By Emily Butler
From the outside, sailing looks like a peaceful boating trip across a large body of water, but for one Mountain Brook High School senior that couldn’t be further from the truth. Competitive sailing is in fact a full core sport, Isabel Smith will tell you. “It’s much harder than it looks,” Isabel’s dad, Fred, says. “Competitive sailboat racing is intense. It’s like being on the best rollercoaster ride ever.”
Isabel has done more than just pick up sailing skills too. She’s been winning races since 2011 when she came in first place as a skipper in the J22 boat at Birmingham Sailing Club. Most recently she placed first in the Georgia Tech Open Regatta and in the Neill Advanced Sailing Clinic and Regatta in Chicago. Over in the North Seas in Denmark, she sailed for Team Denmark and back at home she qualified for a nationally selected team of top sailors in the U.S. (although it didn’t work out long term).
These sailing adventures all began when Fred, who also sailed competitively, introduced a 6-year-old Isabel to the sport that his own father had taught him at their lake house at Logan Martin Lake, also home to the Birmingham Sailing Club. “My dad has a J22 (sailboat), and I remember going out on the boat with him when I was little and racing,” Isabel recalls. “It’s probably my first and favorite sailing memory.” After being coached by friends at the Birmingham Sailing Club for years, Isabel now works with professional sailors as her coaches.
Isabel and her dad aren’t the only sailors in the family either. Isabel’s younger brother Darby has been competing and recently made the U.S. Optimist Development Team, which is the doorway to making the national team.
On the way to all of these accomplishments, Isabel has had to overcome major obstacles too. Two years ago, she had a corrective foot surgery due to spinal issues she’s had since birth, and those left her without feeling in her left foot and parts of her left leg. Even though she’s had intensive physical therapy, she won’t regain feeling in her foot and parts and of her leg. But instead of giving up or dialing it down, Isabel has just worked through the numbness in her foot. Now, she says, she’s used to it.
And then there are the other challenges that come with sailing. “One of the hardest parts of learning how to sail is the wind shifts,” Isabel says. “You have to notice when the wind changes directions and where to go on the course. Starting is also difficult. If you have a good start, you have a much higher chance of winning the race.” The races start with the sailboats behind two buoys that mark an invisible line. If the sailboat crosses before the 5-minute countdown is over, the team of sailors will face a penalty in the scoring. Once the countdown is over, the boats make their way around a course that usually takes about an hour.
Not only does the sport require extreme core strength, but for someone who can’t get to a lake every day to practice, it also requires additional workouts. When Isabel is away from the water, she does a lot of strength and endurance training so that, among other scenarios that might come up, if her boat ever flips over during the race she will be prepared to flip it right back over with her partner. She continues to sail by her lake house on Logan Martin Lake and frequently travels to Georgia to practice on Lake Allatoona through the Atlanta Sailing Club.
Sailing is a team sport too. Isabel used to sail against Evie Blauvelt, who lives in Atlanta, but now the two girls work together to win, sailing on a two-person boat called the 420. “Evie and I know each other so well that when something comes up on the course, we don’t even have to communicate because we both know what the other is going to do,” Isabel says, noting Evie has become one of her best friends along the way. Last year the duo placed first at the Neill Advanced Sailing Clinic and Regatta on Lake Michigan in Chicago, a two-day regatta run by college coaches that is a feat to even qualify for.
Victory doesn’t come without sacrifice though. Most weeks during the school year, Isabel attends classes during the week with her peers, and on the weekends she travels to Atlanta, Pensacola and beyond to either practice or compete. Often she ends up doing her homework on the plane because of the intense schedule during her races, but for her it’s more than worth it. “One of the most rewarding things about sailing is getting to meet so many new friends from all over the world and you get to go to a ton of cool places like Belgium, Chicago, St. Thomas, California and New Jersey,” she says.
Looking ahead, Isabel hopes to attend a college where she can competitively sail, although she isn’t quite sure where yet. She has her sights set on the Olympics too, but for now, she’s going to keep competing and see where it takes her.