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University Traditions

Sailing Club Makes a Comeback at Syracuse

More than 60 years ago, Syracuse University sailors came up short in a controversial finish for the prestigious McMillan Cup. Today, the resurrected sailing club is riding the winds again.

Two Syracuse sailors in a sailboat with one leaning off the side, just inches above the water
Photos courtesy of Syracuse Sailing Club

At Syracuse University, Harmen Oscar Rockler ’13 was determined to spice up his education in journalism and political science with his passion for sailing. One thing led to another, and soon he was on a quest for a lost piece of Syracuse history. Rockler, who had sailed with a program through the Lynnfield, Massachusetts, athletic department during his high school days, was disappointed but undeterred when his queries about a sailing club at Syracuse led to a defunct website and several dead ends. In the fall of his freshman year, he and four other students—Ryan Kossler L’11, Louise Browning ’12, Sharon Burke ’12, and Chad Walz SUNY ESF ’12—embarked on a fresh start to bring sailing to Syracuse University. “I wasn’t going to spend four years not sailing,” says Rockler, now public relations and marketing coordinator with Farr Yacht Design in Annapolis, Maryland.

Drawing on an active network, club founders quickly built a membership of about 20 sailors, a governing structure, and funding through the University's Department of Recreational Services. By 2011, novice and seasoned sailors were practicing on a fleet of Flying Juniors racing dinghies—FJs—on Cazenovia Lake and competing in regattas with the Middle Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association. The fledgling Syracuse club was a lot about racing. But interest ran deeper. Kossler, a novice who got hooked after he took lessons in California while home on winter break, was motivated to expand both his sailing and social horizons. “The social aspect is a big part of it,” says Kossler, an attorney in Orange County, California. “But it’s not hanging out and partying. They’re people who are there to sail and to teach others, and there are people who are there to learn. They take it seriously.” 

The future looked bright. But Rockler, in particular, was also keenly interested in the past. “I knew from talking to alums there was history to the club, but I didn’t know what happened to it,” Rockler recalls. “I wanted to learn more.” Did the sailing club he and his friends founded mark a beginning? Or was it more a renaissance of some storied past?

Vintage black & white photo of Syracuse

One night in Bird Library, Rockler followed that nagging question to the archives on the sixth floor, where a complete collection of Onondagan yearbooks was shelved. Carefully paging through brittle volumes from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, he found group pictures of “yachting enthusiasts” in tweed jackets, dress shirts, slacks, pleated skirts, blouses, and cardigans. He read brief but intriguing entries that suggested a long-forgotten golden age for Syracuse sailors. In 1947, after a hiatus during World War II, the team was part of the Intercollegiate Yacht Racing Club and led by J. Gordon Bentley ’50, who would later be inducted into the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Hall of Fame. Regattas were held at Navy, Army, Cooper Union, New York State Maritime Academy, and Brown. Cornell, a high-profile rival of the vaunted Syracuse crew and football teams of the day, would also become a prime adversary for Syracuse University sailors.  

The McMillan Cup Saga

With flourishing membership and competitive results against elite competition, the club gained varsity status in 1953 and established a dinghy fleet and practice facilities on Onondaga Lake. With piqued curiosity, Rockler began searching newspaper archives, where he learned the ’54 varsity was invited to compete in the prestigious McMillan Cup—the oldest collegiate sailing event—held at Annapolis, against elite Atlantic 10 sailing powers. 

In a dramatic account of the April 3, 1954, regatta, The Associated Press reported Syracuse winning a hotly contested race in “high winds and bouncing Chesapeake Bay seas.” Rockler found that fascinating, yet he couldn’t reconcile it with the intercollegiate record, which showed Cornell claiming the cup. The mystery endured until early this year, when the skipper of the Syracuse boat in the ’54 McMillan Cup, Ken Resen ’56 (who later transferred to Yale) was located through journalistic inquiry with the help of social media. Resen, a graphic designer and artist in Manhattan, vividly recalled the race some 63 years ago.   

Syracuse did indeed prevail in the first day of racing. It was a sensational moment on a national stage. Sailing 44-foot yawls provided by Navy, rather than club dinghies that are standard issue for most collegiate competitions, the eight-person crews overcame high seas and winds gusting to 35 knots that, according to news reports, split Yale’s jib, broke MIT’s spreader, and, a short distance from the finish, ripped the jib lead from the deck of the Syracuse boat. In the end of the grueling three-plus-hour race, the Syracuse boat surged through the whitecaps—its foresail flogging—35 seconds in front of MIT, followed closely by Cornell and Navy.

Resen, who was chosen as captain for the Annapolis race due to experience on his family’s 44-foot cutter on Long Island Sound, remembers his father yelling himself hoarse from a nearby spectator boat. At the helm of the Navy yawl, Resen could catch some of his father’s phrases on the wind. “I’m not sure they were just words of encouragement,” Resen says. “He was a great sailor, and he had lots of advice.”

In what might be considered a Homeric contrast to the heavy weather on day one, the fleet was becalmed on day two, requiring crews to call on a completely different skill set: coaxing 29,000-pound vessels over an 18-mile course in limp wind and glassy seas. The ships ghosted along for hours on end. With daylight waning and twilight colors burnishing the glassy Chesapeake, Syracuse drifted along in second behind Cornell, a position it had only to maintain to win the cup. 

More hours passed. Light faded and the water turned inky black with the boats still miles from the finish. Resen—mindful of rules about racing after dark—believed the race was called and Syracuse had sealed the win based on the first day’s result. As the Syracuse crew dropped sails and motored to port, they were reassured by the sight of other boats also abandoning the course. After reaching shore, however, Resen was astounded to learn from officials that the race was still on. Sometime later, Cornell drifted across the finish in a freshening breeze to claim the title, despite fruitless grievances Syracuse filed with the race committee over interpretation of the rules. “It kept coming back to the phrase ‘…an Act of God’ and how the sun setting may or may not have been related to that,” Resen says, recalling that by then it was nearing midnight. “We had to get back for classes the next morning. It was an impossibly long drive home.” 

Looking Forward

Two Syracuse Sailors adjust the rigging while their boat leans on its side

In addition to an active group of alumni, today’s club includes about 55 dues-paying members and “learn-to-sail” kids, says Brad Hanford ’18, commodore of finance. Kossler, who was new to sailing when he helped found the club in 2010, met one of his lasting Syracuse friends—Patrick Stege ’14—through their mutual interest in the team. The two still regularly sail at Dana Point in California. Recently, they returned to Syracuse University to visit the club’s nautically themed “Sailing House,” which serves as residence and meeting place. There, Kossler signed a centerboard mounted above the mantel bearing the names of commodores over the years.

What’s in the future? Perhaps, someday, the Orange will return to Annapolis to avenge the ’54 loss to Cornell. Regardless, the current generation of Orange sailors is embarking on new adventures. Any chance for victory over the Big Red along the way is a welcome one.

Tom Wilber

This story was published on .

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