Catching the Cayuga wind: the story behind the sail

By John Vogan & Sara Webb

In his blue floral-printed Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, Eberhard Alsen happily greets two Cornell sailing students from his sailboat, a white 1986 Tanzer 25. 

For Alsen, sailing is a family tradition. His father once owned two yacht clubs in Berlin, which he only learned aboutThe tranquility of Cayuga Lake is a long ways from his war-marked childhood, not only in distance and time, but also perspective. Nice.

Alsen was born in Nuremberg but moved several times during World War II. He studied American literature and immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 at the age of 26.

Alsen’s boat, FANTASY, was named because he liked the idea of ‘imagination’ — the German translation — and how a mind could wander out on the water. It can sail at up to of 6.3 knots (about 7 miles per hour), but in late September Alsen claims he sailed at 6.7 knots. The challenge of figuring out how to maximize speed is one reason he enjoys sailing so much, Alsen said.

“I still don’t know how we got it to go that fast [that time]” Alsen said.

But passion like Alsen’s is fading. The popularity in the sport has seen a steady decline over the years. Since he joined the cruising fleet in 1986, the number of boats racing regularly has dropped from 50 to eight.

The still struggling economy that took a turn for the worse in 2008 could be one explanation, he said. But he hopes the trend is only temporary and perhaps part of a cycle.

One of the particular aspects of sailing, Alsen believes, is its unique qualities of being relaxing and exciting at the same time.

“All pressure just dissipates as soon as I’m out on the water,” Alsen said. “You concentrate on the wind and the waves… You have no time to think about anything else.”

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