As the Head Varsity Sailing Coach at Yale University, Zachary Leonard has led the Bulldogs to several Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association national championships. A champion in team racing and several one-design classes, himself, Zack has coached numerous Olympians and contenders and was US Sailing’s National Coach of the Year in 2007.
“I grew up in Barrington, Rhode Island and started sailing up in Maine, where my mom’s family is from, when I was six or seven,” says Zack, who lives in East Haven, CT. “I never took formal sailing lessons, but I was really lucky. I learned to sail by crewing for my dad, and when I was 13 I bought a Laser with money that I made mowing lawns. I brought it to the yacht club where my dad kept his boat and went sailing every day. Most of the kids were sailing Sunfish, and there was a smaller Laser group. There was an older guy sailing Lasers, who was maybe 17, named Peter Duclos. Peter had a double trailer and he drove me to Laser regattas all around New England for two years and taught me a lot.”
As a Yale undergraduate and a member of the sailing team, Zack was a Collegiate All-American in 1987 and Team Captain in 1988-89. “That was where a lot of great opportunities opened up for me, and things really took off in a bunch of ways,” he says. “I had sailed every day of the summer during high school and went frostbiting in the winter. When I got to Yale I sailed even more, putting in more hours on the water with other really motivated and really good sailors. That was a more naïve time in college sailing. There were four or five teams in the country that had coaches, and Yale didn’t. In my sophomore and junior years we got Dave Perry [Yale ‘77] to coach us one day a week, and that’s where things started to click. Dave helped us so much, and I learned a ton from him. He mentored us in a lot of different ways, took us to match racing regattas where we crewed for him, and opened up a lot of opportunities.”
“When I graduated from Yale, my first job was Head Sailing Coach at Brown. During that time I was also training for the Olympics in the Tornado class, and after four years at Brown I started a graphic design company with some friends in Providence. That job allowed the flexibility to sail Tornados five months a year. As skipper, I sailed with two fantastic sailors: Mike Ingham for two years and another two with Brian Doyle.”
Zack was instrumental in Yale Sailing’s transition from a club to a varsity sport. “Yale had a great team for many years, and when I was an undergraduate we were able to be very competitive as a club,” he explains. “More and more teams were hiring coaches and benefiting from the continuity of having a coach, and eventually from recruiting. Our club parentage and student leadership was a big part of our identity, so we resisted the shift to varsity status and a full-time coach longer than most of our peer schools. Our results started to suffer, and a number of Yale Sailing Associates, or alumni body, were thinking about what we needed to do to become more competitive. I agreed to come back and coach, and I really thought I was going to do it for just a year to see what could be done to improve things. So many positive changes happened during that year, and really I enjoyed the job…15 years later I’m still doing it.”
“Our sailing facility, Yale Corinthian Yacht Club in Branford, is an amazing place to sail. It’s one of the only college facilities on the East Coast that feels like you’re sailing in the ocean. We have over 30 sailors, and we practice Tuesday through Friday during the spring and fall seasons. To succeed in sailing – or any activity in life – you need to put time in. College students are pulled in a lot of different directions, and sailing needs to fit within the framework of school. Coaches have to be flexible, and our Assistant Coach Bill Healy and I work hard to find creative solutions to make the best use of time. We spend lots of time with the team, and develop really strong relationships. Our team performed to potential for ten days straight in last year’s championship, and winning was a great moment.”
“A number of Yale sailors including Isabelle Kinsolving, Stuart McNay, Sarah Lihan and Thomas Barrows have competed in the Olympics and we have a number of contenders this time around, and that’s a big part of our identity. I’ve been lucky enough to coach some Olympic sailors, particularly the Women’s 470 Class. The Olympics are an amazing opportunity to compete in the sport you love at the very highest level, and about eight years ago I was asked to join the US Olympic Sailing Committee. I’ve volunteered with the committee ever since, and it’s my hope to improve opportunities for our sailors who are interested in chasing that dream.”
“I enjoy the opposite ends of the spectrum: tactical, mano a mano fighting like team racing and match racing, and really fast boats like Tornados and skiffs,” says Zack, a four-time winner of the U.S. Team Racing Championship for the Hinman Trophy who has also won the Vanguard 15 Nationals, 5O5 Midwinters, Tornado Nationals, F31 Nationals and the Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race. “I think that was the first time they allowed multihulls in the race, and I was asked to sail on an F27 with Randy Smyth. Randy is a Tornado World Champion and one of the best sailors in the world…I think we did it in 13 hours and 13 minutes. Fast boats are a lot of fun, and they’re one of the things that help keep people in the sport.”