By Val Schoger; Photos by Jasper Van Staveren
Heading up the winners’ lists in international catamaran racing are Panama City locals Matthew Whitehead, 21, and Taylor Reiss, 19. They have won the F18 Youth World title for three consecutive years and placed third overall in the F18 World Championships this year.
Taylor and Matthew began sailing together at the St . Andrews Bay Yacht Club when they were in middle school. Taylor was 12 and Matthew 14 when they first started competing in sailing races and, although they look like complete opposites, that first impression quickly fades when they start talking about their sailing successes – they have become an intuitive team.
Often they are the youngest of the competitors in the catamaran racing division and raise eyebrows. This year, Taylor was selected to join the US Sailing Development Team (USSDT) for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Matthew had been selected two years prior. The USSDT is comprised of talented up-and-coming sailors who were the top finishers at US Sailing Youth World Team qualifying regattas and ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami.
The International Sailing Federation (ISAF), the international governing body of the sport of sailing, has implemented several new rules for the 2016 Olympics. One of the stipulations dictates that all Olympic teams competing in the catamaran sailboat class will have to be mixed gender teams. “It is very odd that we have sailed together for so long and now we find ourselves competing against each other. But it also makes us a stronger team when we race together,” says Taylor.
Together, they race a Formula-18 catamaran but for the Olympics they have to get used to the Nacra 17, a boat that was specifically designed for Olympic catamaran racing and adopted by the ISAF committee as the boat to be used in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “The boats are very similar when you look at them but, from a sailor’s perspective, they’re totally different and sailing with different people takes getting used to. Even if we’re not sailing together we’re still learning and still getting better. That’s why we haven’t prepared as much for the World Cup in Ireland as we should or ideally would. Because we’ve been training so hard on the Nacra 17 and feel that helps us. Once we get on the F18, you have to adjust yourself, adjust a couple things. But in terms of tactics and just racing strategies, it’s all the same,” says Matthew.
Taylor adds: “Our strategy on the race course is probably different than anybody else. We make our plan and stick to it.”
When racing, Taylor is on the helm and Matthew is the crew. Each has his own strengths. “Especially in wind, heavy wind, Matthew’s really good on the boat. Pushing the boat really hard. He’s working the boat. He shoots the sails. That’s why we do so well whenever the breeze is up, because we start having fun, you know, and just enjoy it.” Matthew confirms “It’s probably our main strength as a team – we try to have fun. We try not to get too upset with each other.” Taylor agrees “When we do, it shows in the results. We’ve sailed together enough that we know how to balance the other person. One person might get upset over this and the other person doesn’t, and we balance each other.”
Sailing against international competitors is a challenge. “There’s definitely a difference between racing in the U.S. and competing in Europe. The international fleet has a really high level of training. It’s because they’re able to sail and train against each other constantly. In the U.S. we’re kind of spread out – so the whole U.S. fleet doesn’t really get together except for really big events, maybe once a year.”
When they started participating in international races, their parents would often accompany them. Taylor’s mother, Christine Reiss, gives us some insider information. “The first major championship that they sailed, the Formula 18 North American Championship, was in 2008. Their combined weight was so far under the minimum required by the F18 Class rules that I had to go back to a local dive shop three times to buy weights to be strapped onto the boat. Needless to say, they were the ONLY kids at that event. They were such a novelty to the adults who normally sail these boats that other sailors randomly would ask to have their pictures taken with Taylor since he was so tiny to be at the helm of an F18. The boys had no real clue yet about sailing, but inexplicably, they did not come in last place at that regatta.”
She remembers after that they started training with a coach. “In 2009 they raced in the U.S. Youth Multihull National Championship. Two years later both had changed dramatically. Once again they sailed the U.S. Youth Multihull National Championship that was held that year in Long Beach, CA and this time they won first place by a very large margin and became the U.S. Youth National Multihull Champions. Immediately after winning the national youth event, they competed in the U.S. Adult Sailing Championship where they ended up in second place overall, and in overall points scored only one point out of first place.”
Christine recalls their first international success. “They traveled to Europe for the first of several summers in 2011 and represented the US in 2011 in Zadar, Croatia at the ISAF Youth World Championship. After finishing the Youth World, they traveled to Bordeaux, France where they competed in their first adult world championship, the 2011 Formula 16 World Championship. They stunned most folks who follow sailing by getting third place in that world event. Again, this was an adult event, and there were no other youth teams competing.”
The participation in the 2012 Formula-18 World Championship followed. Christine Reiss remembers every race.“There were 123 boats in that regatta, and Taylor and Matthew finished twelfth overall. In the Youth Division (under age 24) they placed first, winning that title for the first (of now three) times. For the 2013 F18 World Cup, held in Italy, they finished on place 16 out of 165 boats, and again first place in the Youth Division. In the recent 2014 F18 World Championships in Ireland they finished third overall and first in Youth.”
One of their first coaches at the St . Andrews Yacht Club was Waterfront Director Naomi Van den Bergh. She remembers Matthew’s first summer sailing camp as an instructor. Taylor joined a year later . “Taylor and Matthew are very dedicated. They became my first sailing instructors here at the club. It’s good to see how they apply themselves today.” Their skill and ambitions quickly outgrew summer sailing camps and local regattas and, for the last four years, former Olympic sailor and Olympic team coach Robbie Daniel from Clearwater has been preparing them for national and international sailing competitions with consistent success.
But the boys are back home often. They sailed together the first time in seven months at the Candler Regatta at the St. Andrews Yacht Club in May of this year and then went on to win the Youth World Championship in Ireland. Both nod with confidence as Taylor remarks “We have sailed together for years. We are like brothers.”
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