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Skipper Emily Dellenbaugh

Skipper Emily Dellenbaugh

49erFX Olympic Hopeful

As a racing sailor, you get to compete in the Olympics by engaging in an “Olympic campaign.” This involves a pile of regattas here and abroad. You first help your country qualify for the Games in your class of boat. Then all you have to do is be fastest in that class for your country.

It’s not unusual for Olympic hopefuls to spend four to eight years on an Olympic campaign. But 49erFX skipper Emily Dellenbaugh will have been at it only two years if she makes it to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Emily has a distinct advantage: sailboat racing is in her blood. Literally. Her dad is David Dellenbaugh, tactician and starting helmsman on America3 when she successfully defended the America’s Cup in 1992. David’s impressive creds include three more America’s Cup campaigns and numerous national and international championships. He’s now a tactical coach for the U.S. Olympic Team, although Emily says, “my effort doesn’t really involve Dad—he’s focused on wind, water, and course conditions down in Rio.”

Racing success isn’t just in Emily’s DNA—it’s in her lengthy sailing résumé. She may be a little behind in 49erFX training time, but few 25-year-olds can match her overall racing experience. Emily grew up in Fairfield County, near Long Island Sound. She began sailing at age nine in the youth program at Southport’s legendary Pequot Yacht Club, a hotbed for all manner of racing sailors.

At that age, you start small. Emily skippered 8-foot-long Optimist dinghies, called Optis. You can race an Opti until you’re 15 (if you can still fit in one). At that point, she won the Opti European Championship in Gdynia, Poland, skillfully working unfamiliar winds off the south coast of the Baltic Sea.

Emily also sailed 420 Class boats, winning the US Youth Championship the same year she grabbed the European Opti prize. She then moved up to the 29er—a small version of the 49erFX—and promptly won the US Youth Championship, the European Championship, and the ISAF Youth World Championship for that class. She was just 17.

Then came college. At Brown University, Emily raced Flying Juniors and 420s, achieving half a dozen impressive results, including a 1st place in the 2010 Women’s College Sailing Nationals B division. She was also a 2012 All-American.

Brown is also where Emily met Elizabeth Barry, her crewmate for the Olympic campaign. “Liz skippered, too, but we got together as friends,” Dellenbaugh says. They knew there would be a women’s high-performance skiff added to the Olympic classes, and when the powers that be picked the 49erFX, they jumped at the chance to check one out.

The FX is a new version of the 49er, a two-person high performance skiff named for its 4.99 meter hull length. In the Olympics since Sydney 2000, the 49er features a fast-planing hull with two solid wings. Each crewmember wears a trapeze, so they can stand on the edge of the wing when the boat’s heeled over. The FX version uses the 49er hull, but sails and mast are smaller to allow for the lighter weight female crew.

In July 2014, Emily and Liz checked out the 49erFX at Oak Cliff Sailing Center on the Sound in Oyster Bay, L.I. They chartered boats until they got comfortable—and fast enough—to buy their own boat in January 2015 and get on with their Olympic campaign.

Success came quickly. In the ISAF Sailing World Cup, Emily took third, which gave her a place on the U.S. Olympic team as the “development” boat, after the first two “team” boats. Only one boat goes to Rio, so Emily and Liz stopped everything else they were doing to put a full-time effort into getting as good as they could. Emily postponed med school plans and Liz quit her job.

They hit the international regatta circuit in March 2015 on Majorca, then came back in April to train at the U.S. Sailing Center in Miami. In May, it was back to Europe for two months. At the 49erFX European Championship in Portugal, the organizers split the fleet into gold and silver categories. Emily’s boat made the higher gold fleet and finished 20th overall, a very good showing. She then took 2nd place in the CORK Olympic Classes Regatta and won the 49erFX U.S. National Championship. “We looked at it all as practice,” she says.

Emily and Liz have also been practicing a ton this fall and winter in Florida. Getting fast in the 49erFX means honing a new set of skills. “Sailing a 49erFX is very physical—and very boat handling oriented—make a small mistake and you can flip,” she explains. “We put in as many hours as we can to get comfortable handling the boat. But it’s so physical, you can’t stay on the wings forever, and sailing downwind is very taxing on the legs.”

Sailing itself builds strength, but the women also hit the gym. Emily says the most important physical attribute is “overall fitness and endurance. Racing these boats is a cardio workout, your heart rate stays high.”

And what’s the key mental attribute? “Staying focused the whole time,” Emily says. “Inevitably things go wrong and you need to come back from that, to adapt to things that don’t go your way.” Not surprisingly, Emily feels the key to winning is “keeping your cool—it’s easy to get emotional and frustrated.”

She says it’s also important to be prepared for the race. “All the boat work must be sorted and working perfectly, plus you have to do your homework—check out the wind, the starting line, have a strategic plan for where you can go fastest, tactics, boat-to-boat maneuvers.”

When it all works out, it’s quite a rush. “It’s pretty cool when you put together a plan and follow it and it works out. Decisions have to be made quickly.”

The U.S. team will compete to qualify for the Olympics at the ISAF Sailing World Cup in Miami. Then Emily and Liz will race the 2016 Worlds in Clearwater and their combined score will determine if they can take her 49erFX to Rio this summer.

Her edge?

Dellenbaugh simply says, “I am focused.”

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