Junior sailing program takes off under Bresnahan

By Olivia Sterling

As his seventh summer as director of the Shelter Island Junior Sailing Program comes to a close, Jeff Bresnahan reflects on the excitement of having had both of his kids, Molly and Charlie, in the program for the first time. “It was great the other day when I watched Charlie put away his sailing equipment all by himself without me having taught him how to do it,” he says, noting that Charlie is seven and half and Molly is six and a half. “I never said that the kids have to be first, they just have to try.”

Mr. Bresnahan's own introduction to sailing took place in Malden, Massachusetts, where he grew up with two older sisters and a brother. Each of his siblings had signed up to sail at a community sailing center, but Mr. Bresnahan was unable to due to his young age. “I used to hang out on the dock,” he recalls. “So the instructors started pushing me out on a boat and not letting me come in all day.” Mr. Bresnahan developed a passion for sailing and went on to become the director of the same program in his teens.

While attending Southern Connecticut State University, Mr. Bresnahan was offered an opportunity to join the U.S. sailing team in the Star Boat Class. “For me that was the best education,” he says of his four years of traveling the world. Bresnahan then went on to become the coach of the Connecticut College sailing team, a position he has held since 1992. Over a period of years, Mr. Bresnahan finished his bachelor's degree and last summer he finished his master's in sports management.

Seeking a director who would turn the SIJYC into an education-based sailing school, sailing parents Kathy Hills and Lynn King approached Mr. Bresnahan. “They had doubled in size over the past decade and they were looking to ease the gap,” he recalls. “To integrate educational goals but also the components of making it a lifelong sport such as racing, having fun and cruising.” Over the past seven years, Mr. Bresnahan has helped restructure the SIJYC, which has grown to accommodate 180 sailors.

The program consists of seven different groupings: JY trainer, Opti 1, Opti 2, Opti 3, Opti Advanced, 420s and Lasers. The kids are taught by 14 sailing instructors, eight of whom Mr. Bresnahan brings from off-Island and six who have grown up in the program. On a daily basis, Mr. Bresnahan oversees the 180 sailors and their 14 college-age sailing instructors — not an easy task. “Everybody has good days and bad days,” Mr. Bresnahan says. “But if we're consistent with everything we do from how we choose the instructors to whether we go out in thunderstorms, then we're going to make everyone happy.”

Keeping the parents informed is another essential aspect of the job, especially given the fact that they help run the show. “What's unique about this club is the level of parent involvement,” Mr. Bresnahan explains. “They volunteer, help to drive coach boats to regattas and are there to support the kids.” Many of the parents sail themselves and Mr. Bresnahan has competed against some of them in the H-12 fleet alongside his wife, Holly.

While Mr. Bresnahan's nine-month job at Connecticut College involves coaching elite racers, he acknowledges that the Junior Yacht Club sailors vary in their desire to compete. “It's refreshing in the sense that we have all ranges. And whether they just want to go and sail to Block Island when they're older or whether they want to continue racing in high school or in college, that's great as long we provide the programming for it.”

Mr. Bresnahan incorporates his philosophy of sailing into his role at the SIJYC. “Sailing is so beyond just a sport,” he reflects. “A lot goes into it: checking the weather, knowing what to wear, being hydrated, knowing what direction the current's moving and knowing how to fix something if it breaks. The fact that someone actually wakes up and wants to go sailing is impressive to me, so I will do whatever I can to help anyone that wants to learn how to sail.”