Article by Stuart Streuli, Communications Director, NYYC
NEWPORT, R.I. — Everybody loves a new race boat. But until it proves itself on the racecourse, there's always a tiny kernel of worry it won't live up to expectations, or even equal the performance of the boat being replaced. We all know what they say about a bird in the hand. Steve Benjamin and his team can cross that concern off their work list after sailing the freshly-splashed Stella Blue (aka USA 1427) to the 2017 Etchells U.S. National Championship, which was held as part of the inaugural New York Yacht Club One-Design Regatta, in Newport, R.I. Melges 20 and J/70 fleets also competed in the event.
Benjamin, and his team of Mike Menninger, Ian Liberty and David Hughes, were dominant over the course of the three-day regatta, winning four of eight races and finishing with a 17-point advantage over George Francisco in second place. Chris Larson finished third, one point behind second. The U.S. Etchells Youth Team, led by Connor Needham, finished 12th of 15 boats in their debut appearance courtesy of an effort designed to infuse some fresh blood into the class.
“Basically good teamwork,” said Benjamin when asked about his keys to success. “We’ve got good camaraderie on board, good chemistry, and the teamwork is getting better and better. David Hughes joined us after the 2016 Worlds. He’s just very professional about the whole thing, with his [2016 Rio Olympic] 470 campaign, and he sails 230 days a year. Michael and I are sailing a lot together. He is on the TP52 as well. Ian’s really the work horse on the program. He does all the spinnaker clean-up, a lot of the hiking, and a lot of the dirty jobs.”
Benjamin won a silver medal in the 470 class in the 1984 Olympics, and is no stranger to that nose-tickling new-boat smell. But he held off ordering an Etchells from Dirk Kneulman's Ontario Yachts until he knew exactly how he wanted it set up. Benjamin typically sails as part of a four-person team and the ideal cockpit layout for that arrangement differs a bit from the traditional configuration, which was designed around a crew of three.
“There’s been an evolution with Etchells over the years, so that’s why we worked with the used boats trying to get the tuning and the systems all straightened out,” says Benjamin, adding that the new boat was a present from his wife, Heidi. “This boat we just did everything that we wanted straight from the beginning and designed it that way. Dirk did a really nice job on this boat. It’s everything that we hoped it would be.”
New boat or old, Benjamin has been on some kind of a roll the past 15 months. He won the 2016 Etchells Nationals last March in Florida, finished second at the 2016 Etchells Worlds last summer in Great Britain and won the prestigious Biscayne Bay Etchells Series this past winter. He has two more Etchells events in the Northeast before he heads west for the North Americans in San Diego in August and the Worlds in San Francisco in September. With a new boat and a crack crew, momentum seems to be growing for Benjamin. But if his five decades of racing experience has taught him anything, it's to never take good results for granted.
In winning the Melges 20 division, Wes Whitmyer Jr. (far right) equaled Benjamin's win total in just five races. He and his team on Slingshot won the class by four points over Drew Freides. Both of those teams will be back in Newport this October to contest for that class's world championship, which will be hosted by the New York Yacht Club. Whitmyer was the picture of cautious optimism at the post-regatta awards.
“We don't want to get ahead of ourselves,” says Whitmyer, of Stamford, Conn. “It's nice to do well at the New York Yacht Club, which I've been a member of for many years. It's nice to do well against pretty high level guys; some of the U.S. favorites were here this weekend. So [this win is] something for us to build on.”
In the J/70 division (above, left), Brian Keane won the regatta by two points over John Brim with Bruno Pasquinelli in third.
2017 New York Yacht Club One-Design Regatta
Final Results (Click here for full results)
Etchells National Championship (8 races, 1 throwout)
1. Steve Benjamin, Stella Blue, 2-1-1-2-1-3-(7)-1, 11; 2. George Francisco, American Baby, 6-2-4-5-4-5-2-(7), 28; 3. Chris Larson, USA 1228, 1-5-2-7-(11)-10-1-3, 29.