This month we chat with an up-and-coming sailor with a bright future in the sport. I spoke with Newport native Orlaith (pronounced Or-la) Neylon at Safe Harbor Newport Shipyard, right after she’d come ashore from sailing on Christopher Dragon in the Safe Harbor Marinas Race Weekend. Full disclosure: I have known Orla since she was born.
Coop: Giday, kiddo. Thanks for coming over. I know a lot of your history generally, but give me your take on it so I get the details right. You were born in Newport Hospital, right?
Coop: So, you’re an original Newporter, eh?
Orlaith: All the way.
Coop: I know that sailing was a thing in your family through your dad, Glen. Tell me about growing up in the Newport sailing scene.
Orlaith: My dad moved here when he was 20. He raced as a professional sailor for twenty years, and has worked in the marine industry forever. It was always just known that I was one of those kids that couldn’t walk until you put me on a boat. I tried to stow away for the Bermuda Race a few times when I was little, but was always discovered before the boat left the dock.
Coop: Can you remember your first time going sailing, or were you too young?
Orlaith: No, I was too young. I remember sailing in and out of the docks at Sail Newport. I was probably 6. There are records of me in sailing camp at age 4, at Sail Newport and at Ida. I did one in Portsmouth. I cannot remember them all, but I eventually worked my way through all the programs at Sail Newport.
Coop: How did you like being in control of your own Opti?
Orlaith: Not so much at first. Then about middle school I got into racing, became good at it, switched over to 420s and started having a lot of fun. Sailing was always a part of my life. Then I ran into this guy named Joe Cooper who was running a Junior Safety at Sea Seminar, and it sorta went down downhill from there (both laughing).
Coop: Hang on. That seminar four years ago?
Orlaith: ‘Fraid so, mate. That summer I sailed on a Thistle, then started crewing on an X-41 called Resolute. I also sailed on Falcon 2000 and Zenji. (Coop: Falcon 2000 is an 80-foot Maxi converted for cruising but used in a few low-key races around the bay. Zenji is a 56-meter Perini Navi ketch we did a couple of Candy Store Cups on, with about eight high school kids.) I did my first CSC on Sunleigh (Coop: her dad’s boat, a 105’ Dubois cutter) when I was about 11, but I was just along for the ride.
Coop: Was that the year you sailed with the VX One guys from Canada?
Orlaith: No, that was the next year. I ended up doing the VX One Worlds at 15. That same summer I did my first distance race, the Ida Lewis Distance Race, with a guy named Jim Archer on his Beneteau 36.7 and was asked back for the Vineyard Race. I was all set to do the 2020 Bermuda Race with them but the race was cancelled.
I got really bored with school, realized I was going to be stuck sailing for a while, never found a way out of that adrenalin rush of sailing. I did manage to finish high school while sailing as much as physically possible. Those next two summers I sailed every opportunity I got. I worked for Donald Tofias, the owner of Sparkman & Stephens, for a couple of summers. I was sailing on the W-Class boats, during which time I realized that “Classic” is not my speed….
Coop: Too much varnish?
Orlaith: Yes, and not enough speed. Then last fall, I took some woodworking classes. Since I had been around wood all summer, I thought it would be a good follow on to learn something more about that material. We built a Cocktail Class Racer. That was a lot of fun. I met a lot of people and had a blast.
Coop: Was that was the RIMTA thing I sent to you? A month at Herreshoff, I recall…
Orlaith: Yes, that sounds about right.
Coop: Talk to me a bit about your education. You were home schooled, right?
Orlaith: I was home schooled from second grade through graduating high school. I also spent some time traveling…I was unschooled for a bit.
Coop: Unschooled? You mean six months with no classes?
Orlaith: Yes, about six or eight months with no classes – just learning, going to museums, reading. I got so far ahead at one point I thought I might as well take a break for a bit, and went surfing in Mexico. Then for high school I was in the Rogers School District (Coop: in Newport) and so I sailed with them in my senior year. That was fun. I really enjoyed the experience of having friends my own age. I am so used to sailing with people twenty, thirty or forty years older than me, so it was fun to sail with high school-aged people. For instance, I found out today that on Chris Dragon my nearest contemporary shipmate is about twenty years older than me. (Rolls eyes.)
Coop: Talk to me about the original family discussion around “we are going to home school the kids.”
Orlaith: Originally it was going to be for one year while my parents looked for another school. They were not happy with the public schools. The private school I was in was not working out. They had trouble with teachers and I was getting bullied. I was an awkward, shy kid, and it was not fun.
Coop: Well, I am glad the shyness has gone away (We both chuckle). In other words, the “Standard Formulae” was not working?
Orlaith: Right. It just wasn’t, so they took me out and a year later took my younger brother out. They thought, “Well, we can do this and THAT was so much fun. We were learning all the time. We are both history geeks and he got through my high school textbooks by the time he was in fifth grade, so we just worked our way up. It is a bit weird; a lot of people think we live on a boat. Well, no, we just live in Jamestown.
Coop: A lot of people who do live on boats with kids homeschool them, so it is an easy connection. OK, so you have just now graduated high school, so the “standard path” is you are lining up for college(s). Where are you on that front, and where is The Next Thing fitting in the Orla Universe just now?
Orlaith: I am looking at two years at CCRI and then going to trade school…or go on to finish a four-year degree. That is a decision as yet unknown.
Coop: What is it about CCRI that gets you going?
Orlaith: No Debt. That terrifies me. I hear so many horror stories of kids with massive debt…NOT kids even. I have friends in their forties and they are still paying off school debt. No, not gonna happen.
Coop: You mention trade school. Is that IYRS, or New England Tech or…?
Orlaith: Not decided yet. I am looking at marine electrician, other things. Maybe I’ll blow it all off and go sailing for a couple of years. So far, I have the next couple of years planned out. Not much after that. I don’t need to plan out to 60 just yet. Let me get to 20 first.
Coop: The foregoing thinking notwithstanding, what is the next five years of sailing looking like for you?
Orlaith: That goal is to be sailing in the Maxi Worlds by the time I am 25. I don’t know if that will happen, but that is the goal. My last goal was to do Bermuda before I was 18. I just did my first Bermuda Race, on Resolute, before my 18th birthday. So basically, anytime I can go sailing I will. I am going for my Yacht Masters this summer. The Vineyard Race is open, although I have been talking to the guy you put me onto about sailing on Weatherly the same weekend. I’d like to do the Vineyard Race; it is a great race and one of my favorites. I’ve done two of them – no, three – and I like distance racing, but nothing is set in stone.
Coop: What are three things for the 14-year-old you to think about; your advice for a high school sailor to help her advance her sailing?
Orlaith: Look up the rig. It is amazing the things you find (missing or broken or worn) when looking at the masts on boats. Don’t sweat the small things. Stuff happens. Deal with it and get back to the race. Don’t let yourself get bullied. If someone is giving you grief, making improper comments or being a jerk, call them out on it. Leave the boat if you have to. Don’t put up with that stuff.
Coop: Ah, yes. Regrettably a very common refrain, Orla. Glad to hear it is one of yours. Thanks for playing, and good luck tomorrow.
Orlaith: Thanks for asking me, mate. ■