Jessy Nees washed into Newport about a year ago and is a service and production technician at Quantum Sails Newport. We met at her favorite café in Bristol.
Coop: Hi, Jess. Thanks for the lead on Borealis…nice place.
JN: Thanks for the invite.
Coop: Where are you from, and was sailing a “thing” when you were a kid?
JN: I grew up in Port Washington, New York, and yes. My dad purchased a Sabre 30 when I was six months old, and family lore is I went sailing in my bassinet. I was plonked on the lee berth and tacked as we sailed around the Sound. Dad grew up sailing with his parents, who also sailed with theirs, so a long line of sailors. I followed the usual path from Optis then 420s. My mum somehow got me into sailing camp at 7. I was petrified, but I loved it and would not have missed it for the world.
Coop: Was there high school sailing in your neck of the woods?
JN: No. We tried to get a sailing team going but the school would not have any of it. They were worried about kids who did not how to sail getting hurt. That was crazy because the Manhasset/Port Washington peninsula is surrounded by water, but there’s not much public access. You needed to be a member of one of the yacht clubs.
Coop: So, off to college?
JN: I went to Roger Williams for a bit. I used the sailing route to get in, but it did not really gel. I stopped sailing and went paddle boarding, but got back into it by teaching my little group of Opti kids in Southampton. I loved teaching them, and getting them to love sailing. I taught there and at Amagansett.
I had been out of racing scene and was ready to get back into it. I met this guy who would come to my Yoga classes and I met his mate, whose kids I used to teach in Optis. They were taking about buying a J/70 and wanted me to facilitate that, so I was back into it, in Sag Harbor. I’m really glad I made that connection…and that started my return to Rhode Island.
I had been in teaching mode for quite a while: Yoga, kids in sailing, in the summer. I was teaching at an early education center, and I felt I was getting burned out on being The Head Person. I had an opportunity to move, I wanted to live in Rhode Island again, and I felt like I wanted to be back as the student, not the teacher, for a while.
I had been connected with Quantum in Port Washington, a tiny loft called Kelly Custom Canvas. Working there were the first jobs my brother and I had in high school, so I had some experience in that area. I thought, “Well, let me see what Quantum is doing up in Newport.” So I reached out, got connected and thought, “I’ll really be the student: Sailmaking in Newport. Moving to Newport was a big step but I enjoy the craft, the handwork.
Coop: Were you on a teaching track at Roger Williams?
JN: No, I was an English Major. English and Photography. When I moved to the East End, I became involved in the Yoga community and then started teaching. I taught Yoga full time and year-round and that was satisfying, but it is “The Hamptons” and especially in the wellness community it gets pretty crazy, and I eventually burned out on that too. But sailing has been the constant thread.
Coop: How did you pick up those threads in Newport?
JN: That’s another funny story. One of the guys I do Tuesday nights with is a great guy. I met him through Tom Braisted at the loft. I showed up and Tom asked if I wanted to race. I replied, “Sure” and he said, “I’ve got a guy for you. It’s a Melges 32. Call him.” I’ve been doing Tuesdays at Jamestown Yacht Club with them and it’s a blast. Most of the other racing I’ve been doing has been on an IC37. The irony there is it’s a group of guys from Shelter Island. I knew Connor Needham when were both sailing Optis. We randomly reconnected at a bar a couple years ago, and he invited me to sail on his Etchells.
Coop: Classic definition of sailing’s small world. Do you know the guys on Prospector?
JN: Yup. I drive by the boat when I go to NEB to drop off sails. I hear they’ve brought on this younger guy, Phoenix. I taught him for a flash in Sag Harbor, and the Prospector guys have taken him under their wing. That’s great to see – he’s a great kid.
Coop: The Melges 32s and IC37s notwithstanding, what does your, say, five-year sailing plan look like?
JN: I’d like to get involved with a program on a full-time basis – to build or be part of a cohesive, regular team. The “different crew every race” way of sailing is not my idea of how to do well, especially in one-designs. Bouncing from boat to boat for a regatta here and there is fine, but I’d like to be on a crew with the same people so we can work on the maneuvers.
Coop: Oh, yes. I watch a lot of regattas and crew work is the one the area where every weekend warrior can improve. What’s your favorite format of racing?
JN: One-Design, certainly. With handicap it can be hard to find the small details that improve performance; the best settings for each condition. With one-design it’s easy to see what a change does. Someone is faster than you and you realize something’s not right, so you need to act and try something different. I’ve done some distance racing out on the East End, which was fine but I prefer the OD arena for the close racing.
Coop: Do you have time to get back and sail with your dad?
JN: He has now an X-35 in the LA area, so not a whole lot. Most of my sailing was in dinghies, not a lot of keelboat, and on keelboats it was mainly with my dad. We had a Frers 33 when I was growing up. I was small and light so, “Get up on the bow and sort the kite” was the refrain. Then, “Go below and pack the kite.” When I met up with the two guys on the J/70, it was the first time I was sailing outside of my dad’s “little umbrella.” Dad would call me out if I needed to be called out and he gave me some new words to use, but it was a family boat.
Coop: Have you encountered situations that were driven by the fact you are a woman?
JN: Yes, of course. Any woman in sailing has had them and gets them. But basically, I just roll with the punches unless it crosses a line and gets too ridiculous. I will say, “That’s just not funny.” My biggest thing though, is when I’ve tried to present input and offer my thoughts like a “regular” crew member and been called out for my tone. It’s pretty silly, because I have sometimes been screamed at and known I was not doing that. I still have a text from a guy I sailed with – on a Wednesday beer can race – talking about my “tone.” My favorite one is the J/70s, which behave a lot like dinghies despite having keel. These guys were not dinghy sailors, so they were sailing the boat at less than optimum.
As we sailed, I was watching and talking about what we could improve on, like implementing roll tacks. I noticed they just did not internalize what I was saying. I finally started thinking, “I wonder if this is because I’m a chick?” I was curious, so I recruited a friend of mine to come sail one week and briefed him on what was happening. I wanted to see what would happen if he said the same things. Well, of course when he said the same things the guys lapped it up. They started doing all the things I had been talking about and not doing. When the same information was given by a male, it was taken onboard. Anyway, I’m lucky that most of the people I’ve been sailing with lately are not that way. They value my input. And I am not an egotistical person, I can take feedback, but I can offer something, bring ideas to the table.
Coop: What three pieces of advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
JN: One of the things my 420 coach said when I was looking at colleges: Respect your own value. You know your skills and experience and abilities, don’t let that get taken from you. Know what you are good at and really work the hardest in that area. You can always be learning, forever, so never stop learning. Sail on all sorts of boats, and in all sorts of positions. Don’t corner yourself or allow yourself to be pigeonholed as a so and so. Don’t just sail in one style, type or arena of sailing. Sail everything you can, and never stop seeing and experiencing the joy of sailing. Yes racing is fun, but just enjoy sailing for sailing’s sake. Enjoy just being out there on the water.
Coop: With such great thoughts, we are finished. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat.
JN: Thanks, Coop. ■