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A World of Snipe

Craft of Contentment
Craft of Contentment (Illustration: Garlo Giambarresi/Morgan Gaynin/)

For more than 30 years, the Snipe—a hard-chine 15-footer almost a century old—has been my teacher. I first stepped into one as a newbie 20-something, as a crew for the most demanding skipper I’ve ever sailed with. That unlikely “blind date” led to countless friendships, fitness, failures and, of course, fun.

Snipe sailing takes me all over the country and around the world—and brings me right back home to Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, where Kim Couranz and I won the Snipe Women’s Worlds in 2018. I’ve rigged boats in a shivery, rain-soaked Danish boat park; surfed ocean waves in Japan, where swells seemed to swallow boats and rigs whole. I’ve drifted around a Massachusetts lake so small that I could overhear an international sailor wonder aloud where the races would be conducted. If variety is the spice of life, the Snipe is the cayenne pepper of one-design sailing.

What draws me to this quirky one-design is the challenge to improve—the continuum of learning and personal growth that eventually took me all the way to the Olympics. Usually, sailors become lifers in whatever class they grow up sailing. Even though racing dominated my teen summers and college years, I didn’t have my first Snipe sighting until age 25. Wandering the docks during a springtime visit to Annapolis, Maryland, I spotted a pair of Snipes out practicing. The boom seemed so ridiculously high that I didn’t quite believe it when my tour guide explained that the Snipe was one of the most competitive classes around. Really? That funny little boat?

One month later, I received that first crewing invitation. After several years away from competitive sailing, I certainly wasn’t thinking about the next 30 years, or how much this odd craft could teach me; I was just hoping I wouldn’t completely embarrass myself. As soon as I hung up the phone, I researched it.

No spinnaker? How could this be any fun?

Five days later, Ed Adams and I won the 1990 Chesapeake Olympic Classes Regatta. I was hooked. Snipe sailing, Adams told me on the long drive home, was where college sailors go to die—because it provides a similar tactical and social vibe. Yet, even as a newbie crew, I’d already tasted the additional overlay of technical challenge. I was hungry—no, famished—to learn more. “I gotta regatta,” I remember telling myself and my friends as I signed on to crew for as many weekends as possible. Snipes migrated to Florida in the winter, I discovered, unaware that learning the intricacies of Miami’s Biscayne Bay would eventually help me win the 2004 Olympic Trials in the Yngling. Regattas became my primary source of friendships, education and enjoyment—all centered on an easy road-trip package that was built and rigged right up the road from my home base.

Showing up for my first regatta as Adams’ crew gave me instant credibility and leapfrogged me right to the head of the class—where crewing slots are hard to come by. I went to my first world championship in Brazil with Andrew Pimental, owner of Jibetech, a Snipe class builder, who taught me that a laid-back style works as long as you hike harder and catch more waves than the competition. Two years of “cross-training” with Henry Filter showed me the total dedication of an Olympic campaign. Sailmakers Greg Fisher and George Szabo taught me how to tune (on and off the water), and proved once and for all that boatspeed kills—especially when we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And even though I met my husband through other sailing, he was welcomed into the Snipe family, until knee surgery forced him to give up dinghies.

I had my first taste at the helm when Pimental offered me his boat for a women’s national championship. Though it’s now a stand-alone event instead of a prelude to the Senior Nationals, this weekend of fun is still a fantastic entry point for any female—skipper, crew or undecided—who wants to dip a toe into the class. Steering, it turns out, is actually the easier job in the Snipe, partly because there’s a whole lot more room in the back half of the cockpit.

The 1998 Snipe Women’s Worlds, my first international test of helming skills, confirmed that I loved the gut-churning stress of skippering—and also revealed how much more I had to learn. Back in the front of the boat that winter, I peppered Szabo with questions—and also developed a little more attitude, since I now appreciated just how crucial a Snipe crew really is.

In 2001, my Snipe ­experience gave me just enough confidence to start an Olympic Yngling campaign. For teammates, I drew from the top of the Snipe roster. Early on, my team was known for a signature “Snipe look” upwind, as we turned our mainsail inside out to depower. Over time, of course, we refined our rig ­settings. Combined with that ­ever-present hunger to improve, I can confidently state that Snipe sailing helped me build a team that eventually won two races at the 2004 Games.

And of course, all that Yngling training helped me win a few Snipe regattas too. In 2002, when the annual DonQ Regatta in Miami coincided with a rare empty weekend, I teamed up with Pimental for what was supposed to be just a fun three days of sailing. It was, but we also won—once I convinced him to step up to the left more than he thought necessary. After so many training days on Biscayne Bay, I knew that’s where a dying northerly would fade last.

After an Olympic regatta, many sailors take time away from the sport to readjust goals, detox or focus on something else. I dived right back into Snipe sailing, gratefully applying everything I’d learned to competing with others who also lived a 9-to-5 life between regattas. Though I now identified as a skipper, I stepped back into the crewing position for a few select regattas; two Snipe Nationals and a world championship with Szabo, and a Masters Nationals with Peter Commette. Crewing is a fantastic way to learn—though it doesn’t replace making my own mistakes.

In 2010, I was finally able to buy my own Snipe. I also recruited a dependable, smart and entertaining teammate in Kim Couranz. I first gained respect for her brainy wit while comparing Snipe skipper notes, and later learned what a great keelboat teammate she is, but signing on as my Snipe teammate was a brave step; our combined weight was—and still is—30 pounds too light. Ignoring the naysayers, we charged the longtail of the Snipe’s learning curve.

Couranz and I have spent the past decade developing our own toolbox of Snipe speed tricks. Our competitors have patiently answered endless questions, even when we finish ahead of them, and we’ve refined our tuning and sail shape to match our personal strengths, though we are still searching for a setting that makes it possible to hang with the big boys in 12 to 18 knots. At the 2019 Snipe Worlds in Brazil, we achieved an important international milestone; I overheard a South American skipper refer to us as “Carol and Kim” rather than “the girls,” even though we were, as usual, the only all-female team at that 80-boat biennial regatta.

We’ve also realized that spontaneous laughter sometimes works as a weapon (“Are they laughing at me?”), and it is always the best cure for a bad race. Snipe sailing is both a ­priority and a part-time endeavor, slotted between jobs, husbands, houses—even other sports. For Couranz, an aerobic monster, a 50-mile running race is a fun adventure. Which reminds me of another benefit: Sailing a Snipe as a light team is an excellent fitness motivator. Thinking about how miserable I will be on the third beat at the next windy regatta is the incentive I need to push through a third set of reps in the gym, or gasp out one more aerobic interval—which, in turn, ­provides lifelong health benefits.

Thirty years ago, I blind-dated my way into a new family that has inspired so much personal growth—as a sailor of course, but also as a friend and wife and human. From 20-something to 50-something, from young and dumb to older and a bit wiser, I’ve climbed a huge learning curve without ever leaving the Snipe nest. The challenge to improve continues at every single regatta, and I’m still peppering my competitors (both young and old) with questions. With this quirky doublehanded dinghy, the learning never gets old.