Published July 18. 2010 4:00AM
New London - Michael Vitrano thought he could get to the buoy, turn around and return to the dock, even though he had never sailed before.
The 30-second maneuver was part of his first sailing lesson at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
When Vitrano missed the dock, he tried to turn around and the boat tipped, coming close to capsizing. Vitrano's partner in the dinghy, Eric Lenoir, had plenty of sailing experience. But Lenoir let Vitrano be the skipper so he could learn, too.
"It's a great way to build teamwork," said Vitrano, of Burlington. "You have to work with your shipmates. You can't do it by yourself, and that's helpful not only for sailing, but also for everything else."
Each summer, the newest academy recruits, or swabs, learn how to sail in the Thames River. For most, it is their first time in a sailboat.
While learning the basics of sailing, they pick up skills they will need as officers in the Coast Guard. And they develop a deeper appreciation for the service's maritime roots.
"Down here, you get the very essence of who we are in the Coast Guard," said Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe, academy superintendent. "Everything that we do is in, on or around the water. It's an important connection, and I hope they develop a real interest in sailing and a love for it."
"If it weren't for the river, we would just be a campus somewhere," said Allen L. Kruger II, the academy's waterfront director.
A mission statement says that the academy will graduate young men and women "with a liking for the sea and its lore," who are "well grounded in seamanship."
But most cadets don't arrive at the academy as expert sailors.
"If you go to the academy, it's probably assumed by the general public that you naturally like ships, aircraft and the water," Kruger said. "But people come here for a lot of reasons. They want to serve the country. There are legacy reasons and financial reasons. It's a great school. We introduce most of them to the water."
A 'challenging' river
During their first summer, swabs spend about 20 hours at the Sailing and Seamanship Center, known also as Jacob's Rock. The center is built on top of the rock, which sits in the middle of the river.
Little has been written about the history of the rock, but a cadet in the 1950s found that the rock was originally owned by a farmer and fisherman named Jacob Waterhouse, who lived on the opposite side of the river during the 1600s. Waterhouse apparently used the rock to establish the boundaries of his land.
The name stuck for the sailing center, which was completed in 1984 and is used to teach sailing and seamanship skills and to house the sailing teams.
"The river offers a very unique and interesting venue for sailing and sail training, with the size of the river, the wind's direction, velocity, oscillation and the current," said Doug Clark, director of sailing. "It's an extremely challenging place."
The academy has 85 sailboats, including 50 dinghies. A fundraising effort is under way to replace some of the older large training craft. Some cadets sail for recreation while others join the sailing and racing teams.
A team in the summer ocean racing program took first place in its class last month in the prestigious 635-mile ocean race from Newport to Bermuda.
Katie Gilligan and Cameron Welicka, the two senior cadets on the team, learned to sail at the academy. Welicka said he was "giddy" the first time. Gilligan was frightened. She spun in a circle and capsized.
But Gilligan knows sailing skills will help her in the future as a junior Coast Guard officer, especially when she responds to a call for a sailboat in distress.
"I know what being on a sailboat is like and how to best work with the sailboat to get them the help they need," said Gilligan, a first-class cadet from Pennsylvania. "I grew up in the mountains, surrounded by trees. Now I'm comfortable with charts, navigating, driving. I like being on the water all the time. It's really great."
Welicka wants to be a Coast Guard pilot, but he plans to use the skills he learned sailing even if he is not on the water.
"Learning how to get different personalities to work together has been the epitome of leadership for this summer I would say," said Welicka, a first-class cadet from Virginia.
Even if the swabs do not join a sailing team, they all build on their introductory lessons in subsequent summers, sailing on the academy's larger boats and on the training barque Eagle.
The Thames River, Eagle's home, has been the "gateway to hundreds of summer cruises" for generations of academy cadets, said Capt. Eric C. Jones, commanding officer of the barque, in an e-mail from the training cruise.
Training ships and cutters "have taken on their cadets and officer candidates on the banks of the Thames, sailing through Fishers Island Sound and the Race, bound for the at-sea experience that makes the Coast Guard Academy so unique," Jones wrote. "Likewise, the Thames calmly welcomes cadets and officer candidates back from the tumult of the sea at the end of the cruises."
Competent sailors by graduation
After only two sailing lessons, Jessica Lukasik and Moira McNeil were already excited to spend more time on the water, at the sailing center and on Eagle.
"Being from Colorado, with mountains in my backyard, this is definitely different, but it's a necessity for the Coast Guard," said McNeil, a swab. "We need to practice these skills because eventually that is what our jobs will be like. And stuff like sailing you can't do in a pool."
It took Lukasik and McNeil several tries to right their capsized boat.
But all of the new swabs will be competent sailors by the time they graduate in 2014, said Burhoe, the superintendent. He cannot imagine the academy farther from the river.
"Sailing is at the very heart of what we do," Burhoe said. "If we were inland, we'd move."