MSA: Fifty Years Of Sailing


There is an interesting reality about sailing today.  In the last several decades, the role of yacht clubs as a feeder for the sport has steadily waned, and the emergence of community sailing programs to feed the stock of future sailors has surged.

This is lucky for the Manchester Sailing Association (MSA), the local community sailing club that completed its 50th season earlier this month. 

Back in 1971, MSA formed by unifying several small amateur sail clubs (such as the Manchester Frostbiting Association, which shared its Dyer Dhows) to give local youth the chance to learn sailing in their backyard.  The first year, 22 kids signed up, classes were $1 each and they went through November.  (Remember, Frostbiters).  The idea was simple: expose young people to sailing, grow their confidence as they master fundamentals, and connect them to something they can do and love forever.

This season, 205 people went through MSA’s program, including 181 young students, and 24 adults.  Remarkably, the operation runs on just two floating docks in Manchester Harbor for its fleet, a small lent office at the Manchester Yacht Club (MYC), and a postage stamp-sized storage and maintenance property on Harbor Street.  Despite this, MSA has produced some of sailing’s greatest talent, all while remaining true to a mission focusing on those discovering the sport. 

“I remember the name of every MSA instructor I had because of their passion.  Their passion made me passionate, and that’s what I want to do for my campers,” said Lilia Hutchins, an MSA instructor and officer on the University of Vermont’s sailing team.  She says the magic of MSA is its access to competitive racing, without losing the fun.

Fun and technique were baked into MSA from the start.  In the early years, blending sailing novices with “master mariners” who secured the critical support of the Manchester Yacht Club that recognized the value of hosting community sailing.  The club’s popularity grew, and so did its fleet.  By the early 1980s, MSA owned 14 Flying Terns, 11 Dyer Dhows, the Rhodes 19s, and approximately 125 students were in the program each year. 

Robert Hopkins and Tony Leggett are two notable alumni of Flying Tern racing who have gone on to distinguish themselves in racing bigger boats.  Hopkins was in the program’s inaugural season, starting as a nine-year-old, becoming an instructor and going on to the sailing program at Yale.  His extensive career as both a professional sailor and in the yachting industry has been remarkable.  In 1984, Hopkins was named head coach of the US Olympic Sailing team, the youngest in its history.  That year, his team won 3 gold and 4 silver medals, the best performance by any country.  He competed on five America’s Cup teams, two as racing navigator while also serving as Design Team Coordinator and Chief Operating Officer. 

All of it, Hopkins says today, lands on MSA.

“As a young person, I had no way forward in sailing,” Hopkins said.  “My parents weren’t members of the yacht club.  So MSA was a big deal for me.  It was a huge opportunity.”

This idea of access is important.  Into his career, Hopkins quickly came to appreciate the uniqueness of MSA, and community sailing.  In professional sailing, he said, nearly everyone came up as part of a yacht club.  That’s changing, and the profile of community sail clubs is growing.  Community sailing programs with ties to a local yacht club, like MSA and its relationship with the MYC, get the best of both worlds.

“The MYC has been incredibly supportive of the MSA and that’s been a big strength,” said Todd Cooper, MSA’s current president.  Increasingly, he said, “yacht clubs are looking to community sailing organizations for their youth sailing future.  And Manchester has always had it.”

Tony Leggett grew up sailing and learned to race in the MYC Junior Program.  He then transitioned to racing instructor in the new MSA program, where he was Robert’s first coach.  Leggett won the National High School sailing title in 1972, and sailed for Harvard.  After college he worked for the King’s Point Syndicate, preparing Courageous and Independence for the 1977 America’s Cup Trials.  He crossed the Atlantic, and raced in the Admiral’s Cup of ‘77, before heading off to grad school and embarking on a career in finance.  Leggett has been on the MSA board since 2005, focused on safety issues and developing the Laser fleet.

“The two instructors who got me started racing small boats in the late ‘60s may have had more influence on my life than my parents, and I watched with joy to see my three daughters thrive in the MSA,” said Leggett.  Two of Leggett’s daughters became MSA instructors, and went on to sail at college.

In 1995, MSA hosted the annual Mass Bay Regatta, which inspired US Sailing to start the regional Junior Olympic Regattas. This was a major event for the Manchester sailing community.  Around the same time, the MSA began providing boats to the Manchester High School Sailing Team.  This move—connecting community sailing to school sports with access to a yacht club—gave Manchester’s local sailing an “all gears humming” dynamic.

In fact, Kevin Dooley was the 420 Race Team Coach during summers in the MSA, and then the MERHS Varsity Sailing Coach in the spring.  His goal was to get his team into the High School Nationals Competition in four years, and in 2014-15, he achieved it.  Tony Leggett now coaches the high school team.

In the 2000’s the MSA continued to flourish.  The club expanded its fleet, as well as other key infrastructure.  There were five coach boats, six 420s, two docks and two Optis.  The decade’s biggest event was hosting the Mass Bay Junior Olympic Regatta in 2004.  More than 300 sailors participated, and the event was a huge success.  Later, an early season Green Fleet-only regatta to help the new North Shore sailors get ready for racing, becoming an important annual event, hosted at the Manchester Yacht Club.  In 2009, the MSA received the “Outstanding Seasonal Program” award from the US Sailing Community Sailing Council.

For its big birthday, the leaders at MSA are all about focusing on setting the club up for the next 50 years.  The club needs to appropriately refurbish its floats, stationed just off the yacht club.  It needs to replace its aging fleet of Rhodes 19s with the new class standard, Ideal 18s.  It also needs to upgrade its chase boats. And never far is the club’s big goal: securing a physical, actual home base, a club house central to Tuck’s Point and the yacht club that can be used for meetings, class instruction, and an office. 

And when it comes to the Manchester Sailing Association, a celebration for the last 50 years is an amazing thing.  But Todd Cooper is excited about the future.

“That’s what I want to talk about,” Cooper said.  “The next 50 years.”

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