Three whistle blows carry out across the water, and any onlooker can see what’s happening — The Citadel Sailing Club has started their practice. As the cadets begin their course, the energy on the water is full of anticipation and enthusiasm. Considering the work it took to make it to this point, it’s no surprise both the cadets and coach are passionate about the sport.
The Citadel Sailing Club hadn’t sailed from campus in nearly two decades, and, after the club disbanded in 2016, the chances of it returning to The Citadel were slim — until two years ago, when generous donors stepped in to revive the club. With the help of these gifts and the newly constructed Swain Boating Center, the sailing club was revived.
To understand how The Citadel Sailing Club has gotten to where it is now, it’s best to revisit the history of the team – all the way back to its conception, when it went by a different name.
In 1937, The Citadel Yacht Club was founded by Donald Fraser, ’39. The yacht club was more of a social club organization, focused on some interclub racing among cadets and even faculty, without the competitive training schedule. By the 1960s, competitive racing began, and sailing became a varsity sport at The Citadel. The sailing program became a dominant team then, rising as high as the 10th overall team in the country and winning countless conference championships — but, by the 1980s, the channel silted in, the waterfront became less accessible and it became nearly impossible for the team to practice on campus. Eventually, in the fall of 2016, the club disbanded.
By the spring of 2020, a group of alumni were ready to bring the sailing club back to prominence. With the completion of the Swain Boating Center in May 2021, The Citadel Sailing Club was back on campus. The new state-of-the-art facility replaced The Citadel Yacht Club, which was demolished after falling into disrepair. According to head coach Nick Johnstone, the Swain Boating Center is easily a top-five college sailing facility in the country.
“Even though we are under club sports designation at The Citadel, we function the same as any varsity sailing program would. College sailing’s organizing authority is the Intercollegiate Sailing Association, or ICSA, and it’s different from most other college sports — there are varsity college sailing teams like Georgetown University, Harvard University, Stanford University, College of Charleston and many others that will actually compete against club teams in most regattas,” said Johnstone. “Our goal for The Citadel Sailing Club is to operate at that same level as a top club program in the country.”
For Citadel cadets, the sailing club offers a multitude of benefits aside from the sailing itself. Cadet Neil Walters, one of the captains of the sailing club, offered insight into being on the team.
“For me, the best part of being in the sailing club is getting to spend the afternoon out on the water — being out there reduces stress, and for that time you don’t worry about your schoolwork or your cadet duties,” said Walters. “It’s also great to travel for competitions, see other colleges and meet other sailors.”
While sailing might come naturally to some members of the sailing club, prior experience is not required to join. Walters said about half the team had never touched a boat in their life, but it’s a team effort to help them learn everything they can about sailing. The sailing club practices three times a week.
“Sailing is kind of like chess, but with an athletic side to it. Practicing drills, races, boat handling, all sorts of things that can be complicated,” said Walters.
As for the team’s coach, he encourages anyone interested in sailing to try out.
“We do tryouts in early September each fall and have accommodated cadets that haven’t been able to attend due to scheduling conflicts. At this point, we are getting more recruits each year, but we’ve had some cadets come onto the team with zero sailing experience that have turned into really impressive sailors as quickly as one semester. We look forward to continuing to grow and improve the team,” Johnstone said.
While the Sailing Club is currently ranked high in their conference, their coach says there’s still enough time left in their season to change the tides — either in their favor or against.
“We have high ranking currently due to our performance in regular season qualification events. It’s a good look for our program at the conference level, but the only result that really matters is how we do in our conference championships, as those act as automatic qualifiers for the ICSA national championships,” asserted Johnstone. “The next step is step is to rise to the top of our conference and compete on the national stage. That will take some time, but I’m happy that we are on an upward trajectory and can hopefully be a team contending for nationals in the near future.”
The Citadel Sailing Club will have a few more competitions in April, with their season concluding at the end of the month. Those interested in attending a regatta and learning more about the club can visit the team’s Facebook page.