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Caribbean Sailors Excel at Opti North Americans in Puerto Rico

The Caribbean boasts some of the best sailing conditions in the world. Yet, one of the biggest problems sailors face is isolation from large fleets of fellow competitors and the chance to measure and improve personal performance against top talent. Some sailors solve this problem by flying off to distant lands for regattas. But this can be expensive. Another way to gain these valuable opportunities is via world-class competition within the Caribbean region itself. This is just what happened July 3 to 11, when the Ponce Yacht & Fishing Club in Puerto Rico hosted the Optimist North American Championships.

“I know the waters here well and that was good,” said 13-year-old Ivan Aponte from Puerto Rico. Aponte placed third in the fleet of 189 competitors and won the 2006 North American Champion title, while Singapore’s Sean Lee placed first in the event and earned the Non-North American Country Optimist title.

Trinidad , an island nation that hosted last year’s North Americans and boasted a sailor—Matthew Scott—who placed second in the 2005 Optimist World Championships, proved its prowess again. Fourteen-year-old James Leighton placed 19th in this year’s event, second to Aponte in Caribbean finishers.

Twelve-year-old Ard Van Aanholt from Curacao placed 33rd in the highly competitive fleet. “I always do well at home. Here it was much harder. But it showed me where my skills were without having to travel somewhere where it’s cold.”

“Concentration,” says Puerto Rico’s Aponte. “That’s what it takes to make a winner. And, lots of sailing time. I trained harder for this event that I ever have because I know kids in other countries train very hard.”

Indeed, says Fernando Alegre, who coached Trinidad’s Scott to his ace performance in last year’s Worlds and who trained Singapore’s winning sailor, Lee, this year, “It’s all in the mind. The desire to win has to come from the kid. Once they have this desire, a coach can guide it and shape it. Anyone can sail technically well. But winning is a mental game. That’s why we always arrive a week early. It’s not only to get acclimated with the area, but also to prepare the mind.”

Alegre adds that his Singapore team trains two to three hours every weekday and four to five hours on the weekends. “If a big regatta is coming up, we’ll add gym time,” he says.

The skill of Caribbean-based Optimist sailors is steadily moving up, observes Peter Barclay, the Peru-based vice president of the International Optimist Dinghy Association.

“Compared to last year’s North American Championships, the only island we have missing is St. Vincent. I understand that they prefer to train more in smaller international regattas before competing again in this level of competition and that’s fine.”

Barclay adds, “It’s one thing to start an Optimist sailing program and it’s another to take kids from a beginner level to a high level of competition. Many programs that want to pursue this path begin by bringing in a coach, then attending several of the smaller international regattas within the region, and then going on to the North Americans and Worlds when their sailors reach that highly competitive level. Otherwise, starting a program and then jumping the kids right away into competitions like the North Americans can lead to a big economic effort with frustration as the result.”

In the future, Barclay says, “We look forward to continued development of Optimist sailing in the Caribbean. There are many programs now, some started by yacht clubs, some by community groups and yet others by private individuals. By the look of the competition at this year’s North Americans, the Caribbean is starting to produce sailors who have the ability to do well in world competitions.”

Puerto Rico ’s Ivan Aponte’s father agrees. “I think this event has been very important for the Caribbean. We have shown that we have a lot of talent. And, we have shown that we have a lot to still learn too. Our kids have all moved up this week and will continue to upgrade. And, that’s important. Sailing is our Caribbean heritage.

It took nearly three decades from its inception in 1976 for an Optimist North American Championship to be held in the Caribbean. That first one was last year, in Tobago. This year’s Puerto Rico event marks the second time the event has been hosted within the region. If Curacao’s Cor van Aanholt gets his dream, his Netherlands Antilles home will be the host site for 2008.

CARIBBEAN SAILOR’S RESULTS (189 competitors)

3. Ivan Aponte, Puerto Rico (36)
19. James Leighton, Trinidad (93)
31. Jose Nigaglioni, Puerto Rico (124)
32. Yvann Thelier, Guadeloupe (124)
33. Ard Van Aanholt, Curacao (125)
40. Raul Rios, Puerto Rico (141)
41. Mattis Naud, Guadeloupe (143)
51. Alec Anderson, British Virgin Islands (161)
62. Ian Barrows, St. Thomas, USVI (182)
66. Wesley Scott, Trinidad (186)
67. Alexander Weedon, Trinidad (189)
70. Eliot Merceron, Guadeloupe (201)
73. Fernando Monllor, Puerto Rico (208)
86. Sebastian Bros, Dominican Republic (248)
87. Ramon Gonzalez, Puerto Rico (250)
89. Alejandro Monllor, Puerto Rico (253)
91. Juankky Perdomo, Puerto Rico (257)
95. Billy Gibbons, St. Croix, USVI (280)
100. Annick Lewis, Trinidad (289)
109. William Bailey, St. Thomas, USVI (320)
110. Alexander Coyle, St. John, USVI (326)
112. Andrea Verdeja, Dominican Republic (326)
119. Eduardo Ariza, Dominican Republic (359)
122. Amy Cox, Barbados (361)
129. Luis Prida, Dominican Republic (391)
130. Carmen Rivera, Puerto Rico (392)
135. Francesco Russo, Dominican Republic (407)
136. Nicholas Deane, Trinidad (408)
138. Jonathan Lapiquonne, Guadalupe (411)
139. Nikki Barnes, St. Thomas, USVI (412)
141. Sarah Douglas, Barbados (418)
144. Victor Aponte, Puerto Rico (424)
149. Eugene Hendrix, Curacao (435)
150. Philipine Van Aanholt, Curacao (436)
154. Just Van Aanholt, Curacao (457)
159. Roberto Puig, Puerto Rico (466)
160. Bibiana Ruiz, Puerto Rico (479)
161. Nicholas Landreth-Smith, Trinidad (482)
163. Nicholas Knox, Trinidad (485)
164. Armando Collazo, Puerto Rico (497)
167. Gabriel Cadenas, Puerto Rico (500)
168. Manuel Gonzalez, Puerto Rico (503)
173. Michael Coogan, Puerto Rico (533)
175. Lucas Reader, Barbados (543)
183. Matthew Courtis, Barbados (581)
184. Philip Mastereid, Barbados (584)
185. Christanne Dash, Barbados (589)
188. Andre Reguero, Puerto Rico (624)
189. Shane Defreitas, Barbados (626)

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