The waves on the Netherlands' Lake Braassemermeer were calm, but the sky was not as cooperative, sending hail stones down on 11-year-old Kendall Swenson of Falls Church as she sailed her dinghy across the foreign waters.
While the weather provided a challenge, Swenson viewed the meteorological development with a youthful point of view.
“The hail looked like Dippin’ Dots!” said Swenson, referring to the new-age ice cream treat.
Swenson was a member of Team USA-Holland’s Bronze Fleet, a collection of elite American sailors — all under the age of 16 — that competed in a late March against nearly 220 talented sailors representing nine countries in the 23rd International Easter Regatta.
Swenson arrived in the Netherlands with her 19 teammates a week in advance for training in order to get a feel for the local waters as a team, and for practice runs against the European teams. Swenson said she was excited to mingle with other sailors her age from around the globe, which helped her overlook the daily temperatures below 40 degrees and heavy winds up to 30 miles per hour. Coaches led Swenson and her teammates through land exercises, in addition to six to eight hours in the water for each of the four days leading up the regatta.
“During the four racing days, the team had to be dressed, rigged and ready at 8:15 a.m. in preparation for 2-3 races each day,” said Jaclyn Swenson, Kendall's mother. “Because there were so many competitors, the sailors were split into groups, or ‘flights,’ of 40 boats.”
Two practice flights sailed against each other in rotations to ensure that each sailor had a chance to race against every competitor. Competitors were split into official gold, silver or bronze fleets on the third day according to their skill level shown during the rotations in the days prior. Kendall was placed in the bronze fleet. Fourteen-year-old Alex Ramos of Annapolis, Md. was Team USA-Holland’s top finisher of the 90-sailor gold fleet.
Like every competition, no race is without its challenges.
“The biggest challenges are hiking, bailing while you are sailing, and capsizing,” said Kendall. “When the boat flips over and you’re in the water, you have to swim around to the back of your boat, climb up the centerboard, put your weight on it, and climb back in the boat. Then you have to bail all the water out before you can sail again.”
Physical challenges aren’t the only potential hurdles sailors face during regattas.
“Sailing competitively is particularly challenging because the elements are always different,” said Jaclyn, “The wind can be high, low or shifty. Water and air temperature requires specific sailing gear and preparation. Not to mention, other competitors and vessels on the water can present unique challenges.”
Kendall qualified for the International Easter Regatta last October as one of the top finishers at the United States Optimist Dinghy Association Atlantic Coast Championships in Norfolk, Va., where she finished among the top 60 competitors. At just 70 lbs., Kendall placed 11th for the girls out of over 300 male and female sailors. Kendall and other finalists were then extended an invitation to compete in one of three international regattas in Peru, Holland or Italy. Kendall, who has already been to the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Argentina, chose Holland.
Kendall has been sailing since the age of eight, along with her 14-year-old brother Kyle Swenson, who also sails competitively. Parents Steve and Jaclyn Swenson met during a regatta on the Chesapeake Bay, both of whom grew up in sailing families.
“Much of our family’s time is spent in and around the water, so sailing competitively was a natural progression for Kendall,” said Jaclyn.
Kendall continues to train with racing teams from the Annapolis Yacht Club and the Fishing Bay Yacht Club. With parents who also sail behind her 100 percent, she travels to different local and regional regattas while practicing on the weekends.
“Her father and I have been very supportive of our children’s interest to pursue sailing. We see her on-the-water successes translate to immeasurable successes off the water — her overall confidence, positive attitude, other athletic pursuits and extracurricular activities.”
Next in the mix for Kendall is practicing with the national team as a young sailor on their development team. Kids across the U.S. travel to Annapolis to train for three days for the team trials during the first weekend in May. Trials determine the top 50-60 finishers who are invited to advance to the one of five international summer regattas.