POULSBO — Board games and professional car racing are two things not often mentioned in the same sentence.
Sailing, however, pits the two activities together for the perfect simile — says head North Kitsap coach Matt Mikkelborg.
“It’s kind of like playing chess while driving a NASCAR,” Mikkelborg said. “You want (the sailors) to be creative. The question is, ‘Can you employ a strategy to make it happen?’”
Mikkelborg, a professional boat builder who works with many of the different maritime programs for Poulsbo Parks and Recreation, has coached North Kitsap’s sailing team for seven years. Not only has his squad gone to sailing’s national competition the past four seasons, he has also kept an ongoing policy encouraging anyone who is interested in competing.
“We have a tradition here,” Mikkelborg said. “Anyone who practices gets to race a regatta (in a competition).”
Sailing also turns out North Kitsap students who aren’t always the most athletic, Mikkelborg mentioned. He has to be a little more flexible in lieu of that fact.
“I get kids here who’ve never been involved in sports,” Mikkelborg said. “So, sometimes there’s more negotiating going on.”
Each school day, a group of North Kitsap students prepare their regattas, don life vests and set sail on the waters of Liberty Bay.
“Even before a puff hits you, the sails are already out,” coach Mikkelborg told his sailors before hitting the water, “so you can get a nice burst of acceleration.”
NKHS junior Nic Wayland has spent three years on the sailing team and learned his fundamentals at junior camps in Kingston.
“If I have a better mental speed, I can win a lot more,” Wayland said.
Wayland agreed with his coach that strategy and mental know-how play as big a role as the physical aspects of the sport.
Jason Jaeger, a ninth grader at Poulsbo Junior High School, has been sailing for five years and also learned at the Kingston docks.
“(Team sailing) is a lot like a game of chess,” Jaeger said. “You have to be able to position your teammates to win.”
On the double-hand boats, the crew watches out for vessels and controls the front sail. The helm position drives the boat and mans the main sail.
“To me, sailing is more like an art than a competition,” Jaeger said. “You’ve got to predict wind changes and stay five steps ahead of schedule.”
Races are five to 10 minutes long depending on wind and course length. Generally, teams have to clear a buoy marker, racing in a triangle-shaped course.
In team competition, each of the NK squads attempts to come in at the top positions but that doesn’t happen often, Mikkelborg said. Points are awarded for each position (one point for first place, two points for second, and so on). The team with the lowest points possible wins. That also means each team has to attempt to hold back their racing opponents using special maneuvers.
“You choose whoever’s boat is weakest and you just keep driving them back,” Mikkelborg said.
The most common method in doing so is called the “mark trap” — when a boat is able to hinder its sailing rivals by setting up between the turn at the buoy and their competitors’ boat so their rivals have to sail further around the turn.
Each team must prepare for ever maneuver mentally and do whatever it takes, commented NKHS sophomore Anne Marie Kelbon.
“You’re in control of the boat,” Kelbon said. “It gets stressful at times but it makes you think. It really shows your skills.”
“I like the racing — especially the strategy,” added NKHS junior Kirk MacLearnsberry. “You can make up time in other ways and you don’t have to be the fastest boat.”
The team will test their skills in the coming weeks. Next Saturday and Sunday, the squad will sail in the double-hand district tournament at Orcas Island. They’ll then have four more days of practice before the team districts in Port Angeles the weekend of May 1-2. Depending on how they fare in the two events, the NK sailors may have an opportunity to head to New Orleans for the double-hand national championships or to Annapolis, Md. for the team nationals.
Mikkelborg has help in coaching; he is assisted on Mondays and Wednesdays, as well as at competitions, by Ron Seevers. The Port of Poulsbo also donates space for the sailors to keep their boats, an aspect Mikkelborg said allows them to sail off the shores of Liberty Bay.
The biggest factor in racing, however, is the most obvious — the wind. Sailors have to watch constantly for wind changes and adjust the sails to get the maximum speed out of the gusts.
“It’s a nice breeze out there but its undoubtedly going to be oscillating,” Mikkelborg told his sailors before a recent practice.
Too much wind can make sailors on a course move quickly — but there’s also the risk of tipping over in the back of every sailor’s mind.
“It’s always exciting when there’s a lot of wind,” Kirk MacLearnsberry said. “The boats capsize a lot because they don’t have a heavy center.”