When you think of Polynesian sailors, you may think of outrigger canoes and voyages made thousands of years ago, led by the stars. But Asian American and Polynesian sailors are also at the cutting edge of modern sailing scene.
Both connected to that legacy and forging her own, 16-year-old Noe Velasco is defining what it means to be a sailor and Pacific Islander. Velasco, who currently lives in Hawaii, identifies as Filipino and Chamorro (an ethnic native of Guam).
“I am proud to be a part of the rich Pacific Islander tradition of sailing,” said Velasco. “Pacific Islanders have been sailing for eons and have accomplished many incredible feats without the technology or modern materials to help their voyage and assist in their sailing. It’s just incredible what they did.”
Velasco got her first exposure to sailing as a passenger on her parent’s Weta Trimaran, which moved with the family from Mississippi to Virginia and beyond. When her father, who is retired military, was relocated to Hawaii, Velasco’s parents signed her up for sailing lessons in their new home base on Oahu.
There, Velasco met Seamus Murphy, a coach who was monumental in fostering her love of sailing, encouraging her to try racing despite her small size. In 2017, she began racing with the club, participating in all the local events.
By 2019, she worked her way up to the U.S. Women’s Singlehanded Championship in San Francisco, competing in the 4.7 class. The regatta helped Velasco get a new perspective on her racing.
“That regatta was really hard for me at the time, because I was small and it was super windy there, but it was a good eye-opener to see how sailing functions on the mainland and how I did personally in that environment,” commented Velasco.
After a brief pause because of COVID, Velasco began sailing with Kaneohe Yacht Club after she felt like she had outgrown the competition at her former club. Kaneohe is known for its support of high-performance boats and boards, including Waszps, 29ers, and iQFoils. At Kaneohe, Velasco was introduced to the 29er, where she began crewing.
“I really enjoy the 29er, especially crewing, because there’s just so many new things you can learn on the boat,” said Velasco. “It’s awesome to get to try the high-performance boats.”
While Velasco is forging her own path in the sailing community, she is often surrounded by people who don’t look like her.
“There’s a lack of diversity in the sailing community because sailing is generally known as a white male sport. I don’t really see many Asian-American and Pacific Islander sailors in national regattas,” said Velasco. But she draws inspiration from the local Hawaiian sailing community.
“When you look at the outrigger canoeing community, wind surfing, kite surfing, and foiling here in Hawaii, it is dominated by the local people,” she said. “And there’s a wealth of Asians and Pacific Islanders there who just enjoy their time on the water and are great sailors and people in general.”
So, what’s next for Noe Velasco?
She’s got the US Open Sailing Series in San Diego and U.S. Women’s Doublehanded Championship (where she is sailing with a fellow Kaneohe Yacht Club sailor) on her docket, where her plan is to learn as much as she can. Velasco also has her sights set on college in Colorado, where she plans to study wildlife biology once she graduates from high school.
To other Pacific Islander youth who might be interested in sailing, Velasco encourages them to get out there and try it, no matter the challenges they might face.
“Even though there might be assumptions and naysayers about their size or weight, that doesn’t matter,” she said. “I think I’m living proof of that – yeah I’m small, and I don’t weigh a lot, but my skill has proven that I’m near the top; that I’ve done well in all the sailing competitions I’ve competed in.”
Stay tuned to US Sailing’s Instagram and Facebook for more Asian American and Pacific Islander spotlights from ICSA Nationals this month!