Milford sailor wins World Championship in Greece

A local sailor proved that if you want something badly enough, you can find a route to get it.

With a shoestring budget and not a lot of practice opportunities, Brian Hayes Jr. sailed with a team that won the 2018 Lightning Youth World Championship in Voula, Greece at the beginning of July.

The 18-year-old graduate of Jonathan Law High School was part of Team Gen5 — along with Jeff Hayden from Lake Mary, Fla., and Meredith Ryan from Buffalo, N.Y. With minimal time sailing together, Gen5 moved from seventh place to first on the final day of the race to win the competition.

The young Milford man said it wasn’t an easy win, and he attributes success to putting together a really good team.

“Each of us was keenly aware of what our jobs were and we were able to execute when we needed to,” Hayes said.

There were a few unexpected events on the way to the win.

“On our first day we won the first race, then flipped over while in fifth place near the finish of the second race, which led to a last-place finish in that race,” Hayes said. “The final race that day we had a second, so our confidence was high that we could compete with the other teams, but disappointed that we messed up and flipped.”

Entering the final day Gen5 was seventh out of 16 teams, but the points were close. The sixth race of the series allowed Gen5 to discard their worst score and they were able to win the sixth race so, entering the final race they were in second, with five teams that all had a chance to win.

“We had no idea what the points were as we made a decision to just sail our absolute best on the final day,” Hayes said. “The last race was started about 45 minutes before the cutoff and we had a great start and quickly gained a very comfortable lead, which we held to the finish. When we finished we were happy we sailed our best and finished the event by winning the final two races.”
Getting hooked
Hayes, son of Brian Hayes Sr. and Kelley Hayes, didn’t start sailing seriously until he was 14. His father is in the sailing industry as a professional sailor/sailmaker but, growing up in Milford, Brian had so many other interests and hobbies that he didn't get vested in competitive sailing early on. It wasn’t until about four years ago when he started racing with his father in some regional events that he really got hooked on sailing.

“Most youth sailors start out in sailing programs and camps and I never did any of that, so I never had any ‘formal’ training,” Hayes said. “It was just my dad and me competing in a few regional and national events when I was about 14 or 15, and that got me more interested in competitive sailing.”

He said his sailing team, Gen5, was more happenstance and fate than any brilliant planning. “The Hayden family, from Lake Mary Fla., and our family are both long-time sailors in the Lightning Class and both families have forged great friendships and had success racing Lightnings. Jeff Hayden, who was the skipper, comes from five generations of Lightning sailors — hence the Gen5 team name — and his dad and grandfather have won a bunch of Lightning events.

“My family traces its Lightning roots back to the 1940s when my grandfather started sailing Lightnings at the Housatonic Boat Club in Stratford. Steve Hayden, Jeff's dad, and my dad, Brian Sr., have been friends and competitors for decades, and in 2016, when Jeff was looking for a crew to sail with him, my dad volunteered me to sail in the Rochester, N.Y., Junior North Americans with Jeff.”

Brian and Jeff didn't do very well, but in 2017 they connected again and decided to give the Lightning North American Junior Championships another try. With Jeff's crewmate from the Florida State University sailing team, Hannah Sellers, as their third, they finished second and qualified as the second American team for the World Championships in Greece. Hannah, unfortunately, aged out — she turned 21 this year — so Meredith Ryan from Buffalo took over as the third for the World Championships.

Once they found their third crew member, they focused on practice and fundraising.

“During winter break we sailed our first event together as a team in Eustis, Fla., and won, which gave us a big confidence boost. We were able to sail only one more practice event, the St. Petersburg Winter Lightning Championships, in March against 50-plus other teams and, while our result wasn't spectacular, we learned a lot about each other and were ready to do our best in Greece.”

Between airfare, practice events, equipment, entry fees and other expenses, they needed to raise close to $10,000. They started a GoFundMe page, sold T-shirts and got support from family and friends from around the world.

“Also, my dad works at North Sails and was able to help us with sails and equipment, which made a huge difference for us in Greece, knowing we had the absolute best tools to get the job done,” Hayes said.

And that they did.
And coming up ...
The rest of the summer is pretty filled up. Hayes just skippered his first Lightning Regatta in Nyack, N.Y., in recent weeks, finishing ninth with his father and his father’s longtime crew, Laura Jeffers.

“Considering we sailed against a former Olympic sailor (Rob Crane, London, 2012), a PanAm silver medalist (Justin Coplan, Toronto, 2014) and several past North American champions, the result was pretty good for my first time driving. I plan to head to Buffalo at the end of the month with my own youth team to sail the Buffalo Youth Invitational and then head to Pontiac, Mi., for my first try at driving the Lightning Junior North Americans.”

Hayes spent his freshman year of college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but is transferring to Sacred Heart this fall to continue his studies in business administration. He plans to sail on the sailing team there.