Last month, the winner of the 2016 Quantum Woman Collegiate Sailor of the Year award was announced at the Women's College Sailing National Championship. The Intercollegiate Sailing Association Selection Committee and Quantum representatives easily selected U.S. Virgin Islands’ native Nikole Barnes from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. While the other finalist had an impressive season, Barnes won every women’s regatta she competed in last year. We spoke with Barnes about the award, her successful sailing strategy, and her plans for the future.
When did you start sailing?
I was six years-old. My brother was sailing before me, so I started so I could try to beat him and the rest of the boys.
Why did you decide to stick with it?
At first it was hard because my girlfriends eventually started to quit. At a point when I had to decide what to do, the parents hired coach Agustin Resano from Argentina. He started a program with us, and from the moment I learned how to compete, I spent long hours on the water. It was hard work, but I loved learning about the boat, how to make it go faster, how the wind works in St. Thomas. I just loved learning more about the sport.
This season you won every women’s regatta you entered. What was your strategy going into each race?
First, I had a completely new crew. I realized I had some old habits that were getting frustrating and not helping my crew, so I had to tighten my behaviors and work on how I was talking to her. My mindset was for us – as a team. It was constant communication.
I also approached every race one at a time. After a couple of wins it’s easy to think, “we’re good, we don’t need to train,” but we kept the mindset of one-race-at-a-time. We didn’t get lackadaisical.
You finished your junior year at the Coast Guard Academy. What are you most looking forward to in your senior year?
I’m pumped for sailing. It will be a totally new team, but it’s going to be a pretty stacked team. I’m looking forward for the team to qualify for Team Racing, as we haven’t done that in a while, and I’m excited for the women’s events (I’m going to have the same team as last year). Next year I’ll be moving up to the A-Division for co-ed, so my goal is to win co-ed sailor of the year.
You’re at the Coast Guard Academy, so you’ll obviously be spending time in the Coast Guard after you graduate. Have you thought about your career after that?
I have to give five years back to the Coast Guard after I graduate. Depending on if I like it or not, I’ll stay in. I definitely want to go to graduate school within five years.
I’d also love to still sail in a ton of regattas and go to the Olympics. I’d also love to be a cruise ship captain. I was able to meet a female cruise ship captain, and she was incredible. That would be a pretty sweet job.
You’re currently preparing for the 2020 Olympics. Do you have any other future sailing goals, or are you focusing on that for now?
I want to sail in the 470 class at the Olympics, so I’d like to go to the World Championship and finish in the top fifteen. I also might have a spot in the women’s match racing tour here in St. Thomas. I’m not ranked, but if a boat comes out they’re going to let me skipper in that regatta.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about sailing as a sport?
A lot of my friends say it’s not a sport, because they don’t see how it can be competitive. Some people think that you get to a certain level and there’s no more to learn, but on every boat there’s always something new to learn, whether it’s about the boat, handling, or sailing in different conditions.
If you were going to encourage a young woman to try sailing, what would you tell her?
I’d take her sailing. That’s the best way to experience it. It’s not an easy sport to watch, and it’s hard to understand what’s going on if you don’t know a lot about the sport. Getting out there – being on the boat and experiencing what other people experience – is the best way to see what it’s all about.
What’s your favorite part of racing?
Besides winning? I love the venues where you constantly need to figure out the race. In college, the race course always changes. It’s a puzzle, and it’s a race to figure out the course first. I love putting the pieces together and figuring it out between me and my crew.
If you could sail anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Lake Garda, Italy. I’ve sailed there before, and it’s beautiful. There are almost always wind, and when there isn’t, you can hike in the mountains. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever sailed (other than the Virgin Islands).
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your season or this award?
Although I was named the Women’s Sailor of the Year, there’s no way I could have done it without my crew, Anna Morin. It’s a common misconception that the skipper is the most important, but in a double-handed boat it has to be 50/50 in order to do well. This was the first time I’d had a fulltime crew for the year, and, even though Anna’s just a freshman, she’s amazing. She made me improve every day.