The winners of the Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year award. L to r: Allen Brill, President and CEO, Rolex Watch U.S.A., Inc., Jody Swanson, Kevin Burnham and Paul Foerster, award recipients, and Janet Baxter, President, US SAILING.
The Model Room of the New York YC is the kind of room that you don't easily forget, a room that captures your breath as you enter, and forces you to guard against an impulse to charge around the room like an awestruck child looking not only at the splendid boat models but the spectacular architecture. So it's hard to imagine that this room, steeped in years of nautical history, could get even better, but that is exactly what happened last Friday, Feb. 25, when the Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year awards brought together some of the top American sailors in the nation. It seems fitting that this very American event is held in a room that celebrates the NYYC and America's 132-year domination of sailing's historic America's Cup.
Established in 1961 by US SAILING, the Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year awards recognize outstanding on-the-water achievement in the calendar year just concluded. A slate of finalists nominated by the membership of US SAILING is presented to a panel of accomplished recognized sailing journalist who discuss the merits of each nominee and then vote by secret ballot to determine the ultimate winners. This year, US SAILING named Paul Foerster (Rockwall, Texas) and his crew, Kevin Burnham (Miami, Florida) along with Jody Swanson (Buffalo, New York) this year's winners. Historically, individuals are considered for the award, but the membership of US SAILING overwhelmingly voted for Foerster and Burnham as a team.
Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham, first time winners, were recognized for their gold medal performance at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games in the 27-boat 470 Men's event. Both skipper and crew have received medals in the Olympics (four for Forester, three for Burnham) but they never medaled in the Olympics together. By the final day of the Olympic Regatta, they were assured of the silver medal, and if they could beat the British entry, the gold medal was theirs. Only two points separated the two teams, and the USA would need to finish no worse that two boats behind GBR. Two minutes before the start, Foerster and Burnham found GBR in a vulnerable position, and trapped them into a tacking duel that saw the two boats cross the starting line well behind the rest of the fleet. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the crowds on the spectator fleet! What ensued was a classic match race, with Foerster and Burnham executing a flawless lesson in tactics, covering their rivals right up to the finish line, with USA ahead of GBR with paltry finishes of 22 and 23 respectively. But the gold medal was theirs. And who can ever forget Burnham's back-flip (a perfect 10) off the boat that left Foerster to douse the spinnaker and round up to retrieve him? For Burnham that back-flip was significant, for at 48 years of age, he is not only the oldest member of the US Olympic Sailing Team, but also the oldest gold medalist in the 2004 Olympics. Said Foerster upon winning the award, "I am very honored to be selected with my teammate Kevin as the 2004 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. I have admired the accomplishments of the past winners and would like to thank all of Kevin's and my friends, family and coaches who made our accomplishments possible this past year." To which Burnham added, "It's just a great honor to have this recognition for our efforts at the Olympics. To have our names grace the trophy with all the great sailors in the USA is really something."
Burnham, who was born on Long Island and lived in Garden City, moved to Palm Beach when he was about 8 years old. That's when his parents, who had never sailed, bought a boat and took the family sailing. "It was kind of scary thing," admitted Burnham. It wasn't until Burnham met Steve Benjamin, another local sailor, sleeping in a car at Coral Reef that he began seriously sailing. As the story goes, Burnham was attracted to the 470 strapped to the top of the car, and Benjamin, seeing Burnham's size, asked him to crew for him. Burnham was hooked and this serendipitous meeting and subsequent sail launched Burnham on his successful sailing career. And the local connections don't stop there. Burnham is working with Philippe and Shark Kahn, that father-son duo who are making their mark on the racing circuit. He is their coach and sparring partner and is involved with Kahn's TP52, a boat that is being built by Eric Goetz, who grew up in Port Washington. According to Burnham, "Goetz is the America's best boat builder, without a doubt." In the near future, Burnham plans to participate in the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005 in May and hopes for some ocean racing after that.
Recognized for her second time as Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year (she first received the award in 1989), Jody Swanson earned accolades for her win of the 2004 Lightning North American Championship held at the Buffalo Canoe Club in Ontario, Canada. Sailing the August event with crew Skip Dieball and Tom Starck in conditions that ranged from drifting to 25+ knots, Swanson topped a fleet of 103 boats that included many notable sailors. Members of the selection panel remarked on "her impressive win in a deep fleet" while noting that no sailor dominates this class year-after-year. "The Lightning class is tough," said one panelist. "That was a big win." Swanson's achievement also gained her membership in an elite sorority of women who have won open (co-ed) one-design championships.
The 39-year-old Swanson has been sailing the Lightning for over 20 years. In 1984 she was the Lightning Youth World Champion, an experience that may have influenced her in recruiting two young sailors -- Lauren Jones and Maddie Waldron -- to crew for her in the 2004 Lightning Women's North Americans. Sailing their first regatta as a team, the three won that championship just days before Swanson added the Lightning North American Championship title to her impressive resume. "I just love the sport and racing sailboats," said Swanson. "That is what keeps bringing me out there. Winning this award again is just as meaningful as the first time (1989) because it is such an honor. I was very honored to be nominated, and to win among this talented group of women is such a thrill."
For some time now there has been concern in sailing circles about the growth of sailing and the need to mentor our young sailors and keep them interested so they can enjoy sailing throughout their lives. One of Swanson's special achievements is reaching out to young women sailors, mentoring and coaching them. It was delightful to see Swanson's young nieces and nephews, in the 2-4 age range, scampering about the Model Room at NYYC. That is truly the future of sailing.
Congratulations to the winners on their extraordinary sailing achievements. And thanks to Janet Baxter, the first woman President of US SAILING, Allen Brill, President and CEO, Rolex Watch U.S.A., Inc., Gary Jobson (who lived in Port Washington back in the 80s), and George "Jory" Hinman, Commodore of the NYYC (who grew up in Port Washington) for their support of the Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year. For additional information on the awards, including accomplishments of the nominees on the shortlist for 2004, please visit www.ussailing.org/awards/rolex.