By Mischa van Berkel

Started in 2013 with a group of Optimist sailors who could not get enough of sailing during the summer, MudRatz has developed into an organization that offers a full learn-to-race program for junior sailors in eastern Connecticut. Complementary to the local youth sailing programs, MudRatz provides the opportunity to extend the sailing season with racing practice sessions in both spring and fall. We strive to provide a positive and fun environment where sailors will learn advanced techniques and strategies. Sailors ages 8 to 18 who want to develop and improve their sailing and racing skills are welcome join the team.


Pictured at a practice session are (l – r) MudRatz Lindsey Wiatrowski, Kate van Berkel, Abby Wiatrowski and Gus van Berkel.  © Megan Uiling


The MudRatz Optimist Team is the stepping-stone for the 8- to 12-year-olds. From top coaches, racers learn advanced racing techniques and strategies in a positive and fun environment. They will be prepared to have fun and be successful on the racecourse. The MudRatz Opti Team has been the basis for a number of sailors who qualified for Team USA.

When sailors outgrow the Opti, in terms of age or size, the MudRatz have two teams, namely the doublehanded C420 Team and the new Laser Team for ages 12 to 16. In particular because of COVID social distancing rules, the MudRatz have noticed a strong comeback of the singlehanded Laser class.


MudRatz learn from some of the best coaches in the sport including Mark Zagol. Lurking offshore is Dreamcatcher, a donated Swan 48 aboard which the MudRatz Offshore Team won the Stephens Brothers Youth Division Trophy and the Alfred E. Loomis Trophy in the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race. © Kerry Schutz


Last but not least, the MudRatz Sportboat and Offshore program is intended for older sailors who want to be part of a bigger crew on a faster boat. This part of the program operates a little differently, with sailors practicing in donated team-owned boats. The fleet consists of Melges, Swan and J yachts. The focus is on learning various roles with coaching from other team members and outside experts. Furthermore, the MudRatz plan to sail the After Dark program, which focuses on racing and navigating at night in modified Melges 20s.

With an emphasis on improving sailors’ racing skills and performance, participation in local and travel regattas is an important part of our philosophy. Many MudRatz join as Opti sailors and move through the teams to eventually become a senior member on one of the sportboats or a coach of a junior group. This helps develop skills that go beyond sailboat racing.

Sporting very stylish pinnies are (l – r) Caelan Desmond, Kristin Healy, Lily Flack, Zach Champney, Peter Cronin and Eli Gleason. © Kerry Schutz

We believe MudRatz is a great program for developing regional sailing talent, and for increasing enthusiasm for sailboat racing in general. Therefore, we feel it’s important that all local youth sailing programs be back on the water this summer. Sailing, particularly in singlehanded dinghies like Optimists and Lasers, is THE perfect sporting activity that can be done outdoors while being socially distant. Of course, all activities are conducted with the necessary preventive measures on shore, which MudRatz implemented during the 2020 fall program. The MudRatz are planning to be back on the water this spring. For more information, please visit■

MudRatz Profiles

Ellie Menezies (age 14), New England Science & Sailing © Sarah Steere

A MudRat since 2016, Ellie started in Optis and is currently sailing Lasers, C420s, Melges 20s and Melges 24s. “What I like about MudRatz is absolutely everything!” she enthuses. “I have had many unique sailing opportunities thanks to the MudRatz and NESS. I have developed a passion for racing all different kinds of boats, and I have met many new friends who have the same passion for sailing as I do. I am most proud of being able to be part of the MudRatz and NESS. I am truly grateful as they have given me so many amazing opportunities and provided excellent instruction. In 2021, I hope to race as many kinds of boats as I can and learn as much as possible. Hopefully, I will be also able to attend more regattas!”

Kate van Berkel (11), Pettipaug Yacht Club and New England Science & Sailing

Kate van Berkel (11), Pettipaug Yacht Club and New England Science & Sailing   © Megan Uiling

A MudRat since the fall of 2018, Kate sails and races Optimists. “Practicing and racing with my friends from other clubs in the region is what I like most about the MudRatz,” she says. “With the MudRatz, I’ve learned how to do better starts and improve my boat handling and racing tactics. I am most proud of when I won the award for the best girl sailor in the 2019 ECSA Junior summer regatta season. In 2020, I won the White fleet (10 and under) at the Rhode Island Opti State Championship in Newport. I hope to sail more regattas with my friends in 2021, and learn more about racing my Optimist.”


Ike Schutz (14), Sachems Head Yacht Club and New England Science & Sailing © Kerry Schutz

Having started with MudRatz in Optis in 2015, Ike currently sails Lasers, C420s and Melges 32s. “I’ve made so many good friends from MudRatz,” Ike says, “and I like the exposure to a bunch of different sailing opportunities from dinghies to sportboats, and having the older kids as mentors. Qualifying for USODA International Team and competing for Team USA in Palamos, Spain is my biggest achievement in sailing so far. It was the last international event to be held because of COVID, and it was a great way to finish my Optimist career. I hope to place at one of the sanctioned C420 events this year, and start sailing 29ers.”

‘Ratz Rule! Enjoying a warm-up during the Halloween Howl at Sail Newport are (l – r) Coach Emma Janson, JJ Cardoza, Gus van Berkel, Jaxon Mardsen, Kate van Berkel, Henry Hardaway, Coach Tanner Kelly, Vicky van Berkel and Archer Fitton.  © © Megan Uiling

Born and raised in the Netherlands, Mischa van Berkel spent a lot of time in and around the water. He and his wife Megan started and operated a sailing school in Amsterdam before moving to Ivoryton, CT in 2015. The proud father of three MudRatz, he serves as the MudRatz Opti Parent Coordinator and Vice Commodore of Pettipaug Yacht Club. “Our family fleet grew a little bit out of control with three Optis, an MC Scow, a Sunfish and two Lasers, and we are very proud of the restoration of our Blue Jay #5194,” he says. “As a family, we are sharing a passion for sailing.”