Sailing under adminstrative scrutiny

The Williams Sailing Club is examining its position on campus amid recent administration concern over issues of liability and funding.

Perceived miscommunication between the club and administrators has put the club’s future in question.

Brad Nichol ’02, co-captain of the 45-member sailing team, said that he first heard of administrators’ concern about the team “fourth-hand.” “I first heard of all this at our first meeting with Rich Cote, our new coach,” Nichol said. “He told me he heard that the College was going to disband the team and was thinking of selling the boats.”

“This is my greatest problem with the College,” he continued. “If they were going to do anything drastic, they should tell us directly and they should tell us as soon as the decision is made.”

Dean of the College Peter Murphy commented on the situation: “The College has not in any plain way ‘disbanded’ the Sailing Club.

There have been two major concerns in the past year: the method of funding and liability issues.”

Nichol said that the College had objections to the sailing team’s safety, reluctance over the new director of athletics, who takes over in July, having the sailing team as his first decision and concern that the team was soliciting alumni for donations.

Concern over safety arose after a student capsized while sailing last year while the team’s faculty advisor, who is also the coach of the varsity diving team, was not at the practice.

“She had adopted a baby and she did not have the time to devote to the sailing team as she previously had,” sailing team co-captain Nell Putnam-Farr ’00 said. “As we had more and more members, especially last season in the fall, we wanted to spend more and more time practicing so that everyone could spend more time on the water and she had less and less time to commit to practice. This meant that we would frequently show up to practice and she would not be there. There was no set rule laid out ahead of time, so we practiced without her. And the College had liability concerns about us practicing unsupervised. What brought this to a head was one day at practice when [the coach] was not there and somebody capsized and got scared and happened to mention it to her parents who got even more scared and called the President.”

This season, the sailing team, with the input of Director of Athletics Robert Peck, hired Coach Cote, who is available full-time and is well versed in the safety requirements, according to Putnam-Farr.

“We are no less safe than any other sport on campus,” Nichol said. “We’ve never had any major injuries. We’ve had blisters, but we’ve never sent anyone to the hospital.” He drew attention to the fact that once during rugby match four ambulances were required and on the same day, ambulances transported two injured students from an ultimate frisbee game.

Another major concern of the College revolves around the sailing team’s fundraising techniques. According to the sailing team co-captains, the team has received a slew of donations to the team unsolicited, most of which the College has rejected. Two exceptions exist: a $100,000 donation five years ago that allowed the team to buy new boats and sustain the team to this point, which was then supplemented by a smaller $2,000 donation recently

Several of the rejected donations had stipulations, one of which requested that sailing be placed on a varsity track.

“I think this [stipulation of forthcoming varsity status] is, to a certain extent, what set this off,” Putnam-Farr said. “The College is not ready to accept another varsity sport right now, especially one that they consider to be expensive…It is not something they are prepared to take as a varsity sport any time soon. They’re worried that with the amount of donations that we have been offered recently, to a certain extent it’s a threat.”

Regarding the donation, Murphy said, “The College decided it could not agree to the conditions of a gift that had been offered as a way of funding the Sailing Club. This decision was made in the usual way, following our usual policies, and was not fundamentally different from various other situations in which we have made the same decision.”

According to Steve Birrell ’64, Vice President for Alumni Relations and Development, “College policy [with regard to funding] is to direct donor resources toward support of ongoing programs or to provide support for new initiatives or enhancement of existing programs that have been approved by the administration, following appropriate review and discussion.”

There has been much miscommunication between the sailing team and the College with regard to funding of the sailing team.

“We thought our money ran out last fall and therefore that the athletics department was paying for our coach this spring and that they were volunteering to continue doing that,” Putnam-Farr said. “But it turned out that our money didn’t run out last fall and that we were paying for our coach this spring. We have been entirely self-sufficient aside from money from College Council…So when the College said that they were going to stop funding the team, it was unclear what that meant.”

Murphy said, “If the Sailing Club can…like other clubs, secure funding for their activity, we have no objection to their continued existence,” he said.

“We would emphasize that this funding needs to be secured in ways that follow our guidelines; but keep in mind that this condition is imposed on all campus work, from professors to athletics.”

He postulated that College Council (CC), which currently pays the team’s regatta entry fees and travel costs, would be a probable source of further funding.

The sailing team is unsure about what to do about funding next year.

“Accepting some of the donations offered would have solved our problem of funding,” Putnam-Farr said.

“We are hoping that CC will pay for at least next year, or next fall even, and/or that the administration will support us to the extent of paying the relatively low cost of our coach, or more importantly, accepting some of the support the team has been offered.”

The club wrote a letter to CC and brought the issue in front of the Council at a Winter Study session and during the April 5 meeting.

“Club sports are currently in a sort of institutional limbo, caught between College Council and athletics,” Murphy said. “I hope the situation [with the sailing team] can be fixed in the future, and that students can at least have clarity on the issue.”

The sailing team has been in existence at Williams since 1929.