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The Managing Director of Sailing & Operations at the New England Science & Sailing Foundation (NESS) in Stonington, Connecticut, Mark Zagol is a National and North American champion with great enthusiasm for both the sport and teaching others.

“I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts and my first official sailing lesson was at age 8,” says Mark, who lives in Pawcatuck, Connecticut with wife Heather and daughters Mason, Ainslie and Callan. “My first sailing experience was on a Snark that you could buy at Sears. My dad had one, and he’d take us out on a lake without knowing anything about sailing.”

“The first boat I really learned on was a Turnabout, which had a mainsail and spinnaker. It was stable enough that you could singlehand it even while flying the spinnaker. The first boat I purchased was a Laser full rig when I was about 100 pounds, sail number 112849…still my favorite boat as I learned so much sailing Lasers.”

“I was lucky to have a great group of instructors and coaches. Lynn Jewell, who won Olympic Gold in the Women’s 470; Art Gleason and Mike Collins, who were top 5O5 sailors at the time; and Will Stearns, who won the Sportsmanship award at the Sears/Bemis/Smythe, all had major impacts on my sailing and how I approached things. Most of all, they taught us about working as a team and how to do prep work. We always talked about controlling variables like proper food, dress, and boat set up and preparation.”

A two-time All-American at Old Dominion University, Mark was one of four finalists for 1999 College Sailor of the Year. “ODU was the only college I’d applied to that had a sailing team. I was a walk-on, and had to try out. College sailing was where I really learned tactics and boathandling, I was always fast, but didn’t understand that speed isn’t everything. I was the #2 skipper when we won both the Team Race and Dinghy National Championships my junior year, in which I won B-division sailing with my now wife Heather. We won the Team Race Nationals with a 1, 2 or better in every race and went undefeated. My senior year I sailed A-division, and we placed fifth at Nationals. I finished second in the 1999 Singlehanded Nationals…arguably the hardest event I sailed in college.”

Mark is lovingly known as “Zorro” to many of his friends. “That nickname was given to me by Bill Hardesty, who was and still is one of the best sailors I’ve ever raced against. Growing up on the East Coast, I was a 420 sailor while the West Coast kids sailed FJs. I had a move during 420 team races where I’d sail underneath my opponent while rounding the leeward mark in 420. After pulling that move on Bill a few times he stood up and said, ‘We need to call that something and it can’t be the Zagol.’ He called it the Zorro and it was written into the college team race playbook. A few years ago, one of my NESS students joined the St. Mary’s Sailing team and sent me a picture of the Zorro in their playbook. She couldn’t believe it actually existed!”

“After graduation, the Vanguard 15 class was taking off and the U.S. Team Race Association was in full force. For the better part of ten years I owned three Vanguard 15s, sailing Fleet and Team Race regattas as much as I could. In 2005, Heather and I teamed up with fellow ODU sailors Matt Allen & Tim Cain (USMMA) and Brad Funk & Anna Tunnicliffe for the U.S. Team Race Nationals at Larchmont Yacht Club. After a hard-fought battle in big breeze, we knocked off the reigning World Champions to win the Hinman Trophy.”

“The 5O5 is one of the best boats and toughest classes you can sail, as it’s full of world and national champions from multiple classes. I started sailing them with my good friend Drew Buttner, who I crewed for in 420s when we were kids. Drew is about 6’1” 220 pounds, which is common for a 5O5 crew, and I was about 170 pounds. As a college sailing coach and summer clinic coach you don’t have much time for your own sailing, so I’d jump in with Drew when his full-time skipper couldn’t make it. We decided to put a full-time program together, and had our sights set on a North American Championship. We trained by sailing every 5O5 event we could. In 2013, our hard work paid off as we won the North Americans in Kingston, Ontario with one race to spare. We got to sail our victory lap in the last race with no pressure, which was an amazing experience.”

“As our 5O5 was on the verge of needing to be replaced, I was able to get our hands on a Viper 640 and we decided to give that a shot. After sailing 5O5s for twelve years, the Viper was a nice change since there are way less sail controls. Pretty much anything you want adjusted at any time in a 5O5 is available and probably on a 32:1 purchase system. You can bend the mast whenever and however you want, adjust mast rake…you name it, you can control it while racing. The Viper’s more of a ‘set it and forget it’ kind of racing…not entirely, but after sailing 5O5s it sure felt that way.”

“Drew and I paired up with another local sailor, Tim Desmond. We sailed locally, then sent the boat to Sarasota, Florida for the winter series which comprised three events over three months with a stop in Miami on the way home. We figured out the boat pretty quickly and were always battling towards the front of the fleet. It all came together in 2021, when we were able to win the Viper North American Championship sailing out of Noroton Yacht Club. We finished second in the 2022 NAs, and rounded off a solid year taking home the Corinthian World Championship with a fourth overall finish in the 2023 Worlds.”

“I joined NESS in February of 2012 as the Sailing Director, and was the second full-time employee hired. I’ve since moved into a dual role of Managing Director of Sailing & Operations, and I help oversee the facilities and equipment, along with everything that has to do with sailing specifically.”

“NESS offers a variety of programs for students as young as four, and all the way up to adult. I really had a blank slate, and our board of directors allowed me to build the fleet the way I wanted. We already had the Opti and 420 fleets that most programs have, but quickly started adding keelboats and high-performance boats. In all, we have and use twenty-one different classes. Let’s see if I can do it from memory: Windsurfer, Wing Foil, Opti trainer, Opti, O’Pen Skiff, Laser, Hartley 12, Hunter 18, Mini 12 Metre, 29er, RS 500, Melges 15, 420, J/22, Sonar, Independence 20, Esse 850, Waszp, UFO, Quant 23, Viper 640…and coming soon a J/70. I like to think there’s a boat for everyone, and being able to offer so many options is lots of fun.”

“Most people might think I’m an Opti Race coach because that’s where they see me every summer, but that’s really the small part of my responsibilities. I’ve been coaching sailing in some shape or form since I was 16, but in my current role I think of it as if I’m running a small marina. We have close to 250 boats, sail and power, of which 47 need registration stickers from the DMV, so I spend most of my time maintaining, prepping and then breaking down this large fleet. NESS owns three buildings in Stonington and rents space in New London, and I’m responsible for all maintenance and oversight of the properties. I also oversee our Safety protocols, including monitoring the weather and keeping all our programs informed and safe.”

“I think what makes NESS so unique is that we have programs for anyone who is excited about getting out on the water or learning more about our oceans. I often tell people that we teach marine science, and that sailing is just a part of that and there’s so much more. Our staff is incredible, and watching them in action is simply amazing.”

Sailors at NESS have opportunities to fly above the water, and Mark says many young’uns are quick to catch on. “We’ve had plenty of Opti sailors foiling on the Waszp and/or the UFO. I also think the best boat to teach you how to foil is the Laser. Having a strong understanding of body positioning and mainsheet trim and how those two relate to each other are so important. Before I give an adult a private lesson my first question is always, ‘Have you ever sailed a Laser?’ The kids can rip back and forth, but we don’t put an emphasis on foil tacking or gybing. By introducing them to the world of foiling I’m hoping that they’ll take it up on their own. Any kid who can hike hard in a Laser and play the mainsheet non-stop has a great shot at foiling pretty quickly.”

“My wife Heather grew up in Stonington, but had never sailed until joining the team at ODU…well, her claim to fame was sailing one time in a JY-15 with Robby Scala. We spent two years sailing together in college, and then a decade in Vanguard 15s. We have three daughters who because of NESS have had the opportunity to learn to sail and how to race.”

“Mason (15) and Ainslie (13) both had great local Opti careers and will be sailing 420s this summer, but they’ll both tell you their favorite boat is our foiling Quant 23 which hits speeds in the mid-20s. Callan, who is 8, will get a chance to compete in her first Green fleet regatta this summer, and sails with me in a Hartley on Wednesday nights in Stonington Harbor like her sisters did. Mason is a sophomore at Stonington High School and has been talking about sailing in college, so last winter instead of sailing Vipers (skippering like I always do) I sent a Melges 15 down south to do the Melges 15 Winter series out of Jensen Beach, Florida. This time I was crewing for Mason, and with 90 boats on the starting line we had a blast. Mason and I even put up a 1,4 in the second series event, finishing 12th overall in that one. She was the youngest female skipper there.”

“When I’m not at NESS and thinking about sailing I’m at the Stonington Little League Complex, where I help run all the softball programs. I have managed each of the girl’s teams and love to teach the game of softball to our players. I’ll spend twenty to twenty-five hours per week at the complex during the spring and early summer, so if you’re looking for me and I’m not at NESS I’m probably at the ball fields.”

“For me, the best thing about sailing is that it’s up to me to make the boat do what I want it to do. I tell people all the time that I feel more comfortable being out on a sailboat than being on land. The fact that the conditions are always changing means that every day – each and every race – you have to be super-focused and prepared, and if you’re not then someone else will be. I’m not a cruiser, but cruising’s great for those who enjoy it. I’m a coach and a racer and I jokingly use the motto, “If I can teach you or beat you, then I’ll go sailing.” ■

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