Club Sports: Panther Sailing Club faces equipment challenges

By Greg Trietley

Vinny Mattiola founded a sailing club. Now he just needs some boats.

Last November, the Pitt… Vinny Mattiola founded a sailing club. Now he just needs some boats.

Last November, the Pitt sophomore created Panther Sailing Club, a campus organization for students interested in recreational or competitive sailing. But without funding for boats, the club spent this school year meeting in the Cathedral of Learning on Thursday nights — sometimes in hallways — watching sailing videos, hosting discussions with sailing instructors and breaking down race theory on a chalkboard.

“I can get 20 people to come to a weekly meeting to look at a chalkboard and watch sailing videos for a whole semester,” Mattiola said. “It’s disappointing for me not to be able to tell these kids they can get on the water.”

The sailing club initially asked for about $50,000 from Pitt’s Student Government Board in order to purchase seven Club FJ sailboats, the minimum number required, according to Mattiola, to join US Sailing’s Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association. Mattiola said that the board told him his requests had a better chance of passing if he decreased his total cost, so he lowered his expenditures to four boats. In the end, though, only transportation costs passed through the Allocations Committee.

“[Fifty thousand dollars] sounds so unrealistic, but it is realistic in the sustainability aspect,” Pitt senior Britta Anderson, an officer in the club, said. “Once you have your fleet of boats, they’re good for as long as they’re seaworthy.”

SGB President James Landreneau said that since this is the sailing club’s first year of existence, the Board wants to see the team grow before it provides increased funding.

Landreneau said that Pitt once had a skydiving club that SGB provided with parachutes, but since the student who started the club was a senior, it only lasted for one year.

“The rationale behind everyone’s decision when we voted was to make sure we enable the group as much as possible, and if the sailing club truly shows they are here for the long haul, then I’m sure in the future they will get some kind of funding for a boat or whatever it may be,” Landreneau said. “Right now, transportation to a practice site was the decision of the Board and the Allocations Committee this time around.” Mattiola said his budget proposal to the SGB accounted for 15 years of expenses.

The club had two boats donated during the school year, but it had no money or means to dock them. The sailboats are not in Pittsburgh, Anderson said.

“We don’t have a place to keep them,” she said. “They’re probably sitting in someone’s garage or front yard waiting to have a place to go.”

Mattiola said he had considered paying for the docking fees himself.

Soon, Panther Sailing Club will finally sail. Mattiola said that the club will drive to Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, on weekends this summer to sail for the first time.

Mattiola said the club has a deal to use a community-owned fleet open to Moraine Sailing Club members. He also said the club recently received a third donated boat from its instructor, which is docked at Lake Arthur where the club can use it freely.

This past school year, the location of Lake Arthur made sailing there a challenge even if the club had its own boats.

“For a while, no one had cars,” Mattiola said. “We had mostly younger students involved, because from the get-go we knew we weren’t going to get on the water much that semester, so seniors weren’t really that interested.”

And boat rentals weren’t possible, either.

“You can rent a kayak and teach someone to kayak in 15 minutes, but you can’t teach someone to sail in 15 minutes,” Anderson said. “You don’t have enough time. Someone just can’t do it for the day and go home. It will take you a little while to sail.”

Rentals, she said, are mainly for experienced sailors. Experience levels within Panther Sailing Club span the entire spectrum.

“There are people who have done sailboat racing before, and then there are people like me, who have been on sailboats plenty of times but have no idea how to race a sailboat, to people who have only seen sailboats and thought it would be really cool to learn how to do it,” Anderson said. “The goal is to get everyone licensed through US Sailing.”

Much of the group, Mattiola said, consists of curious, inexperienced students now hooked on sailing thanks to the weekly meetings.

“We have a large portion of the club that has never set foot on a sailboat before, or maybe did it once,” he said. “The majority of our club is people who have very little experience and are just interested in learning about the sport.”

Over 100 people signed up for the club’s mailing list when the club formed, and about 20 to 30 people show up for Thursday meetings in the Cathedral. Mattiola said that membership dues and other private funding have been considered for the club, as everything but transportation costs is paid out-of-pocket.

Anderson noted that the group tried to raise funds this winter by selling popcorn.

“It went not the best, but that’s okay,” she said. “We made a little bit of money, and we’re working on ways to [raise money].”

Expenses go beyond just sailboats.

“You can’t be on the water without a life jacket,” Mattiola said. “It’s cold, so you need a wetsuit. Your hands will get chafed, so you’re going to need gloves or you’re going to rip your hands apart. Those things like that are going to come out of members’ pockets. Fortunately, we’ve had a good response from people who are more than interested in spending a little bit of money here and there for the good of the club to get the ball rolling.”

Anderson said Panther Sailing Club modeled itself after other university sailing clubs. Over 70 colleges have clubs devoted to either recreational or competitive sailing, including Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s kind of surprising, some of the schools,” Anderson said. “They’re similar to us. They don’t have oceans or giant lakes close by. There are schools that are similar to us with low access to water but have thriving teams.”

Despite the devotion of active members at Pitt, the city itself is not currently a sailing hub. Mattiola and Anderson said that not much sailing takes place in the region.

“They’ve held a couple of sailboat races in Pittsburgh in the past where people have come and brought their boats,” Anderson said. “But not a whole lot of sailing happens right now.”

The club, though, believes that sailing can thrive at the Point, where river currents do not prevent racing and water depth and boat traffic are favorable. The club hopes that a fleet of boats and a sailing program can operate out of the location, and it is coordinating with the Point of Pittsburgh Sailing League to reach that goal.

But first, Panther Sailing Club must hit the water.

“We’re a sailing club,” Mattiola said. “We can’t grow without boats.”