The Future of Sailing

By Helena Touhey

Clare Harrington, the first woman to reach the ranks of Vice Commodore at the New York Yacht Club, on the next generation of sailors and the innovative designs of the upcoming America’s Cup

Last fall, Clare Harrington was appointed the Vice Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, becoming the first woman to hold the second-in-command position of the historic institution.

Clare Harrington, Vice Commodore

“People have made kind of a big deal about it,” she says of becoming the first woman Commodore at the Club. “I like to think it’s not a thing, but of course, it is a thing.”

Harrington was raised on Long Island, and she first discovered her love for sailing on the Long Island Sound.

“I grew up sailing,” she says. “I started racing at some point. I was terrible when I started; I got better.”

She eventually found herself part of the Martha’s Vineyard sailing scene, where she skippered “Shields” out of the Edgartown Yacht Club — at a time when very few women were skippers. In 2000, she became a member of the New York Yacht Club.

“I joined the race committee, and from there I was nominated to be the chair of the race committee,” Harrington says. At the time, 2017, she was the first woman to be nominated as the chair of any committee at the club. Now, two other women are chairs of different committees.

“We’re all trustees”

The New York Yacht Club was founded in 1844, and the Race Committee was established in 1845 (it was initially known as the Rules Committee). In 1987, the NYYC acquired Harbour Court in Newport, which is the former home of Commodore John Nicholas Brown. The Newport clubhouse opened in 1988. Today, the NYYC has about 3,400 members, hailing from around the world.

In 2021, Harrington was nominated and then voted in as Rear Commodore, the Number Three position at the Club. Positions are usually held for two-year terms, although you must be voted in annually. It’s all but expected that the person who becomes Rear Commodore will become Vice Commodore, and then Commodore — although formal voting must take place to ensure it’s all official.

The voting body is formed of trustees and the major committee heads. Nominations come from the nominating committee, which is made up of past commodores. Once a person becomes chair of a committee, as Harington did for the race committee, they also become a member of the executive committee.

“We’re all trustees,” says Harrington, explaining that everyone is responsible for the health and well-being of the club and “staying true to the mission.”

Once appointed Rear Commodore, “your profile gets raised, as does your exposure to the membership,” she says.

This was evident on a Sunday morning in mid-October, during a meeting at the Club, when everyone who saw Harrington referred to her as Commodore and issued a warm greeting.

“The expectation is, you’ll do the full ride,” she said of following the upward path to Commodore. After the six years of Commodore duties, she will then serve on the nominating committee for 10 years. “It’s really 16 years,” she adds, laughing: “It’s a lifetime; the next 14 years of my life are spoken for.”

The right person at the time

“The number of young men who are excited about it,” has been impressive, Harrington says of becoming the first woman to reach such ranks within the Club. “They will say to me: I want you to meet my daughter.”

“I like to say to them: When your daughter is grown, it won’t be a thing,” she says. “I really want to, and I firmly believe this in my heart, that I was not chosen because I was woman.” Rather, she believes she was selected as Rear Commodore based on her skills and resume. “I was the right person at the time,” she says, adding: “I feel really fortunate to have been given this opportunity.”

Harrington, who is also a retired teacher — in 2002, she moved to Newport and started a post at St. George’s School — said that this work certainly keeps her busy.

“My background is all in education,” she says. “I retired about 10 years ago.” She was a music teacher at St. George’s, where she was also chair of the department. She also was the chapel organist and choir director. Prior to becoming Rear Commodore, she served on multiple boards, including at St. George’s and IYRS.

Now, though, the NYYC has her full attention.

Eyes on The Cup

Her main focus as Vice Commodore will be the upcoming America’s Cup Race, which will take place next year off the coast of Barcelona, Spain.

American Magic is representing the Club in the race, which is a continuation of a tradition that began with the first America’s Cup Race in 1851, which the NYYC won with the yacht America (hence the name “America’s Cup.”) American Magic is the only syndicate prominently featured under a yacht club, which
Harrington notes is evident in the sail sigil which features the Club’s logo — which will be visible all around Barcelona.

The 2024 America’s Cup will officially take place in October, although trial races – called the Challenger Series – will begin over the summer. As of now, six syndicates will be competing.

“I’m really optimistic that we’ll win the Cup Series and go on to the Cup itself,” Harrington says. As of now, she anticipates being in Barcelona for about two months to support the team and represent the club.

Flying boats

The boat designs for the Cup are foiling monohulls (AC 40s) and the Cup Race will feature 75-foot vessels with crews of eight (the boats that will compete in the Challenger Series are smaller and have just 4 crew). These boats are designed without a boom; the sail is upright and extends down to the deck. There is a central channel, with two helmsmen sitting on either side, which is not crossed. “You’re on your side, and you stay there,” Harrington notes.

The trimmers on these boats are called flight controllers, and Harrington, who is also a pilot, says the experience “is like a flying boat.”

“You need good sailors, but you also need to get the design right,” she says, noting these models are especially hydrodynamic, for speed, and can reach up to 50 knots. “The America’s Cup has always been about engineering and design and innovation.”

The foil design is critical, she says. “You could have the best team in the world, but if the boat is slow…,” says Harrington, “almost invariably, the fastest boat will win.”

The American Magic boat is being built in Rhode Island at an undisclosed location.

Sharp, skilled, fearless

As for the foil technology, which was part of the recent Ocean Race designs, “boats have had foils or some concept of a foil for a long time,” says Harrington, citing early 12 Metre boats designed with winged keels, which were used by the Australians. Harrington’s own cruising boat has a winged keel.

“These guys are so sharp, so skilled, so fearless,” she says of the Cup sailors. “It’s just an inspiration to watch them sail.”

While the America’s Cup teams are all male, there is also a Women’s Race and Youth Race planned over a two-month period next summer — also in Barcelona — with more countries participating in those two events than in the actual American’s Cup Race (which, Harrington notes, is an expensive investment).

While watch parties will be planned in Newport, there will be a New York Yacht Club base in Barcelona, says Harrington, “so members can gather and so we can watch the races together.”

Harbour Court, the Newport home of the New York Yacht Club. | Courtesy NYYC