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the Dellenbaugh tradition, Becca and Emily become champions in the world of sailing
By Suzanne Gerber Photographs by Gregory Cherin
Tennis has Venus and Serena. Acting's got Lynn and Vanessa. And junior sailing has Rebecca and Emily. In case you've been living in a cave, or far from coastal waters, that would be the Williams sisters, the British Redgraves, and the homegrown Dellenbaughs.
At sixteen, Emily is two years younger than Becca, as she's known, and in the past three years, they have snagged either first place or "Top Girl" honors in every important junior sailing event from Florida to Gdynia, Poland. Both are members of the u.s. National Youth Sailing Team and have been named as national Jobson Junior All-Stars, an impressive one-two punch. When they compete against each other in two-handed boats, it's common for them to finish first and second, which the boys will justify by saying, "Well, yeah, they're the Dellenbaughs." It's also common for junior sailing events to award a "Top Girl" prize. But after one big regatta, where Becca and Emily finished first and second and another all-girl boat placed third, one spectator quipped, "Are they going to give out a 'Top Boy' trophy?"
When the Dellenbaughs race, people take notice. You would expect them to be well-known here on their home turf, but their reputations transcend local waters. In fact, a prospective eighteen-year-old instructor for the junior program at their base, the Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, said one of the reasons he wanted to work there was because "that's where the Dellenbaughs come from."
Curled up on a sofa in the living room of their Colonial, barn-style Easton home, the girls look like they could have just trooped home from any high school in America. Their clean-cut good looks don't require makeup. They are dressed similarly, in hoodies (Becca in baby blue, Emily in pink) and sweatpants, their long hair pulled back in ponytails. But a glance around the well-appointed, comfortable home reveals
44 WESTPORT JULY 2006
hints of other lives being led. Photos of the girls in boats, the billowing sails of regatta fleets, nautical-therned art and one supersized silver trophy on a side table clearly all bespeak excellence. Pokey, the family's four-year-old beagle who's bunked down at the girls' feet, doesn't have a clue or a care what skilled sailors' hands reach down to pet her head.
Emily curls and slouches and taps her feet; she fidgets like a kid who would rather be letting out sails or kicking a soccer balL Becca, on the other hand, sits upright and poised, hands folded over her crossed legs. She's been called willowy, and it's a perfect word for the graceful young woman preparing to enter Dartmouth this falL Several inches shorter and a couple of years younger than her sister, Emily has at least as much intensity as her sister. As the girls discuss sailing, their goals and their lives, they speak one language to an outsider and a different one to each other - they share a running commentary and inside jokes and giggle like sisters.
When Becca says she's looking forward to taking her place on the Dartmouth sailing team this fall, Emily pipes up that she would like to go to Dartmouth, too. Becca shoots her a look that only an older sister can give and shakes her head. "Dartmouth is my school," she says.
"Yeah, well, I like the name," says Emily.
There's a pause as they attempt a stare-down, but both girls erupt with laughter. Sweet and soft-spoken, intelligent and polite, can these really be two of the fiercest competitors in junior sailing today? ' »
Emily and Becca Dellenbaugh relax for a moment at Pequot Yacht Club. These sisters are two of the best sailors in the country, each having won major national championships.
Becca Dellenbaugh and crewmate Leigh Hammel enjoy winning the 2005 U.S. Junior Women's Doublehanded Championship . • Becca shows her competitive eye as she and crewmate Leigh take on the 420S .• Emily steers her Optimist in the December 2004 Orange
Bowl in Miami - a warmup for her win (over 93 competitors) at the 2005 Opti Europeans in Poland. • Emily wins the U.S.
Youth Sailing Championships in 2005, becoming the youngest and first female helmsperson to win the doublehanded class.
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Asked whether champion sailors are born or bred, Susan Dellenbaugh, their mom, quickly responds, "Both." Lots of kids get good when they spend time on the water, she says, "but winning requires internal drive and desire - and I guess there's got to be a bit of innate talent."
If such a talent is passed through the genes, it's no wonder Becca and Emily are teeming with it. Susan has won four Thistle National Championships with her husband, David, a lifelong sailor whose list of racing achievements includes three America's Cup campaigns. Dave's father, Warren, was a "wonderful sailor," according to Mary von Conta, doyenne of junior sailing in southern Connecticut and an old family friend. "Warren sailed his Trdal Wave into Southport one fine day, having come up from the Caribbean single-handedlv, His boat was the party boat," Mary recalls. And it's where he met Jean, Dave's mother. "They were both excellent sailors, as was David's uncle, Fred Dellenbaugh."
Young David spent summers cruising with his family to the Cape, Block Island and the Vineyard. Like his daughters, Dave learned to sail at Pequot at age ten. He started winning a lot, but travel wasn't a big part of the scene back then; mostly he competed on Long Island Sound. Making friends was as much fun as the actual sailing. But he was good, and at sixteen he
finished seventeenth out of 100 boats at the Lightning North America Championship.
After four years at Cornell, he traded boats for a school bus in Boston. In 1978 busing was a hotbutton issue, and Dave's first job was driving African-American kids from Roxbury to the fiercely Irish-Catholic schools of South Boston. "I grew up sheltered and wanted to expand my horizons," he says. He sure got it. Sometimes he drove his route accompanied by a police escort.
His liberal spirit has stayed with him, though a neatly trimmed beard only hints at the old hippie vegetarian he once was. "For as long as I've known him," says Mary von Conta, "he's always been an activist and a feminist. He's very serious about his commitments, and Emily and Becca have benefited hugely from this."
In Boston Dave crewed a bit, mostly on larger boats, but sometimes he would take out a smaller boat, which kept his juices flowing. After five years, he had come to a fork in the road: continue this mostly landlubber existence or move back to Connecticut and sail on a regular basis, something he realized he was missing more and more. In 1981 he moved home and got an editorial job at Yacht Racing magazine (now Sailing World). Once he started sailing competitively, he realized that he hadn't lost his chops - that year he came within a quarter point of winning the men's national
championship, losing to the world champs.
In 1983 the magazine hired a new art director, Susan Hausmann (now his wife), and a friend tapped Dave to be part of his crew in the Congressional Cup, the country's biggest match racing regatta, in which just two boats compete. They wound up winning that year - and the next - and practically made it a hat trick in 1985, only to be beat out at the last minute. Then Dave was invited to skipper his own boat in the Con Cup in 1986, the year when the America's Cup moved to Perth, Australia.
As providence would have it, Dave was hired as a tactician on the Chicago-based Heart of America. "I was incredibly excited to have a chance at being part of the America's Cup," he says, a thrill rising in his normally low-key voice. As tactician, he says in that charming way sailors have of making it all sound so simple, his job was to figure out what the boat should do, while the skipper does everything he can to make it go fast. "It was a great time," he says, even though his boat ultimately didn't qualify. "But we improved a lot."
Enough to make another run at the Cup in 1992, this time in San Diego. The whole Dellenbaugh clan relocated from September 1991 to the following May. Dave was again tactician and also steered the boat in the crucial pre-start maneuvering, before handing over the
helm to friend and teammate Buddy Melges, an Olympic gold medalist and one of the best American sailors ever. They beat the Italian boat II Mora di Venezia 4-1 in the finals in May 1992. Emily doesn't have memories of this heady time, but Becca has a few, including having her picture snapped on Bill Koch's legendary America3•
In 1995 defender Bill Koch did something unprecedented: He assembled an all-women's America's Cup team and hired Dave to coach. They started off well, but were not good enough, so Dave came aboard as tactician. In the last challenger selection race, they lost to Dennis Conner - defeated but proud.
Reflecting on his accomplishments, Dave says, "I did a few things and I did them to a high level, and the main one was sailing. I invested a lot of my time in it, and it was a great experience seeing what it takes to get to pretty much the highest level you can go with it. My philosophy, for myself and with my girls, is give something your all and see how far you can go. It doesn't have to be sailing. I love sailing but I don't presume to know it's right for anybody else, even my kids. I just wanted to give them the experience and see if they liked it. Susan and I have encouraged them to try a lot of things. Mostly, we're just happy that they enjoy
something a lot."
('I'd say sailors are very laid-back people. They only get competitive on the water.
I guess I am competitive in school, but not against other people. I just always try to
do my best."
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The 420S World Championships, in Brest, France. See Becca's boat in the middle ("USA" on the sail). This, her first Worlds, is one of only three teams the U.S. sent to compete in the women's fleet. Sister Emily will join in the fun this month.
• A family shot in 1992, the day after dad beat the Italian boat II Moro di Venezia to win the America's Cup-and one day after Emily's second birthday.
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"We Compete Against Ourselves" You would never know it today, but when the girls started racing, both were scared of big winds. Emily would make excuses to not sail, fearing she would capsize. Then she had an epiphany. "Once, racing in Florida, I did flip over," she says, "and I realized, hey, it's not that bad after all. That's when things changed for me."
Becca wasn't crazy about sailing in the beginning, but, she says, "my dad loved it and I liked being on a boat by myself." She competed in her first regatta at age nine, in an Optimist (or "Opti") which everyone starts off in. "I tried my heart out," she recalls. "I finished
twentieth out of twenty-five boats, but I won Sportsmanship." She won her next regatta (and countless others since), and good sportsmanship hasn't been lost along the way. In fact, in 2004 it earned her one of the most prestigious awards in junior sailing, the Brooke Gonzalez Trophy, named for a great young sailor who died in a car accident and awarded every year to an outstanding girl sailor on Long Island Sound who has earned the respect of her peers. One of her nominating letters came from a group of kids who sailed out of Pequot. They had put together a team to compete in a regatta, but when they arrived, they were missing essential equipment. Becca showed them how to rig their mast and gave them tips on current, tide and wind. She took a lot of time and was genuinely helpful. She's proof that you can be kind and respectful and still be a winner.
"It's interesting," says Becca, "because I would say sailors are very laid-back people. They only get competitive on the water. I guess I am competitive in school, but not against other people. I just always try to do my best."
Adds Emily, "Sometimes it's advantageous to do the nice thing. You might choose not to tack on someone at one point, and later they don't tack on you at a key time."
Does she consider herself competitive? "Not
externally. I mean, I don't yell at people, for the most part. If I am competitive, it only comes out on the water."
Perhaps the toughest competition the girls ever faced was this past February, at the 420 Midwinter Championships in Florida - they were up against each other in a qualifying event for the 2006 World Youth Championships. "We'd gone back and forth for eleven races over three days," recounts Becca's frequent teammate Leigh Hammel, who has also crewed for Emily. "The first two days we kept trading the lead. It wasn't until the last day that we realized how close we were in points. All we had to do was finish one boat behind them. Most of the race we were very close." Then, just before the finish line, another boat got between them. "That maneuver was the difference between qualifying and not. At first we were upset, but when we had time to process what had happened, we were really happy for Emily and Briana [Provancha, her crew]."
Susan Dellenbaugh remembers
feeling emotionally torn about Emily's win. "It was wonderful but I just wanted them to sail their best," she says with equal measures of diplomacy and
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sincerity. Then she adds, "I wish they were four years apart instead of two. But one of the things I learned a long time ago is that just because you win one regatta doesn't mean you're the best sailor in the universe."
"Sometimes it's advantageous to do the nice thing. You might choose not to tack on someone at one point, and later they don't tack on you at a key time ," -EMILY
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Ask about the Dellenbaughs' racing style, and everyone uses the same word. Not "fierce" or "competitive," which would apply. The word you hear over and over is "fun." Leigh says, "We have a lot of fun together. It's a big part of who we are as a team. I'm sure other people have fun, but when we're practicing, it seems like we have more fun."
Miami-based Elizabeth Kratzig
coaches teens (and once, the Dutch Olympic team) and knows Becca and Emily well. "Becca has been great to coach because she's a very good listener," she says. "And she has the skills to implement what she's told. From the beginning of getting into 420s [the larger boat you graduate into after Optis], her talent was obvious because it takes most people a while to adapt. It takes athletic ability to be a good sailor, but it also takes a sensitivity to one's surroundings, which Becca has. But the most notable thing about her is that she is always smiling, always having fun, even if she's
having a tough regatta. She never gives
up, and that's important."
Though two years younger than Becca, Emily is head and shoulders above her peers, according to Kratzig. "She's as good as the boys and is a harder worker. She doesn't smile as much as Becca, but both of them have worked so hard and have put in so much time and are such focused individuals that they're ahead of most people their age. You're going to see Emily win an Olympic medal one day."
Questioned about who their role models are, Emily answers for both of them: "Our parents. Dad is a big one because he got us into it and still gets everything ready for us for regattas." Becca points to other youth sailors - two older girls from New Jersey and 2004 summer Olympians Kevin Burnham, who coached Becca a few times, and Paul Forester, "a role model for a lot of young sailors," she notes.
"Also all my coaches, and probably my sister," Emily continues, shooting Becca what can only be called a sisterly smirk. Becca flashes a Mona Lisa smile and pats her sister's knee. Though there's a designated bedroom for each, the girls choose to sleep in the same room. Both compete in a creative international competition called Odyssey of the Mind; both are top-notch soccer players and Girl Scouts who have earned their Cadette Silver Award; and they love to read, go to the movies and hang out with friends and family. And on their way into the history books, they've earned the respect of everyone they sail with and against.
"Am 1 proud?" asks Dave with a laugh.
"Yeah, sure. I'm proud about the results, but I'm mostly proud that they've tried hard to do their best." With typical modesty, he lets someone else have the last word. "There's a quote that sums up how I, and my family, feel," he says, citing Dr. Stuart Walker, a pediatrician, sailor, author, and acquaintance:
"Winning may be the objective of the game. But it's not the object of playing the game." In other words, cups and trophies are nice, but the Dellenbaughs sail because it's fun. m
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