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On Watch - Carmen & Emma Cowles

Carmen & Emma CowlesRepresenting Larchmont Yacht Club in Larchmont, NY, twin sisters Carmen and Emma Cowles, 18, won seven of nine races in the 420 Girls class at the Youth World Sailing Championships in Corpus Christi, TX this summer, garnering their second consecutive world championship title.

© Jen Edney/World Sailing

“We grew up in Larchmont and started sailing when we were 9 years old at Larchmont Yacht Club,” says Emma (on the trapeze in the photo). “Larchmont has a strong junior sailing program. It’s a very active club, and their Interclub frostbite series has enabled us to interact with accomplished adult sailors who give us great support and advice.”

“I wouldn’t say we’re from a sailing family,” says Carmen (helm). “Our dad learned how to sail as an adult and is a very good cruiser. Our mom sailed Optimists and Snipes as a child when she spent her summers in Spain, but it didn’t get more competitive than the local regatta at the end of the season. They’ve both learned a lot more about what it means to be a ‘sailing family’ and the competitive aspect of the sport through our own sailing.”

Some of the best coaches in the sport have guided Carmen and Emma along their path to back-to-back world championships. “We started sailing with LISOT (Long Island Sound Youth Sailing Team) in the fall of 2012,” Emma recalls. “LISOT gave us an opportunity to sail year-round rather than the eight-week programs at yacht clubs in the Northeast. LISOT has always attracted a large number of competitive sailors, which enabled us to hone our skills within a highly competitive group. Pepe Bettini, our Opti Head Coach, taught us how to race and the beginnings of how to race from the front of the fleet. He also helped us build a strong foundation and knowledge of the Rules.”

Other coaches with whom Carmen and Emma have worked include Tommy Dietrich, Pablo (Panic) Panichelli and Udi Gal. “Tommy is close in age, he’s sharing his journey with us, and he provides inspiration,” says Emma. “Panic brought perspective and depth to our sailing, and we always remind ourselves what Udi says when it’s windy: Keep it simple, slow everything down, and bring it back to the basics.”

In the fall of 2015, Carmen and Emma moved into LISOT’s I420 program with Head Coach Steve Keen, who’s coached both of their Youth Worlds victories. “Steve was very intense at the very beginning,” Carmen explains. “As we grew to know him better, he’s held back on pushing us really hard…he realizes how hard we push ourselves.” Emma adds, “Steve shows us how to simplify situations and break them down step-by-step. He knows how we operate under pressure, as well as what we need. We’re very comfortable with Steve, and the three of us continue to explore how to improve ourselves technically and with our boat speed to constantly raise the bar.”

“We sail every weekend, sometimes both days if school work permits, from September through mid-November and from April through early June out of various Western Long Island Sound yacht clubs that generously open their doors to LISOT,” says Emma. “From mid-November to Presidents’ Weekend, we have various training clinics and regattas in Miami, Florida. In the summer, we compete in international events in Europe as well as the U.S. Youth Championships and the World Sailing Youth Championships.”

“At several day clinics, we have a fitness test designed by Steve that everyone strives to pass,” says Carmen. “It motivated us to get stronger and pass the thresholds by doing the exercises on our own on a regular basis. Our big push in building core and overall strength happened the first year. Since then, we have mostly maintained our physical strength and endurance through fitness training at home.”

Carmen and Emma won their first World Championship in Sanya, China in 2017. “We were kind of oblivious to what the competition was like,” says Emma. “We don’t really like looking up the ‘stats’ and background of every sailor. We knew some of the girls, but only by recognizing their name on the entry list. Not knowing how we would compare to the rest of the fleet allowed us to just go out and sail.”

“This past Youth Worlds was definitely tougher,” says Carmen. “Many people came up to us and made comments about ‘defending our title,’ which added a bit more stress. But as Steve pointed out, the title was not ‘ours’ to defend. Even though we won the championship last year, when the regatta ends it resets to zero. All we can do is go out there and sail our hardest, taking it one race at a time. A calm, steady approach works best for us.”

Carmen and Emma, who competed in the 420 World Championships at Sail Newport last month and are stepping into the 470 this fall, offer this advice to aspiring young champions: “Try and learn from every win and loss. Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t think too far ahead, and stay in the moment. Take it start-by-start, leg-by-leg, race-by-race, day-by-day, and regatta-by-regatta. Focus on improving your skills and your attitude, not the result. Your result will ultimately show from your hard work.”


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