Students in Hawaiian-print board shorts and bikini tops drifted into Coach Adam Werblow's office last week, patting his black Lab, Vela, laughing and joking just before team practice at St. Mary's College of Maryland. They rubbed sunblock on their faces and backs, grabbed rolled-up sails and carried them, slung over their shoulders, down to the pier.
Werblow climbed barefoot into a motorboat, his sun-faded Topsiders resting on the seat behind him. Out on the St. Mary's River, where the students had sailed out for a practice race, 18 boats rippled around him. The students -- two per boat -- listened for Werblow to raise his megaphone and announce which boats, marked by colored numbers on their white sails, would compete first.
"Pink and blue," he blared in an "Attention, Kmart shoppers" voice, making them laugh. "Pink. And blue."
Just another beautiful day on the water.
Without a closer look, it's not obvious that this 1,850-student school in Southern Maryland has the top-ranked college sailing team in the country, that these athletes will be feared at the national championships in Oregon this week, that Werblow has brought home 10 national titles in the 16 years he has coached at St. Mary's. [The most recent national championship was won yesterday in a down-to-the-wire team race at the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Spring Championships. Over the next few days, the team will try to win the fleet racing event, too.]
Up close, the details were easier to see: muscles taut as the sailors pulled ropes, aligning themselves for the next tack, and then bodies swiveling perfectly to make the boat change direction. There were the things unspoken: the sense of balance, the immediate understanding of a shift in the wind. And the things that were said: critiques of themselves and their teammates, suggestions, strategies.
Behind it all, guiding everything, was Werblow, somehow making the rigors of the sport look easy. "The thing for me is to try to have a good time doing it," he said.
Werblow crafted this elite team in a perfect setting for sailing. St. Mary's college green is its waterfront. There's no football team, no fraternities on the remote campus, but anyone can take a boat out on the river. "You can't leave this school without being in the water," said Melissa Deveney, a senior competing in the national championships who walked on to the team as a freshman, never having sailed.
In a county with so many rivers and creeks and inlets, it's sometimes hard to see the little house behind the big boat in the driveway. And in a region where, for many, summers are defined by the Chesapeake Bay, sailors can be seen as rock stars.
"Adam to St. Mary's College is like Bobby Bowden at Florida State or Joe Paterno at Penn State," said Torre Meringolo, vice president for development at St. Mary's, mentioning two legendary football coaches.
Like any high-level team, the St. Mary's Seahawks get stressed out, sick of it, annoyed, exhausted. The season spans most of the school year, and they practice almost every day and travel almost every weekend. But Werblow isn't a drill sergeant; when people are asked to describe him, they're likely to laugh. Not because he isn't respected, but because he's funny.
"He can act like a college kid," said Jennifer Vandemoer, a senior co-captain, and team members all hang out with him, consider him a friend. Yet when it's race time, she said, Werblow can "incite you that you need to go out and kill someone on the course."
Some teams have rigid fitness programs, strict rules about drinking and parties. Deveney said that means coaches spend a lot of time and energy enforcing those rules, and students spend a lot of time and energy finding ways to sneak around them. Werblow believes his team members' closeness -- despite or because of all those 10-hour van rides to regattas -- is their strength, even if they have a little too much fun sometimes. Even if there is constant sexual tension bubbling through the coed team.
"We're a fairly mellow program," Vandemoer said. "Adam leaves it up to us to be ready to sail."
It's supposed to be fun, said co-captain Danny Pletsch, explaining that the team members plan to sail throughout their lives. "About 0.5 percent of the sailing world can make a living sailing. So for us to drill, drill, drill, drill if it's just going to be over after college is silly."
Werblow has sailed most of his life. His mother sold so many magazines to earn money in college that she won a sailboat -- which came as a kit. She didn't know how to sail, and neither did Werblow's father, but he put it together piece by piece and learned. He taught his son to sail when Adam was 8.
When Werblow went to boarding school in New Jersey, he started a sailing team, first practicing with nearby Princeton University's team and eventually raising enough money for his school to buy a fleet of six boats. His coach was head of fundraising at the school and showed him how -- with restrictions. They couldn't ask recent donors. "Instead of studying, I'd go through old yearbooks," he said, "find a quote like, 'All I need is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by,' look up their giving history, and if no donations were given in like, 10 years, we could ask them.
"So we got a fleet," he said.
He helped do the same thing as a student at Connecticut College, leading a team as captain. Back in 1988, a friend told him about a small school with a lot of potential. He came to St. Mary's to coach, and has been there ever since.
Now St. Mary's has a fleet of new sailboats and a $4.7 million fundraising campaign for a boathouse to replace the little gray cobwebby building there now. And Werblow, at 37, has realized that he's a better coach than an athlete -- he tried but failed to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic sailing team.
Over the years, he's learned to let go a little.
He lets the team pick the new students to join. He also expects the sailors to all be coaching one another, learning from one another.
"I used to really, really, really want to win, badly, as a coach," he said. In 1996, he had a team that was ranked No. 1 almost all year, but it didn't qualify for the nationals. "We pushed so hard," he said. "We tried to win every little battle, every minute thing. . . . The problem with that is we wore ourselves out. We lost the big picture."
Once he kept his focus broader, his teams started doing better with less talent, he said. "Even though this is a game of little, little details, sometimes the little details don't matter so much."
In their boats at practice recently, team members argued about jibs and tacks, directing one another, asking Werblow's advice about all the details that shape team sailing.
"What do you think -- are we done?" Werblow asked, and a young woman in a nearby boat nodded, looking exhausted. "Maybe we do one fleet race, then bail?"
They were all going to his home for dinner that night; his wife was already home, preparing London broil.
They sailed back toward shore, his boat puttering on ahead, motor humming. Vela -- whose name is the Spanish word for sail -- leapt out and ran to the end of the pier. Then she stopped, looked back, tail wagging, waiting for Werblow in his faded Nantucket reds and visor, tying up the boat. The coach laughed. "It's nice to be loved," he said.
Boats 3 and 4 cross during a race on the St. Mary's River. Team members practice almost every day and travel almost every weekend.