The Mallory Trophy was originally offered to Lord Horatio Nelson by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire after the admiral’s victory over Napoleon on the Nile. Now it belongs to two Vineyard sailors after their victory over the field in the U.S. Men’s Sailing National Championship.
After a windy weekend in Sheboygan, Mich., the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club’s Paul Wilson and William Stevens, along with the Naragansett Yachting Association’s John Plominski, won the most prestigious amateur event in sailing in thrilling style.
“It feels unfamiliar,” said skipper Paul Wilson of his status as national champion, who enjoyed a hero’s welcome this week at his law firm in Manhattan. “It feels unbelievable.”
“The trophy’s enormous,” Mr. Stevens said of the sterling silver tureen.
Although the Vineyard has gone decades without a national championship, Mr. Stevens needs to go only two generations back. His grandmother, Featherstone Arts Center founder Virginia Besse, won the women’s national championship in 1946.
For both it’s been a long journey to the top.
“I’ve been chasing after this one for a long time — about 20 years,” Mr. Wilson said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, “and to have actually reached a goal like this was a very hard thing to process, and a very wonderful thing to process.”
Going into the three-day regatta the Vineyard team’s strategy was simple enough: stay near the front.
“Our approach was to be very conservative and not really get ourselves into any trouble with protests and not try to joust with other boats more than we needed to,” said Mr. Wilson. “We thought that if we could get off of the starting line cleanly we could be fast enough to be competitive. In a fleet with this much talent you can’t expect to go out and win every race.”
By the end of the first day his team had ably executed their strategy, having finished second, third and first, and one point back from the leader overall. The next closest boat was eight points back.
“It was at that point we thought, hey, we might have a shot at this,” Mr. Wilson said.
But standing between the Vineyard team and a championship was the inimitable Ken Kleinschrodt of Mobile, Ala., and his well-seasoned crew.
“These guys are in a league that I sometimes consider untouchable,” said Mr. Wilson.
After sailing was cancelled the second day due to 45-knot gusts, the field took to the water again on a blustery Lake Michigan, as five to seven-foot waves buffeted the fleet of Sonars at every tack.
After winning the first race while Mr. Kleinschrodt finished a disappointing fifth, the Vineyard team was thrust into first place by three points and adjusted its strategy accordingly: instead of trying to stay near the front of the pack the team would try to stay in front of its closest competition at all costs. Nonetheless, the Vineyard crew managed finishes of first, third, second and first and went into the final day up eight points.
“I’ve actually been second place in this event going into the last day three separate times and fallen out of medal contention each time, so I was beyond nervous,” Mr. Wilson said. “My lovely wife’s piece of advice to me was, don’t choke.”
On the final race day his team was quickly disabused of any notion that Mr. Kleinschrodt intended to duke it out for second place with an ascendant third-place team.
“I’ve now finished in second place two times in a row in this event,” Mr. Wilson recalled Mr. Kleinschrodt telling him. “I don’t care much about anything other than winning it.”
Going into the penultimate race, Mr. Wilson’s team needed only to stay in front of the second and third-place teams overall to clinch the victory. At the first mark of the race the three boats in medal contention were in seventh, eighth and ninth place out of nine overall.
“The real regatta was in the back of the pack,” said Mr. Wilson.
Still the Vineyard team managed to move up near the end of the race and snag a third-place finish. When Mr. Kleinschrodt’s crew finished fifth it was all over, save a final race which by that point was more of a formality. To the Vineyard crew the final race took on more the feel of a victory lap.
“I was on cloud nine through that entire race,” said Mr. Wilson. “I didn’t even know my name.”
Although he isn’t a superstitious man Mr. Wilson had bought two pairs of sailing shorts for the event that his wife said were the ugliest things she had ever seen. He says after winning the championship in one pair, they might become a new race day talisman.
Mr. Wilson, who commutes to the Vineyard every weekend of the summer to train at the Vineyard Yacht Club, celebrated the victory with family, friends and fellow club members “in serious style” upon returning to New York city.
How did Mr. Stevens celebrate?
“I went back to work,” he said. Although he had to fly back to Washington, D.C., on Sunday shortly after the race, he expects to savor the victory when the Mallory Trophy comes to the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club next summer. For both Mr. Stevens and Mr. Wilson it will be an emotional homecoming.
“The Vineyard Haven Yacht Club is a very special place to me,” said Mr. Wilson. “I belong to a number of yacht clubs but I would never think of representing anyone but Vineyard Haven for this event. Me and Will learned to sail there.”