Starting small and growing bigger. This is the secret to success that has led Club Nautico de San Juan’s (CNSJ) director of sailing and head coach Jose ‘Yoyo’ Berrios to put Puerto Rico on the map as a global sailing power.
Berrios, a San Juan native, grew up in a sailing household. His parents owned a J/29 that they would cruise to the British Virgin Islands on long weekends and holidays. A few years later, they added a Topper (11ft single-handed sailing dinghy) to the family’s fleet to give Berrios and his brothers a craft of their own to skipper.
“I was eight at the time and not heavy enough to sail the Topper well,” Berrios explains. “My parents enrolled me in the first summer sailing classes at CNSJ, so I could learn to sail correctly and from a professional. We were taught in Holders, a small sailing dinghy that looks like an Optimist. They held a small regatta at the end of the first session. I took first. It gave me the excitement to keep going.”
On weekends, Berrios’ family traveled to Fajardo where the Puerto Rico Sailing Federation held an instructional program in Lasers. Berrios battled the heavy winds and huge seas outside the breakwater at Marina Puerto del Rey, following the bigger kids, and capsizing often. It wasn’t until 1993 that avid sailor Jose Fuentes introduced the Optimist to Puerto Rico for his son to sail. Berrios was age 15 at the time and the Optimist was too small for him. His younger brother Alejandro was just the right age and size for the Opti. It wasn’t long before Berrios was tapped by a group of parents to coach the fledging Optimist sailors.
“My first thought was how would I have time to sail in regattas and also coach,” he explains. “At the same time, I enjoyed using my knowledge and receiving training as a coach from guest coaches.”
Berrios made his coaching debut at age 16 at the Optimist South American Championships in Ecuador. The international press easily mistook him for a competitor.
Hurricane Georges devastated the training facility in Fajardo. Sail instruction then shifted to the San Juan Bay Marina. Not long after a member of CNSJ ventured across the bay and asked Berrios to head up the Club’s sailing program. Berrios did this part-time while assisting the setting up of an Optimist sail training program in Ponce. In 1998, he took the position at CNSJ fulltime.
“My goal when I started was to develop the sport of sailing for younger kids, ages six and seven, and do for them what I wasn’t able to do,” Berrios explains. “Plus, I always wanted to develop a year-round program, not one that just operated on the weekends or in the summer.”
More than a decade later Berrios has accomplished both goals. Graduates of his program include Raul Rios, who won the 2008 Optimist World Championships, and Juanky Perdomo, who earned a Gold Medal in Boy’s Laser Radial at the 2013 ISAF Youth Worlds. Yet his to-do list is far from finished.
“Where I am now with CNSJ is developing a program where we have teams that can compete in dinghies like Optimists and Lasers as well as in keelboats like IC24s and CSA race boats. At the same time, I introduced private lessons for adults a few years ago and this program has grown. My goal is a complete program for the whole family to sail – children, their parents and grandparents.”
Berrios, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, has discovered that he still has time to enjoy racing and cruising. He’s crewed aboard Jamie Torre’s Beneteau First 40 and now Melges 32, both called Smile and Wave, in events such as Puerto Rico’s Heineken Regatta and St. Thomas’ International Rolex Regatta. More recently, he chartered a Beneteau 50 with a group of friends and sailed the BVI over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“My vision is to use my skills to grow the sport of sailing even further in Puerto Rico,” Berrios said.