Kristen Lane - From the Slopes to the Ocean

Kristen Lane is a rare commodity, a female Melges 24 helm. Those who know her say that, irrespective of gender, her background as an accomplished skier along with her fearsome determination and highly competitive nature, make her a perfect candidate to steer a Melges 24 on the US circuit.

At the end of 2008 Kristen pulled off a remarkable first when she became the first woman helm to win a race at the NA Championship. Having met on the ski slopes Kristen was introduced to sailing by her husband Peter and now the pair campaign ‘his ‘n’ hers’ Melges 24’s as part of the two boat program known as Team Brick House.

We wanted to know more about this highly talented convert to sailing so Justin Chisholm caught up with her recently to give her the IM24CA third degree questioning….

IM24CA: Kristen you have a strong background in skiing before you took up sailing and skiing is a popular sport with sportboat racers across the world. What similarities do you believe there are between the two sports?

KL: Skiers and sailors share a love for nature. Both sports interact with nature in order to achieve success. A skier thrives on a morning when Mother Nature leaves 12+ inches of fresh snow to play in. Sailors love venues where geography and currents make for challenging days on the water. Skiing and sailing are also similar in that they require a dynamic sense of balance and feel in order to really push the upper levels of performance. The skiers who can carve the best lines are the ones with greater coordination of their fine (i.e. small) muscles in their joints.

IM24CA: Tell us about making the move from the J105 Class into the Melges 24? When was that? Where did the motivation to make that move come from?

KL: We had owned our J/105 for two seasons when we purchased our first Melges 24. That was almost 3 years ago. I wanted to drive a boat with a tiller and a main sheet so I could really build my skills. But, another big factor in my decision to move to the Melges 24 was the speed and thrill of sailing downwind. I just really wanted something lively and fun. Of course, the advanced level of competition found in the M24 class was also very attractive and I was particularly excited about going to Key West Race Week.

IM24CA: What in particular did you learn at the Kolius Sailing School that helped you get to grips with sailing the Melges 24?

KL: By far, the biggest lessons learned at Kolius were starting tactics and mark roundings. John had a great way of simplifying the options at the start, which helped me immensely as I began driving in large fleets. The mark rounding lessons were key because I was new to the sport and although I understood the goals of a mark rounding, I didn’t actually understand how the boat moved through the water to achieve those goals. Kolius really helped me to visualize, especially with current, how to steer the boat in the corners. John also taught me some other lessons for the racecourse that generally left me feeling confident that I was up to the task of driving.

IM24CA: Tell us about the experience of sailing a Melges 24 for the first time?

KL: “Shockingly fun”: It was the month of May, so the San Francisco city front was in full effect – It was a solid 25 knots with steep ebb chop. We sailed up to the Golden Gate Bridge and raised the kite and– we were off. It literally took us less then ten minutes to go from the Golden Gate Bridge to Treasure Island. I was hooked.

IM24CA: With a background in downhill skiing and a clear obsession with racing fast yachts some would say you are an adrenalin junkie? Would you agree? Are you fearless?

KL: Fearless? – No. I would say I like to take “informed risks.” I like to explore my personal boundaries of what is possible. Both skiing and M24 racing provide the chance to push myself. But, the technology and design in both the Melges 24 and modern shape skis make going fast extremely attainable - and so much fun. It’s an example of how modern design has dramatically improved the user experience and why a smaller woman or man can be competitive against other drivers who weigh up to 200lbs.

The latest shape skis are simply divine. I can carve down a run, keeping up with Peter and my skis are only 157cm long! Similarly, the Melges 24 is so well designed, the faster you go the better it handles. With performance characteristics like these, you can’t help but want to go fast. Sailing has the added benefit of competition so you end up with a measure of your progress and development. I like that. Life would be boring if you didn’t challenge yourself every once in a while to see how your measure up.

IM24CA: Introduce us to your crew?

KL: Charlie McKee is the boat’s leader and tactician. He’s composed, thoughtful, and very talented – of course the Olympic medals and AC experience lend themselves to these qualities. Charlie is the kind of leader that instills confidence in his team and demands a high level of performance out of everyone.

Brian Hutchinson is a very smart trimmer. He has a great knowledge of how to make the M24 go fast in all conditions. He’s a thinker. He keeps me going fast in a straight line. Sailing with Brian has totally changed how I steer the boat down wind.

24 year old John Goldsberry is an aspiring Olympic Sailor in the 49er Class and as the fifth Person on the boat, he essentially is responsible for everything. He has a role in all maneuvers. He’s also very active at moving his weight around the boat down wind, especially in those conditions where the velocity is up and down.

Matt Noble is 21 and also an aspiring Olympic 49er sailor. He’s the 2008 International 14 World Champion and is one of the best skiff crews around. He is a new addition to our team and as bowman will be getting that kite down and helping with the wind calls.

It’s great to have some young sailors on the boat who share a passion for the sport and are excited for the opportunity to sail the Melges 24.

IM24CA: Do regard being a female in a male dominated sport to be an advantage or disadvantage?

KL: In my opinion, it really doesn’t make a difference. There is, however, one unique trait women have that may make them a more natural fit for the helm position. That is, when faced with physical challenge women have an ability to utilize finesse to find a solution. Men are hard wired to utilize their muscles to solve such a problem. I like to think finesse leads to better feel of the helm while over-powering strength can sometimes work against feel. I think this is especially true in the light airs.

IM24CA: The Melges 24 helm role is a real work out physically. How much time do you dedicate to your sailing fitness?

KL: I make an effort to prepare my body physically to compete in the M24 class, but most importantly I have confidence in my strength. I train for endurance by taking one and two hour spin classes three times a week. In addition, I lift weights at least twice a week. I also see a chiropractor regularly.

Having the right sails also helps me handle the physical challenge of driving. I’ve found the Ullman Dacron mainsail to be very helpful in reducing my overall fatigue. The elastic properties of Dacron make for a sail that requires less trimming. This also makes the sail somewhat self-correcting as the puffs come and go. I think a composite main is faster 2% of the time but over the course of a day I think the Dacron sail is faster for me. With less mainsheet trimming being required, I can focus on the feel of the helm and all the other “stuff” a driver needs to think about. The Ullman main is extremely user friendly in this aspect and I just love it.

IM24CA: How often do you get to practice on the Melges 24 between regattas?

KL: Not enough. Over the last two years, the US circuit of big events has been on the East Coast. So we decided to leave our boats out there to reduce transportation costs. To augment my sailing I try to drive different kinds of boats. For example, this past winter I have been driving a 29er with some skiff sailors from the SF Bay area. That has been a ton of fun.

Without a doubt, we have had the most success when we arrive to a M24 venue early and have intense practices before the event. This is something we will do in Annapolis before the Worlds.

IM24CA: At the 2008 North American Championship we watched you pass Terry Hutchinson up the second beat to take a well deserved race win. You looked like you were in consummate control the whole time. Were you? Tell us about that race? When you took the lead were you confident you could hold on with the likes of Terry Hutchinson, Dave Ullman and Gabrio Zandona breathing down you neck? How did it feel when you took the winning gun?

KL: At the start of that race my tactician, Olympic medalist and AC veteran Charlie McKee, told me to foot below the two boats to leeward off the line. From then on I was just focused on boat speed but as the fleet of forty nine boats approached the first windward mark, I became aware in my peripheral vision that our position looked good. I could see we were close to Dave Ullman and Terry Hutchinson and any time you can be around those two, you’re doing pretty well.

We tacked on the layline just ahead of Dave Ullman and a good distance behind Terry. We were in 2nd place. The twenty two knot breeze sent us flying down the run and we arrived at the leeward gate with Terry, Dave, and I holding our relative positions. On the second beat, the race became very exciting. I had remained focused on steering the boat but as we approached the layline of that last windward mark I allowed myself to acknowledge that we had passed Terry Hutchinson and WE were leading a race at the NA Championship!

From that point our team worked like hell for every bit of boat speed. Terry was behind us and pushing hard. Without a word being spoken, everyone on my boat realized it was going to come down to the last 100 yards. We had to execute the perfect gybe to stay in front of Terry – who did not have to gybe to cross finish line.

This was it. Charlie McKee made the call, the team executed perfectly and coming out of the gybe we immediately popped up on a plane. We screamed across that finish to the sound of the gun, a roar of applause, and a couple horns from the spectator fleet.

We had done it. We passed Terry Hutchinson and held him off in twenty knots plus. For the first time ever a woman driver had taken a bullet at the Melges 24 NA Championship. It was the highlight of my year, the highlight of my sailing career, and a thrill that I will never forget.

IM24CA: We know all about you two boat programme with husband Peter. In
Annapolis you beat him by one place overall. How do you manage the debriefs when one of you has done well and the other not so good?

KL: Honestly, when one boat is faster it’s the best possible thing that can happen. When this occurs, I know someone on the faster boat is going to tell the slower boat what’s different about their set up. Then, the slower boat will make the change and the whole team will benefit from the knowledge. Both teams are committed to helping each other. The two-boat dynamic has been the cornerstone of our success over the last few events. Without it, I’m not sure we would be where we are today. As for Peter and I, we keep it friendly with each other. At the end of the day we are each other’s biggest fans. I feel very fortunate to share the passion for racing with my husband. It keeps our relationship fresh.

IM24CA: How have you got to be so good so quickly? What personal strengths do you think have helped you with this?

KL: Skiing played a big role here. A little background info: I essentially put myself through college by being a ski instructor in California and Colorado. That job taught me the value that lessons and coaching can have on a newcomer to a sport. I figured if it works for skiing it would work for sailing. So from the first year I started driving my J/105 I hired a coach.

In addition to being committed to improving – i.e. being willing to have people tell me about all of my mistakes. I think there is just something about sailing that really clicks for me. Driving a boat requires the use of all your senses along with the intellectual processing of events on the course. It’s just an amazing challenge that way. I have been told that I have the ability to concentrate and focus on driving for long periods of time.

IM24CA: Why do you think there are not more female helms in the Melges 24 fleet? What encouragement do you have for any ladies reading this who are considering giving it a go?

KL: I believe women watching from the sidelines who have an interest need to understand that helming, like any challenge in life, is attainable. It all starts with finding the strength within one’s self to jump into this challenge ready to accept a bunch of failures. If you put forth that honest effort you will be rewarded with success. It is possible. It does not make a difference whether the person driving the M24 weighs 130lbs or 200lbs. It’s about finding the team and set up that works for your style and going for it.

I would also like women to know the M24 fleet is comprised of competitors who are great sportsman. They understand that the more people out there the better the racing. Gabrio Zandona and Terry Hutchinson want you out there. Make it happen!

IM24CA: Tell us about your plans for 2009? Which regattas do you plan to attend and what are your aspirations for the Worlds?

KL: We are planning on doing the back-to-back events of Charleston Race Week and the Annapolis NOOD in April. These venues both have value in preparing us for the World Championship in October. Plus, they are just wonderful places to visit, particularly Charleston, South Carolina. From there we move the whole kit out to the West Coast in preparation for the National Championship in June, which is being hosted by my home club, the St. Francis Yacht Club. Then, we will do some private training sessions in San Francisco before shipping the gear out to Annapolis again. We are hoping to put together some practice races before the World Championship regatta.

IM24CA: Thanks for helping us find out more about you and your Melges 24 campaign. Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

KL: Team Brick House will soon have its own web site. People can check in on the team’s progress as well as future developments. The address is: See you all on the circuit soon.