Campaigning for the Olympic games in the Laser at the age of 35 is not a common choice. But Christine Neville is an uncommon woman.
Her mother Susan Neville said, “I could count on Christine to push the limits as a child. She was the kid who made her teachers nervous and her coaches proud. She’s not one to follow others. She is always finding a new path to explore.”
Christine stands just shy of six feet tall. She is a lean, rangy athlete with piercing blue eyes, a quick smile, a blonde ponytail and a wingspan of 5’ 11” from fingertip to fingertip. But it’s her hands that set her apart.
Christine has strong, quick hands and she has used them to learn how to build sails, weld metal, do finish carpentry, craft a long board, repair boats and rig yachts. And that’s just for starters.
Bill Fastiggi of Vermont Sailing Partners noted that Christine is the only woman he has ever met who owned a Saab for her primary car as well as a Saab parts car to keep it running. When her red Saab 900 broke down, and it broke down frequently, she took it apart and put it back together herself.
When Christine moved out west, Fastiggi watched as she built a trailer from spare parts to transport all of her possessions across the country. Identifying a problem and improvising a solution is something Christine has been doing all her life. Fastiggi recalled that when Christine had a 20-mile commute and limited resources, she economized by outfitting a bicycle she found with a 32 cc, one-piston motor kit she purchased for less than $100 on eBay. The motorbike was supremely dodgy, unsafe at any speed, especially its 30-mile-per-hour maximum velocity, but it propelled Christine to and from work for a summer.
Her personal engine may well be more powerful than the motorized contraption. Many cyclists train for a year before attempting to ride 100 miles, which in cycling terms is known as a “century.” Christine thought that sounded like a cool idea, riding 100 miles, so she did it without any training on a bike she borrowed from Lindy Kelly that was two sizes too small.
Her best friend Rois Langner says Christine has a “no-big-deal – I got this” attitude that makes her capable of many things, if not anything: fixing old cars, sewing ski-packs, making canvas covers for her Laser, backpacking in the wilderness, traveling around the world, sailing Lasers, and now being a strong contender for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
As a teenager, she spent hours rigging and re-rigging a chartered C-scow so that she could race it with her friend Mary Chamberlin. Mary recalled, “We dumped the boat repeatedly, even sunk it once or twice, but Christine always stayed calm and handled the situation. She would come back after racing and dissect the race; did we have our heads out of the boat? Could the rigging be tweaked? Why did that board get stuck? How was our start?”
For Christine, sailing fast has always been more important than living comfortably. Mary noted, “Christine moved between house sitting gigs, the lodge of Cochran's ski area, and a van while wind surfing at Hood River.” For Christine, sailing is a necessity. Electricity and running water are luxuries.
Many dream of living in a mansion. At one point, Christine’s dream home was a yurt, a semi-permanent but movable structure because it would enable her to do what she loved most.
All of that sailing, clean living and outdoor activity has given Christine exceptional fitness and when she suits up at Laser radial regattas, 17-year-old boys stop and stare slack jawed at her jacked biceps and think, “Whoa, I gotta hit the gym.”
Her fitness is not for show. In the boat, there is a fast-twitch-muscle pop to all of her motions. Christine trims the vang with a sharp snap, roll tacks with controlled violence, and hikes the boat flat with bursts of power. Before she was a dedicated Laser sailor, Christine crewed in the 49erFX class, a skiff. Her skipper, Kristen Lane said, “She physically attacks sailing. She's been blessed with an extremely athletic body. But she is one of the hardest working people I know. There was never ever a day when Christine didn't want to go rip it up in the skiff. Even days when I thought it was too much, Christine was dressed, ready, looking at me like - get your ass on this boat!”
At the European 49erFX Championship, there was a contest on land to see which crew could hoist a spinnaker fastest. Christine blew away the competition with a time of 2.9 seconds. Her skipper thought about removing the video from Facebook because she feared a Volvo Ocean Race team would recruit her.
Optimism and forward thinking are part of Christine’s DNA and she has very few regrets. One of them is not trying out for the Volvo Ocean Race all-female boat, Team SCA. With her quick hands, high power to weight ratio, sunny disposition and sail maker’s background, she could have been a strong addition to the team.
But her independent streak made the Laser a better choice for her. After a seminar with the Irish coach Alan Ruigrok, Christine made it her business to sit further forward downwind and she now assumes a supremely uncomfortable yoga pose such that she is ahead of the centerboard trunk. With a loose vang and frequent course changes, she makes great gains.
When you see Christine sitting in a position that is as fast as it is unstable, it is difficult to imagine that just five short years ago, she was in the middle of the Laser fleet. But she set her mind to improving and started practicing. And practice she did.
She has built a graveyard of broken masts in her backyard, burned through 10 wetsuits, 10 mainsheets and approximately 30 pairs of sailing gloves. Her dedication has propelled her up the rankings in the local standings to be a regular in the top five and she was named to the US Olympic Development Team in 2014.
Today, when she arrives at a Newport Fleet 413 regatta with Annie her dog, she is greeted by competitors of all ages. Christine has a reputation for sailing hard, sailing fast, and sailing fair. Parents of youth sailors enjoy having her in their midst and in an age of shallow reality-TV role models, Christine is a striking counter point, a woman of substance and character.
Sure, she is fast on the racecourse but she is even quicker to offer a competitor a top tip on how to improve. As a coach, she is one of those rare sailors who has excellent skills but still has a sharp memory of what it was like to be mediocre, so it’s easier for strugglers to relate to her.
Along with her boyfriend Peter Shope, Christine practices in the big waves off Third Beach, just a five-minute drive from the home she and Peter are renovating themselves. Beneath the St. George’s School chapel, Christine puts her faith in hard work and practice and sails until sunset then de-rigs in the dark.
On land, Peter is Christine’s life partner but on the water he becomes her sparring partner. A former Olympic campaigner in the Finn class, Peter, who recently won the Laser Grand Master World Championship, is an unapologetic perfectionist. The exchanges during starting drills, practice races, and boat handling exercises are intense. At one session, this reporter hails Shope, “tack or cross?” With the devil in his eye, Shope replies, “I’ll let you cross…but I won’t let Christine.”
All the practice in the world does not guarantee Olympic glory. In other countries like the United Kingdom, Olympic sailing is funded by a national lottery. In the USA, many athletes including Christine are on their own to train, raise funds, and somehow make both ends meet in the middle. To support her campaign, Christine works as a rigger at Brewer Wickford Cove Marina where she is equally comfortable working at the top of a mast or painting the bottom of a keel.
The General Manager of Brewer Wickford Cove Marina, Larry Colantuono is impressed with Christine’s problem solving abilities. Recently, he asked Christine to install electric winches on a Little Harbor 50 and she took care of the assignment with no fuss or drama. Larry said, “Christine raises the bar on guys who think they can slack off.”
That said there was a Friday before a regatta Christine asked to be released early so she could practice in her Laser. Larry, who was also sailing in the regatta the next day, replied, “Fine, but you’re going to feel really silly if I kick your ass tomorrow.” Christine smiled and said, “That’s not gonna happen.”
To keep her expenses as low as possible, Christine searches craigslist for gently used Lasers. Her most recent find is a boat named “Damselfly” that one competitor refers to as “Damn Selfie.” She car camps whenever possible, which works well for local regattas. But when it’s time to compete in international events, there is no getting around the plane fares, charter boat fees, and entry fees.
The United States Olympic representative in the Laser Radial class will be selected based on the results of two regattas, the ISAF Sailing World Cup in Miami in January of 2016, and the Laser Radial Europeans in Las Palmas Gran Canaria, Spain in February of 2016. To follow Christine’s adventures, visit christinenevillesailing.blogspot.com To make a donation, visit gofundme.com/santander
Joe Berkeley sails in Newport Laser Fleet 413 and has written for the likes of Coca-Cola, AT&T, Fidelity, Nike, Liberty Mutual and Sailing World. His portfolio is at joeberkeley.com Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org