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Cal Beats Stanford in the Big Sail Under the Cloud of the College Admissions Scandal

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Victorious during Big Game Week!

Tuesday marked the first time when the Cal and Stanford Sailing teams have faced each other in a head-to-head match-up since the College Admissions scandal broke earlier this year. An estimated 1,000 spectators, the Cal and Stanford Bands, and the schools’ respective cheerleaders were in attendance for the regatta in front of the St. Francis Yacht Club on San Francisco Bay.

Cal beat Stanford 4–1, with the only loss coming in the Varsity division (current students); and Cal swept the races in the four winning divisions, each in a best-of-three format. The race results, however, are only a part of a larger story—namely, the impact the college admissions scandal has had on the Big Sail and collegiate sailing.

Stanford Sailing Coach John Vandemoer Sentenced In Boston Court Over College Admissions Scandal Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images

In March, the college admissions scandal was made public, charging 51 individuals with conspiring to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at elite American universities. John Vandemoer, the former head coach of the Stanford Sailing Team, was one of the first coaches to be charged after evidence produced alleged that the team had received more than USD 610,000 in bribes from Rick Singer, the organizer of the scheme. Singer had offered the bribes to Vandemoer in exchange for having his clients—prospective Stanford Students—apply to the University as sailing recruits, significantly increasing their chances of being accepted.

Vandemoer was arrested in March of this year, subsequently fired by the University, and then sentenced on June 12, 2019 to one day in prison for racketeering conspiracy, in addition to a USD 10,000 fine and two years of supervised release. According to the New York Times, Vandemoer now lives at the vacation home of a Stanford University benefactor and coaches privately with his wife at a Club just a few hundred yards from the Stanford Sailing facility in Redwood City. Importantly, Vandemoer did not personally profit from Singer’s donations to the program.

The Big Sail traces its roots back to at least the 1940s, when the event was originally hosted by the Berkeley Yacht Club. While race records are not readily available, the original trophy from that iteration of the series now permanently resides at the Stanford Boathouse, a 16,500 square foot state-of-the-art facility which boasts a multistory indoor boat garage, locker rooms, laundry facilities, and offices.

The Big Sail regatta is formatted as a series of best-of-three match races. A match race is when one boat from each team goes head-to-head, with rules that are slightly more complex than those of traditional racing. Sailors compete across five divisions:: Varsity (current students), Women’s (female Alumni), Young Alumni, Masters, and Grand Masters (all based on year of graduation). Cal has consistently done well in the Alumni divisions; however, Stanford has now won the last 16 consecutive Varsity contests. In national events, Stanford has routinely qualified for the coed national championships, while Cal and other Pac-12 schools qualify on a more sporadic basis.

The recent disparity of Varsity results can be largely explained by the team structures and finances. Sailing is a Varsity sport at Stanford, meaning that the team is completely funded by the school’s USD 26.5 billion endowment, of which the sailing portion was partially contributed to by Singer and Vandemoer’s arrangement.

The Stanford Sailing Team’s budget in 2017 was USD 182,000, the second highest of any collegiate program nationally (second to Boston College) and more than double that of national championship programs Yale and Georgetown. It is also important to note that this figure does not include equipment and facilities, with the program spending upwards of USD 120,000 on new boats every 5–8 years, giving the Stanford team a considerable advantage over its West Coast competition in terms of equipment. As a result of being well-funded, Stanford is able to recruit the best sailors on the West Coast, as it is currently the only fully-funded program not on the Eastern Seaboard.

The Cal Sailing Team is a student-run organization and is designated a “Club Sport” by the University. Since there is no varsity sailing program supported by the Cal Athletic Department, the Cal Sailing team represents the University as a varsity team at events around the country, including events on the East Coast and in Hawaii. The team is entirely student-led and student-run, with occasional coaching assistance from volunteers who themselves are former collegiate sailors.

The team operates on a budget of less than USD 10,000 annually, and is funded by the students on the team, generous donors, and sponsors such as Berkeley Research Group, when in 2015 the Emeryville-based firm donated a new boat to help compete against Stanford’s 18 new boats. The Cal Sailing team has historically done well against other club teams and there is hope for future improvement, as US Sailing announced in 2018 that it will be opening a cutting-edge Olympic training facility at the Treasure Island Sailing Center—the current Cal Sailing practice venue.

The two teams, while geographically and competitively close are structural and financial opposites. One is a private, heavily bureaucratic institution with generous donors, a high tuition price tag, and a corruptible system seeking to raise significant funding to bring a national championship to a non-revenue generating athletic program. The other program, which is far more common and historically recognizable, is about a group of students with a common passion and the desire to organize and pursue that passion while balancing school, and often multiple forms of employment to support their passion.

The differences in the teams raise the question about the role of collegiate athletics: should athletic programs primarily be vehicles for pursing passions and learning life lessons or programs for refining technical ability and winning championships? They certainly could be utilized to pursue all the above, but to which degree will certainly be a topic of debate for some time to come.