Peter Barron, a 14-year-old eighth grader at the East Hampton Middle School, is about to launch an international sailing career, having been picked to represent the United States in the Optimist class.
At seven feet, nine inches, Optimists, the young sailor said during a recent conversation at The Star, were “the smallest of the competitive boats, but also one of the most widely sailed. Fifty-five different countries sail them. They’ve been around since 1947 and have been raced since 1960. Soapbox derby cars inspired the design. We call it the Bathtub. It’s the largest fleet — over 20,000 sail numbers — in the U.S. Some of the top sailors in the world . . . Olympians, America’s Cup sailors . . . come out of this class. It’s what you start on. Optimist sailors say you’re optimistic if you think you can go very fast in one.”
And yet, Peter said that in a recent Florida event in winds up to 30 miles per hour, and with five-foot waves in the Gulf, “a girl got on top of a wave and was hydroplaning at about 18 miles per hour. . . . I love the wind. The faster you go the more fun it is.”
“If you watch the kids I sail with [on team Sail Strong] you’ll be astonished at how quickly they turn and react. . . . When people think of sailing, they think of someone sitting back and enjoying the day on a yacht, but sailing is multidimensional. One, you’ve got to be in great physical shape, with a strong core and arms. Two, it’s a one-person boat, so you’re on your own, with no one to help. Three, you have to know the rules, which are many. The rule book is a half-inch thick. It’s one of the last sports with real sportsmanship . . . you’re held accountable for your actions, it’s self-policing, which is rare in sports nowadays. For instance, if you’re on a starboard tack [with the wind coming over the right side of the bow] you have the right of way over someone on a port tack [with the wind over the left side]. The port boat has to avoid. If the boat on the starboard tack has to move, the offender has to do two full spins, 720 degrees.”
Peter said he got his start in sailing at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, at around the age of 7 or 8, and though his father, Robert, had competed at the top of the sport internationally, he had not pushed him.
“I’ve thanked him for not pushing me,” Peter said. “He pushed me to do well in school, but not in any sports, and because of that I’ve wanted to do sports. Sailing is what I want to do. I’ve seen kids whose mothers and fathers have pushed them so hard. I used to ski race, and I’ve seen it happen there. You can burn out if you do too much of one thing, even if it’s your favorite thing. A burning desire can’t be grafted on by others — it has to come from you.”
His parents, however, have been supportive, and probably, he said, have circled the globe with him at least once, as it were, in driving far afield to and from sailing practices and competitions — a fact with which the parents of ambitious East Hampton athletes past and present can relate.
As the result of good finishes in recent team trials near Milwaukee, Peter will compete for the U.S. in a weeklong regatta in Belgium in mid-July. Those who finished in the top five in Wisconsin are to compete in the world championships at Lake Garda in Italy. So, his interviewer said, he still has something to shoot for.
“It’s been a goal of mine to go to an international event,” he said. “This is my first one. It’s the second international regatta I’ve qualified for. I wanted to go to a regatta at Lake Garda in March, but I didn’t. There was too much of a conflict with school. We [he and his Sail Strong teammates] have to balance our sailing with our education. When we get off the water we clean our boats and go to a hotel room and do our homework. . . . I take honors courses and have been keeping up my grades.”
“On the JetBlue flight back from the Mid Winter’s team race near New Orleans, the night of the Super Bowl, the biggest night in sports in the United States, we turned off our screens and did our homework! That ought to show you how dedicated we are. Even the 10-year-olds are driven.”
He had other interests in addition to sailing, Peter added. “Since I’ve been little I’ve had an awareness of the fact that we’re not doing the best for our planet. I’ve been wanting to design a nonpolluting car since I was 3. I’ve wanted to sail in college since I’ve been 4, and to go on from there to start my own company having something to do with the environment.”
In parting, Peter said, “Whatever happens, I know sailing will help me as I go further in life. My parents won’t always be there. If they had pushed me I wouldn’t have known what to do when on my own. You don’t need to be pushed to become self-reliant.”