Name: Derek Packard
College: Washington College
Washington College Sailing Team: WACSailingTeam
Washington College Sailing Team on Facebook: WACSailingFB
Derek Packard started as a crew at Washington College. After four years of hard work and persistence, he moved up the team ladder to a starting skipper position. Through his efforts, he was able to take Washington College to its only ICSA Coed Nationals in the school’s history (2009). Derek continues to race a variety of boats in Minnesota.
Why did you choose Washington College? What other schools were you looking at?
I went to a small private high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where most people ended up going to small liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools. During that time, I played hockey, sailing, and golf. When I was 16, I decided that sailing was something that I wanted to pursue in college. From there, I did some research, and looked at Hobart, St. Mary’s, Washington College, Roger Williams, and Boston University. I applied to all of them, and, when I got the acceptance letters, I took a closer look at the programs. The final decision came down to Hobart, St. Mary’s, and Washington College. It seemed that all of the schools were on par with each other academically. Thus, my final decision was based around the sailing programs.
Hobart had just won a National Championship my senior year of high school, and St. Mary’s was right up there with them. After thinking about it, I knew I would probably make their teams, but I wouldn’t really be a factor on them at all. Washington College was ranked, but wasn’t so massive that I would not have a chance to play a role on the team.
If you were looking again today, what would you look for in a collegiate program? Why?
The most important thing for me is location. Maryland was a place you could feasibly sail year round, and the weather was pleasant for the most part.
Another factor is team size. I have had a lot of friends set their sights on a top program, with a 50 person team, and they would end up becoming irrelevant in college sailing.
Team organization is another huge deal. You definitely want to sail for a team that has varsity status. If you sail for a varsity program, you won’t have travel costs, no financial responsibility for the equipment, and no logistical issues to deal with or pay for. It really takes a big headache out of it for you. I have known a lot of sailors who go to schools with club teams, and end up not sailing because of all the challenges their teams face on a daily basis.
Lastly, your coach is an important factor to consider. You want to sail for someone you feel that you connect with, can impart knowledge, and will take the time to help you improve. It helps if they are knowledgeable and respectable within the game, as well as outside of college sailing.
What has the college sailing experience done for your sailing career?
Everything. It’s an incredible opportunity to polish your skills and get to an advanced level. I probably sailed upwards of 80 regattas in four years at Washington College. You can’t get that many starts and finishes anywhere else, or during any other time in your life. The repetition you get in everything that you do, while someone is there critiquing your sailing, is extremely helpful. You won’t get that amount of reps or detailed instruction ever again, unless you do an Olympic Campaign, or you shell out a lot of money for it.
You also get to sail against, and occasionally beat, people who will go off to represent the US someday in the Olympics. That does a lot for your confidence as you move forward into other fleets, after college sailing is over.
What did you enjoy most about college sailing? What did you enjoy least?
I loved the amount of travel that you do. Growing up in Minnesota, I had not done much traveling by the time I left high school. You get the opportunity to sail in a lot of beautiful places, and see a lot of great schools on the eastern seaboard. The structure of your day is also good. You have time to do your school work, but you have to learn how to balance it early on.
Sometimes, when you are spending all of your time with a small group of people, this can lead to some friction. This usually gets worked out, but it’s something you deal with.
If you were back in college sailing, what kinds of things would you do differently? The same?
Consistency was the biggest thing that I did well. You have to make yourself available to sail and race all the time. Things happen on every team. People get burned out, drop out of school, and leave the team for a lot of different reasons. You will get a shot to move up on a team, and, when you do, you need to be ready to grab the bull by the horns and take over.
I wish I had come at college sailing with more precision and dedication for the whole four years. When you are sailing as much as you do in college, there is a tendency to get burned out, and not give your best effort at practices, workouts, etc. There are a lot of opportunities to make gains by doing the small stuff. Give an honest effort all of the time, even when it gets tough, and make the most of every minute. You will miss it once you are behind a desk.
Did crewing at first help you or hurt you? How were you able to make the transition from crew to skipper?
Getting the chance to crew will only help you. I was a skipper in high school. I only sailed a few regattas, and I didn’t get a lot of experience. When I came to Washington College, I crewed a lot for the A Division skipper. I realized pretty quickly, ‘Wow, I’m not at his level’. Sailing with the A skipper gave me the chance to compete at the highest levels of college sailing right away. We went to all of the big intersectional regattas, and I learned a lot about boat handling that I would not have learned just by skippering. We mostly practiced FJ’s, where the crew is always facing backwards. This gives you a chance to watch the person driving, and gave me a feel for skippering that I didn't have coming into college.
I mostly drove at Open Regattas (Regional Regattas) my first year, which were nothing compared to the talent level you see at the intersecionals. Getting to steer a bit, and then applying what I had learned from watching a better skipper, helped me catch up much more quickly. When my junior year rolled around, we had enough people that were good at crewing, and I was able to step in and skipper at the big regattas. At this point, you are already a step ahead because you have experienced an intersectional before, and the look is familiar to you. Now that you are more confident and knowledgeable, you are on your way up from there.
What do you like about sailing in MAISA? Dislike?
I didn’t like the long van trips from the eastern shore of Maryland to Hobart or Cornell. Other than that, I think it’s the best conference to sail in. Every venue is so different. You sail at a lot of tiny and tricky venues like Washington College, St. Mary’s, and Georgetown. You also get to sail in a few more open water venues with gnarly waves, like Old Dominion and King’s Point.
The regatta organization is always top notch, even at the smaller regional events, and you can always expect good racing and dedicated people. In some conferences, you will see students running everything. In these regions, not everything is necessarily done with much care, and the depth at regattas is not as strong.
How often do you get to race these days?
I moved back to Minnesota, so lakes are frozen from sometime in November until early April. Some people do ice boating during that time, but it’s pretty fickle. The sailing season goes pretty hard between early May and the end of September. I probably do about eight big regattas during that time, and sail three or four times a week. People in the Midwest really take advantage of the summer months, and we get a high volume of racing in a short period of time.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
College sailing is the best decision I have ever made. I now have a hobby that I can continue to do at a high level of intensity for the rest of my life. There are not a lot of sports you can say that about after a certain point, and I credit my ability to continue to take part in the upper levels of the sport to my college sailing experience. If you are teetering on whether or not you should take part in it, it is definitely worth it.