ST. PETERSBURG — Abby Featherstone would love to go out a winner. The 21-year-old senior on the USF women's sailing team is competing in the finals of the College Sailing Spring National Championship this week.
"It still hasn't hit me yet," the Sarasota native said before the competition began Wednesday. "But this is it."
The USF women's sailing team, the only varsity sport on the St. Petersburg campus, heads into today's final day of competition in 11th place with 247 points after 14 races, well behind leader Dartmouth (149) and runnersup Boston College and St. Mary's (188). Today's final four races are scheduled to begin around noon in the waters near the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
"The competition has been really tough," said Featherstone, who capped her eight-race Thursday with second-place finishes in her final two races. "Some of these schools have really strong programs."
Eckerd, with USF a co-host of the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association's premier event, is 13th (287 points).
In addition to the local schools and the leading clubs, Brown, College of Charleston, Connecticut, Cornell, Georgetown, Hawaii, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Michigan, Minnesota, Navy, Old Dominion, Rhode Island, Roger Williams, Santa Clara, Stanford, Texas, Tufts, the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, Western Washington, Wisconsin and Yale also fielded teams that qualified to be here.
The sailors have been competing in a boat called the FJ, a dinghy with an overall sail area of about 100 square feet. Competitors sail in identical, or "one-design" craft that are rotated among sailors every few races.
This style of racing puts a high premium on boat handling and tactics, so seasoned sailors such as Featherstone get a chance to show their skill in races that generally last about 18 to 20 minutes.
"The past four years have been great," said Featherstone who started sailing at age 9 and plans to spend this summer coaching youth sailing in San Francisco. "I have gotten a chance to travel and sail for free. I'll really miss the lifestyle."
Featherstone credits coach Allison Jolly, a former Olympic gold medalist, with the team's growth and success.
"She is a true icon of the sport," Featherstone said. "Everywhere you go, people know her. Yet she is so modest and humble. She's a great role model and an inspiration to the whole team."
Jolly, now in her ninth season as coach, said the great thing about the USF sailing team is the fact that it is open to everybody.
"We've taken kids, good athletes who have never sailed before, and introduced them to the sport," Jolly said. "Four years later, they can be racing in the national championships. I don't think you can see that in any other sport."