Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club’s head coach Jorge Santiago dreams of sailing becoming the national sport of Puerto Rico. This isn’t just wishful thinking. Santiago, as head coach and sailing instructor at the Ponce Yacht & Fishing Club (PYFC) since 2001, has an excellent record of recruiting kids to the program and turning them into international winners. It’s something that has always come naturally to him.
“I was five years old playing at the yacht club when I first saw sailboards,” he says. “Fernando Monllor, Sr., let me play on his board while he de-rigged and he soon started to give me rides. That was my first contact with the water and I was hooked.”
Santiago’s interest received another boost when at age nine his father invited him out on practice sessions with the Ramos brothers, Ronnie and Robbie, aboard the International Rolex Regatta-winning Campechano.
“I was just an observer,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to talk or touch anything, but it was a lot of fun.”
The PYFC has played host to many international competitions. The 1978 Sunfish World Championships and 1979 Pan American Games especially upped the number of Lasers and Sunfish on the island. David Fernandez restored a group of Lasers, made his own sails, and started the first junior sailing program – which Santiago joined. Yet, while he sailed for fun, it was swimming where Santiago was most competitive. Then came the day when his father was to drive him to a swimming competition and the two decided to race the Copa Velasco, what is now the Puerto Rico Heineken International Regatta, instead, on Michael Serrales J/41, Don Q. Santiago never returned to swimming, but began to learn about sailboat racing.
His father bought him a Sunfish and Santiago joined a group of four other teenage sailors.
“We practiced and traveled by ourselves without a coach,” he explains. “We first went to the 1997 Sunfish Worlds in Colombia and asked a lot of questions and really started to learn from the others.”
Two years later the PYFC hosted the 1999 Sunfish World Championships, where Santiago led at first. A poor score on the last day ultimately saw him finish 31st. Not bad in a fleet of over 100. Santiago’s performance caught the eye of Ronnie Ramos.
“Ronnie identified that the PYFC needed a learn-to-sail program and he asked me to head it up,” says Santiago.
Today, while Santiago holds an accounting degree from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, he trains juniors every Saturday from August to May. In the month of June, he runs the PYFC summer camp to teach sailing fundamentals. He also works with serious junior champions, training them for major competitions. One of these is Fernando Monllor, Jr., winner of the 2011 US National Sunfish Midwinter Championship.
“What I try to do is to inspire confidence in young sailors,” says Santiago. “I give them guidelines so that they can develop their own style and know how to make decisions because in sailing the conditions will always change.”
Over the last decade, Santiago has kept up with his own competitive sailing, taking a bronze medal in Snipes at the 2006 CAC Games and a silver medal in J/24s at the 2010 Games. He was also the 2011 IC-24 winner in the CORC Series aboard Team Maximus with crew Manuel Aviles, Luis llorrens, Michael Serrales, Jr. and Sebastian Luna, and looks forward to sailing both J/24s and IC-24s this spring. He also hopes to do more match racing. To this end, he and his team competed in the Gill Match Race at the BVI Spring Regatta and the Carlos Aguilar Match Race in St. Thomas, and he organized a match racing clinic in July at the PYFC taught by Peter Holmberg. This summer, after coaching his junior sailors at the Optimist World Championships, he plans to compete in the Sunfish North Americans outside of Chicago, where he will also participate in a clinic at the Chicago Match Race Center.
“I want to start more match racing in Ponce and to host a regatta soon where we can invite teams from other islands,” says Santiago. “Eventually, I hope to make ours a sailing community with kids going out on the water rather than playing baseball or basketball.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.