Sailing may not be the first sport people think of when they think of Lincoln, Nebraska. Nevertheless, a group of intrepid students lead University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s first-ever sailing club.

In the beginning, the Sailing Club at UNL was a group of friends that shared a passion for the sport. But even though they have to practice in a landlocked state, the team placed in the top three out of eight in its first two meets last semester.

The Sailing Club is now a recognized student organization with a rising membership. Within their club, the founders created a new space for people to participate in something they love or learn something entirely new.

Alair Vega-Barnhill, co-founder of the club and senior secondary Spanish education major, began sailing for the first time with her husband, Zack Barnhill, in May 2018 soon after the group applied to be an RSO. Barnhill, another co-founder and senior construction management major, has been sailing since 2015 and has been a member of the Lincoln Sailing Club, separate from UNL, since 2017.

At the Lincoln Sailing Club, Barnhill became friends with Jen Lee, the now-coach of the UNL Sailing Club and an audiology graduate student. Together, they decided to recruit Barnhill’s friends to form an executive committee and start UNL’s first sailing club.

Lee organizes the club’s regattas, which are weekend competitions held at schools or other host sites. According to her, there are Division A and B sections to differentiate between ability levels. Division A is for the more experienced sailors, while Division B is best for beginning team members. Each boat has to follow marks on the water, and the teams win by following them correctly and quickly.

Lee, who is from Rhode Island and has sailed her whole life, wanted to start a team when she came to UNL for her graduate studies. There was no real facility for sailing and she said starting the club was a challenge.

“It’s definitely been a growing experience,” she said. “It was a little difficult starting it up, but we have grown so much, and it’s amazing to see these kids grow within it.”

Vega-Barnhill said she joined the club as its first female member. At its most recent introduction meeting, she was excited to see more women attend.

“I think a lot of people think that sailing is a sport that only older people enjoy,” Vega-Barnhill said. “It’s really a sport that everyone can do, no matter their age, ability or gender, and we’re trying to get people of all backgrounds to join.”

As the diversity coordinator, Vega-Barnhill wants to make it clear that sailing is a sport for anyone, and spending time with a partner while sailing can expand your appreciation of others.

“Sailing also has interests in diversity,” she said. “When you’re in a two-person boat, you really get close with your teammate, and the leadership skills as well as team bonding skills helps with the understanding that anyone can do this sport.”

Barnhill said his own experiences prove how the team builds friendships.

“I did not expect it, but I became very close with several of the members that joined last semester,” he said. “There is a huge amount of trust in sailing. You have to have faith in your captain to steer you straight and the crew to have the captain’s back.”

The Sailing Club will hold “chalk talks” every Thursday until their first on-water practice on March 26. In the indoor meetings, they discuss sailing and racing techniques before getting on Branched Oak Lake in Lincoln in the spring for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday practices, as well as group workouts on the weekends.

The club will compete in one regatta during the spring semester. It will be competing in the Cream City Classic, held April 13-14 in Milwaukee. For the upcoming fall semester, they plan to compete in four regattas.

“It’s definitely a time commitment,” Lee said. “It’s a two-day event with 18 races total and a very dynamic sport. There is so much strategy involved, and you’re trying to find tactics, boat speeds, course management and quickest speeds all while sailing a boat.”

The team received second place at last fall’s Big 12 race in Lawrence, Kansas, and it came in third in Iowa City for the 2018 Davis Cup.

Lee, Barnhill and Vega-Barnhill all said the Sailing Club is a place for community, friendship and for anyone to participate.

“I love sailing,” Barnhill said. “The freedom you feel is unparalleled by outdoor sports. I think it’s a life-changing experience and most people don’t know that they can do it right here in Nebraska.”


This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of The DN.