The week before this year’s RORC Caribbean 600, Emily Gaillard ambitiously went from boat to boat along the docks in English Harbour, Antigua, hoping to find a crew spot. Many teams smiled at the petite 15-year-old just out of Optis and politely said she was either too small or they were full. Finally, Gaillard got a thumbs-up ‘welcome aboard’ from skipper David Hanks on Ondeck’s Farr 65, Spirit of Juno. Then, she realized it was for the Nelson’s Cup Series, a new three-day event that prefaced the 600.
“After the Nelson Series was over, I was asked by the Skipper to participate in the RORC 600 with them,” says Gaillard. “I was filled with joy as I never thought my dream of sailing in the 600 would come true so soon. The thought of being out at sea for three days didn’t faze me at first. Then the race started and the reality of it struck. I was also sailing with absolute strangers. I was slightly nervous, but I got over it quickly because the crew members were very welcoming and kind. I helped with anything I was assigned to. I got the opportunity to helm, be up on the bow skirting the jib, packing the spinnaker, and also trimming the spinnaker; basically, a bit of everything.”
Gaillard’s racing accomplishment puts her in the history books as the youngest person on record to compete in a RORC Caribbean 600, a 600-nm race around 11 Caribbean islands and easily the most challenging event of the season.
A First Opti-tunity
It was only four years ago that Gaillard became interested in sailing. The occasion was Antigua & Barbuda’s hosting of the Optimist World Championships in 2019.
“I’ve always had a connection with the water. I used to go on power boats with my parents and I was a competitive swimmer. There is sailing on my mom’s side of the family. My uncle brought a team from Bequia to sail in the Worlds and I was further inspired to sail when I visited them. In Antigua, my parents signed me up for lessons in the Antigua Yacht Club’s Junior Sailing Program under the guidance of Olympic sailor Karl James. That’s how I started to learn the sport and compete in the Optimist dinghy,” Gaillard explains.
The start of the year 2020 was one of the decision-making between swimming and sailing for Gaillard. Sailing prevailed.
“When I first started, I knew absolutely nothing about sailing. But, when I went out, I felt pure enjoyment,” she says.
Racing the World
Gaillard’s prowess for the sport proved evident from the get-go. In her first international regatta in February 2020, she represented Antigua & Barbuda in Martinique’s Schoelcher Week regatta. This was followed the next year by racing in the Optimist World Championships in Riva del Garda, Italy, and then finishing second overall that fall at the SOL St. Maarten Optimist Championship. In 2022, as Antigua’s first female National Champion, she traveled with the team to Bodrum, Turkey, for another Opti Worlds. On the way home from Turkey, serendipity struck with an invitation to race in Cowes Sailing Week on the Isle of Wight, UK from fellow Antiguan, Shawn Malone, and the owners of the Swan 48, Sleeper X, Jonty and Vikki Layfield.
“This event opened my mind to how racing on keelboats in larger regattas overseas would feel like,” she says.
The Optimist North American Championships last fall were Gaillard’s last major race in this dinghy.
“Sailing in the Optimist has built the foundation of my sailing skills both on the water and on land. I’ve learned the basics of racing and the sailing rules and how to execute them, but I’ve also learned boat maintenance and generally how to talk to different people,” she says.
Lasers Up Next
Gaillard is now sailing in the Laser 4.7 Class, with support from the Antigua Sailing Association and as a member of World Sailing’s Emerging Nations Program. In March, right after the 600, she made her Laser debut in the Budget Marine Laser & Opti Open, finishing first in a five-boat 4.7 fleet. Gaillard is working out and training hard to move into the Laser Radial by year’s end and compete in the Youth Sailing World Championships in Brazil in December.
“I wanted to enter Lasers as my new chapter of dinghy racing, so later in life I could hopefully go to the Olympics and other major laser events,” says Gaillard, a 10th grader who would also like to study mechanical engineering, which stemmed from the fascinating of watching an engine repair on the Swan at Cowes.
That keelboat experience at Cowes has proved useful to Gaillard at home too. She skippers and crews on Melges 24s and 24’ RS Elites. New for 2023, Antigua Sailing Week introduced an RS Elite One Design class, of which Gaillard was one of two women skippers.
“No matter where you are in your sailing career, even if it’s nowhere, keep pushing. It’s not always about winning, you learn more from losing as well,” Gaillard advises other young sailors who dream of following in her wake. “I would also advise young sailors to be kind to everyone, because you may meet someone that could play a major role in your sailing life later. And, no matter what people may say to bring you down, just focus on your performance and train to be the best you can be, because once you have a positive mindset and set goals, you become unstoppable.”