There are not many sports where you can move from beginner to Olympian in a decade. An even bigger feat is a woman doing so in what has long been the male-dominated sport of sailing. Yet, that’s just what Puerto Rico’s Gretchen Ortiz has accomplished, getting her feet wet first on a Beneteau 40.7 in local and Caribbean regattas and then reaching the pinnacle of the sport as crew in the Mixed Nacra 17 representing her home island at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
“I started sailing later in life, at age 24,” says Ortiz, who lives in San Juan, yet had never tried any water sports despite being surrounded by sea. “I used to play soccer and in one of the games I had an ACL (knee) injury. While I was recovering from surgery, I read many of my boyfriend’s books. These were about rogue waves, being lost at sea, sailing around the world, and these types of topics. Somehow that translated into ‘I want to learn how to sail’.
Learning to Sail
Ortiz studied the basics of sailing by book. However, it was sailboat racing and a real love of the sport that she learned from Jaime Torres. It was 2011 and Torres had purchased a Beneteau 40.7, called her Smile and Wave, and was putting a team together to compete in the Caribbean regatta circuit.
“I asked him if I could join. I told him straight up, ‘I don’t know much about sailing, but I can put in the time, and I learn fast,” Ortiz tells.
Her first regatta, the 600 nautical mile Caribbean 600 around 11 Caribbean Islands, was a long-distance baptism by sail. She got seasick. The entire three days and nights of sailing she spent on the rail. Eating, sleeping, everything on the rail. All the while Ortiz was sick, she looked out and the ocean was comforting. The sound of the water rushing by the boat when going downwind, the pounding of the boat with the waves when going upwind, the sparkling water at night, the dolphins, the turtles, and a shark or two were all part of the scene. Ironically, between her sailing tasks and being sick, and with everything else going on out on the sea, as Ortiz says, “I just fell in love with the sweet and sour of it all.”
She continued crewing onboard Smile and Wave for a half dozen northern Caribbean regattas – including the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, Puerto Rico Heineken Regatta, St. Thomas International Regatta, and BVI Spring Regatta – over the next three months. She started midbow, learned from the bowman, and soon took over the bow position. A decade later, with Torres trading in his Beneteau for a Melges 32 along the way, it’s safe to say that Ortiz has been on the podium every year in almost every regatta she’s sailed in the Caribbean.
“One of the most important things I learned while sailing on Smile and Wave is the importance of the joy of sailing on a ‘Drama Free Zone’ boat. No yelling, other than because of wind noise, no cursing at others, and we all do our best at all times and in whatever way it means that day,” she says.
Ortiz’s path to the Olympics came via mutual friend and fellow Puerto Rican sailor, Enrique ‘Keki’ Figueroa. The two knew of each other but hadn’t sailed together. Ortiz raced keelboats while Figueroa, a five-time Olympian, raced multihulls. Halfway into Figueroa’s 2020 Olympics campaign, he found himself in need of crew.
“The sailing director where I teach sailing (Club Nautico de San Juan) recommended me. We did a tryout, and the rest is history,” she says.
One big difference between racing one hull versus two, Ortiz tells, is that “Everything is so fast. I used to joke that I would hoist the spinnaker at the windward mark and by the time I finished getting out on the trapeze it was time to put the spinnaker away again. It took me a while to get used to the pace, but it is doable.”
The Nacra 17 class for the 2020 Summer Olympics was mixed, meaning one male and one female crew. It was also full foiling. Figueroa, whose competed-on Tornados, Hobie Tigers, Hobie 16s, and Formula 18’s, only had a one-month head start on Ortiz when it came to getting the foiling aspect down pat. Training, on the water, at the gym, running, reading up, sailing seminars, and more proved a full-time job.
“The greatest part of the Olympics is to be able to represent your country against the best of the best of other countries. It fills you with pride and puts your game in a gear that you don’t even know you had. You can get a real high, but you also can get a real low if you don’t perform as you thought you should,” she says.
Since the Olympics, Ortiz has been teaching youth sailors, especially beginners, in the Optimist, Laser, 420, Open Bic, and IC24.
“I love teaching the kids. I love seeing their progress from being attached to their parents to being able to rig their boats, launch them, sail them, and de-rig them all by themselves and take pride in doing so,” she says.
Ortiz continues to race keelboats. In 2023, she raced with fellow Puerto Rico sailor, Sergio Sagramoso, on his Melges 32, Lazy Dog, which won its class at the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta. With Torres and the Smile and Wave team, she enjoyed podium-placing finishes at the St. Thomas International Regatta and BVI Spring Regatta, and Antigua Sailing Week.
Looking ahead, Ortiz plans to keep racing keelboats, teaching sailing, and practicing wing-foiling. Off the water, she enjoys completing mini building projects on her house and garden, and taking care of her chickens and her 17-year-old dog, Almendra.
For women who would like to follow in Ortiz’s footsteps, her advice is this: “Just get out there and sail. Sail, meet people, and sail some more. No matter where you start, or what boat position they put you in, you can always learn and prove your worth in the other positions you aim for. Just sail and meet people.”