Shawn P. O’Connor was once the student, now he is the teacher.
O’Connor is the new head coach of the Oak Harbor Yacht Club’s youth sailing program and Wildcat Sailing.
O’Connor joined the coaching staff as an assistant last spring and was promoted in August. He succeeds Erik Mann, his one-time coach. Mann started Wildcat Sailing, a team of sailors from Oak Harbor High School, in 2014. That initial team included O’Connor.
O’Connor began sailing at 10.
“My dad sailed on a keelboat with a group of firefighters he works with in Seattle, and told me I could start sailing with them if I (participated in the) sail camp at the Oak Harbor Yacht Club,” O’Connor said.
Later that summer he raced keelboats for the first time and worked on the crew of the Ballard-based boat What? A Tripp! during Whidbey Island Race Week.
O’Connor continued to race on What? A Tripp! until it was retired during his junior year of high school.
“The boat was fast, placing well in many Puget Sound regattas and winning the 2009 edition of Whidbey Island Race Week,” he said. “I spent time sailing on other keelboats, mainly at local yacht club races in Oak Harbor and Anacortes.”
Recently O’Connor purchased Star, a gold-medal winner in the 1984 Olympics, and raced the boat until it suffered a mast break a few weeks ago. Because of the mishap, he will freelance in other Oak Harbor boats for the remainder of this racing season.
After his early start in racing, he began teaching at youth camps while in middle school. He was later joined on the teaching staff by high school teammates from Wildcat Sailing.
“This helped us all earn a little summer income, as well as help recruit new sailors to the program,” O’Connor said. “I always enjoyed teaching and being on the water, so teaching sailing camps was an obvious choice.”
O’Connor raced for Wildcat Sailing through his junior year, missing his senior season because of an illness.
He graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 2017; he earned a degree from Skagit Valley College the same year through the Running Start program. He finished his college degree at Washington State University in 2019.
O’Connor said he was always interested in coaching, so when he was in town during college breaks, he would stop by practice and help Mann.
“When Erik mentioned he was looking to step aside from the head coaching job and offered me theposition, I jumped at the chance,” O’Connor said. “Almost all the sailors on the team have either taken a summer class that I taught or sailed with me when I was on the team, so I feel I have a unique ability to get the most out of this group of sailors.”
O’Connor’s goal as a coach is to help his sailors “gain a love and respect for the water.”
“We preach safety and courtesy on the water above all else,” he added. “From our beginner classes to our high school varsity team, we work to make our sailors comfortable on and around the water. I also want our sailors to learn to work as a team, while focusing on personal development. Sailors will likely sail with different people throughout the season, and they need to be able to adapt to different personalities and sailing styles to be successful.”
O’Connor’s first year as head coach comes with a unique set of challenges because of the pandemic.
He splits up his mask-wearing team of 17 and allows no more than 10 to practice at a time. Each group practices twice a week.
Among O’Connor’s sailors is senior Andrew Buys. Buys said he “really missed being outside with nature” during the early days of COVID-19 when “so many things were canceled.”
He was originally encouraged by his parents and brother to give sailing a try.
“I ended up enjoying it; it is now one of my favorite things to do.”
Junior Ben Servatius said “one of the nice things about sailing” is that it is social-distancing friendly.
“Large regattas are out of the question,” he added, “but a couple of us have our own boats, and when we aren’t sailing with the team, we are out in our own boats.”
Like O’Connor, Servatius grew up participating in the local youth sailing program.
He started at 8.
“I got signed up for it and wasn’t too excited about it at first,” Servatius said. It didn’t take long for him to fall for the sport, and he continued to attend summer camps throughout his youth.
“Now I teach camp,” he said. “This is my fourth year.”
He hopes to parlay his experience as a young sailor into a spot on Stanford’s racing team.
“They have a prestigious sailing team,” he said. “It has always been a dream of mine to sail for them.”