regatta between Stanford and UC Berkeley, (“Cal”).

If you are looking for a new kind of regatta that will inject pure fun back into the sport of sailing, take notes.

“We keep having fun with this event, because—how can we not?” said Big Sail founder and live race commentator, Ron Young. “Lots of people pay attention to how to win the game of sailing. What we should be thinking about is how the game can win. And that’s what Big Sail does—by bringing in fans and new types of fun to the sport of sailing.”

Now in its 12th year, the Big Sail takes place each November on the Tuesday before "The Big Game", Cal and Stanford’s 123-year old college football rivalry game. The Big Sail features four divisions: Varsity, Young Alum, Masters and Grandmasters, and is raced in a fleet of one-design J/22s provided by St. Francis Yacht Club. Each division match-races on short courses (300 yards long) for the best two out of three races. Should each school win two of the four divisions, Varsity is the tiebreaker.

This year, Stanford won the Varsity Division and Cal won Young Alum and Masters. Each school won one race of Grandmasters, which meant the third race would determine it all. If Stanford won, the Divisions would be tied and Stanford’s Varsity win would tip them over the edge. If Cal won, they would win three of four Divisions and take the day.

Cal won the start, but Stanford had a good first upwind leg. They opted for the northern side of the course, which turned out to be the favored side, and gained four boatlengths on Cal. At the windward mark, a starboard-tack Stanfor narrowly crossed Cal and even though they had to tack twice to make the pin, they rounded ahead, executed a quick jibe set, and never looked back.

Meanwhile, inside the St. Francis Yacht Club, the crowd went wild. Both school’s marching bands played their fight songs while the mascots wove in and out of the crowds. The dining room and the audience were decked out in red and white for Stanford or blue and gold for Cal; nearly everyone was an alumni or family of one of the Bay Area rival schools.

“To my knowledge, this is the only intercollegiate sailing competition in the country like this,” explained Young. “It incorporates marching bands, cheerleaders and mascots while capitalizing on a vibrant rivalry.”

Marching bands, cheerleaders, mascots and…sailboat racing? It was even more fun than it sounds. 

The regatta has spent a decade perfecting the schedule of the day: first gun sounded at noon, and last race finished no later than 1350 hours so competitors could accept their awards in front of a live and enthused audience. It was easy to watch—short and compressed courses immediately in front of the Club so that, as Young said, “even the oldest grandmother in the room didn't have to turn more than 60 degrees side-to-side to see the action.” It was also easy to follow, as live commentary rang out from both levels of the Club—sailors on the water could hear it just as well as spectators in the clubhouse.

Rivalry was a big draw. Yacht designer Alan Andrews (’77) of San Diego flew in this morning to race for Stanford. Cal performed the perfect collegiate caper by covertly delivering a 500-pound (immovable without a folk-lift) wooden statue of Oski the Bear to the Yacht Club’s lobby on the eve of the Big Sail. Stanford, the gauntlet has been thrown for next year!

Multi-generational loyalty
also fueled the excitement. Many of the young alum remember racing against one another as Varsity sailors; they love this an annual re-match. With sailors ranging from college age to 1967 graduates, the event appealed to generations of friends, fans, and fraternity brothers. “The older folks get to remember their college days and the younger kids get to see a good example: they realize you can keep sailing your whole life,” said Young. 

In the end, both teams and all of their fans celebrated. Stanford won by a hair, but everyone had fun. Next year, Young plans to add a fifth division—a Women’s Division—to get more female sailors on the field. 

After the awards, Young looked around a clubhouse filled with smiling people and said, “People sometimes question how important yacht clubs are, but look around! What’s more important than happiness? Yacht clubs allow us to have fun together. Outside there is a demonstration of skill; inside there are loads and loads of laughs.”

For the full results of Big Sail click HERE

For more photos from photographer Chris Ray click HERE