It was an experience that young Bahamian sailors will never forget after sailing against some of the best sailors in the region at the 2019 Optimist North American Championship (OPTINAM) held at the Montagu Bay, Nassau, Bahamas, from September 27 – October 4, 2019.
One such sailor was Joshua Weech. He served as the captain and led by example as he became the first Bahamian to make the gold fleet at the OPTINAM. After a rocky start to his week with a disqualification, Weech was able to gain enough ground on the second day to make it into the gold fleet.
He is also the three-time national champion. Keir Clarke, head coach of the team, said they are proud of Weech’s achievement.
“It was actually a Bahamian record because no one at this caliber of event has ever made the gold fleet in The Bahamas. We are super proud of Joshua and he has set the bar high for the kids. These young ones are just looking up to that and thinking yeah I know I can do it and I’ll do it sooner than he did it,” Clarke said.
He finished 47th overall but was in the top 20 among the North American sailors finishing 19th.
“I felt like I came back on the second qualifying day. I had a good rest that night and I felt like I did really well. I got a 20th, 10th and a seventh place which got me into the gold fleet which I am really proud of and was actually my goal for this regatta,” Weech said. “It feels good. I worked hard for this and I feel like I really deserved it.”
For now, Weech said: “I will keep doing my thing and winning the local regattas and going off to more international events and getting better and meeting new people.”
The homeschooled teenager said he worked and trained hard, spent a lot of time on the water and was very dedicated. He practices four days out of the week and spends two hours on the water on weekdays and four hours on the weekends.
The highest Bahamian finisher in the bronze fleet was Matthew Reid. He finished 130th overall. After a 16th and a 29th finish on the second to last day of competition, Reid came back on the final day and finished ninth and sixth respectively.
He said he felt proud to have represented his country in such a big event.
Jasmin Aberle was the top finisher amongst the Bahamian females. She placed 144th overall. She was in the bronze fleet and was very proud of how she finished.
“It feels good. I felt really proud about how I have done. I am just proud to represent The Bahamas and all the females out there,” she said
To get back to the OPTINAM next year, Aberle said she has to train and get better.
She hails from Abaco and was there during Hurricane Dorian last month. She was one of two sailors who still participated in OPTINAM despite what happened on the island.
“It feels really great for me to do this because we have been through the qualifying events and practicing so to give up on it would be [a] shame. I am glad that I am here doing this,” Amberle said. “I focused on sailing and not worrying about what comes next or what is happening back home. I just focused all of my energy into sailing.”
Clarke was very proud of Aberle and spoke very highly of her.
“I think she sailed phenomenally well considering that a month ago her earth had moved a little bit. She was not sure she was going to compete. We found out that she was on a ferry from Abaco to Nassau and she found some housing. That girl is the most focused, genuine and sound individual,” Clarke said.
Maison Kopeke is also from Abaco and finished 148th overall.
“It’s great to be here just to get away from everything that happened after the storm. It was a big distraction, which was really nice. After this, I do not know what is next, probably school,” he said.
On the last day, he got disqualified in both of his races and that affected his overall score. He hopes to come back better next year to make the team.
Robert Dunkley, one of the lead organizers for OPTINAM and who has been around sailing for a very long time, said OPTINAM helped the Abaconians get the devastation off their minds.
“For Jasmine, Maison and Rhiannon Thomas who is the team leader for Team Bahamas, I think that the three of them, this really helped get that devastation of Dorian off their minds and they could focus on just sailing. Mentally, that helped the three of them tremendously. Being able to get their minds away from what happened in Abaco, losing their homes. Personally, I could not imagine what they really went through but I think this brought them a peace of mind and [was] healthy for them.”
Michael Pintard, Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources, said these young sailors are the new faces of courage.
“I thought it was incredible that they participated. They are really the new face of courage. Abaco is known for the heroics of Jeff Gale and the team. The young people have now entered that conversation by coming here, competing and building relationships against the Abaco and Grand Bahama communities being devastated. I applaud those young people for their courage,” Pintard said.
Other than The Bahamas, the countries that participated were Antigua, Argentina, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Cayman Islands, Ecuador, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Turks and Caicos, United States of America, Uruguay and the U.S Virgin Islands.
Team Bahamas was represented by Weech, Kaemen Floyd and Craig Ferguson, all from the Bahamas National Sailing School and the Nassau Yacht Club; female sailors Saoirse Duffy and Amy McSweeney, Cameron Eldon and Finley Lambert-McKinney from the Bahamas National Sailing School and the Royal Nassau Sailing Club; female sailor Aberle and Koepke from the Hope Town Sailing Club; female sailor Mary Jacqueline Nash, David Huber and Tomlinson from the Lyford Cay Sailing Club; and female sailor Scarlett McCarroll, Munro, Reid and Conry Raine from the Royal Nassau Sailing Club.
This is the largest team ever to represent The Bahamas at OPTINAM.
Next year’s edition will be held in Cancun, Mexico.