Photo courtesy of George Bowen
Brothers Michael Bowen, 17, and Nathan “Nate” Bowen, 15, had been avid baseball players for years until a fateful day about four years ago. They had grown tired of the game for various reasons and had begun looking around for a new pastime in which both could participate.
The Augusta Sailing Club had been active on Thurmond Lake, aka Clarks Hill, since 1953. Among its activities was an annual summer sailing camp open to the public. Its 2015 camp announcement caught the brothers’ eyes, so the pair from Washington, Georgia, decided to give it a try.
They boarded a sailboat for the first time in their lives during the camp, “and we scared ourselves silly,” Nate admitted. “It was pretty windy and there were little whitecaps on the water” and that made them nervous, even though both wore personal flotation devices. They soon saw there was little to be afraid of and decided “to commit ourselves to learning as much as we could” about their newfound sport.
One of the camp sailing coaches was Ryan Hargrave, and he and the boys became good friends. In fact, he was the first one who suggested they pursue racing. The club’s Halloween Regatta was coming up, and the boys had met a Louisiana sailing instructor in his late teens and his brother. The instructor suggested the boys in their boat follow his boat around the race course. The Bowen brothers were thrilled to finish second.
They also had the good fortune to meet another ASC coach in Josh Putnam, “who really was the first to coach us from a racing standpoint,” Nate said. “He taught us about endurance, how to get out of our comfort zone, how to correctly trim, tune and sail any boat. We’d meet him on the lake and sail during the winter months when conditions would change by cold fronts coming through.
“He is a world-class sailor, having qualified and placed in world events. He was a member of the U.S. Sailing Team competing in the Pan American Games. He and his crew placed third in the J-24 Class Worlds in Ireland.”
The next challenge for the boys was the Midland Regatta on Lake Murray near Columbia, South Carolina, and the teens raced in a boat carrying just a mainsail and jib. Of course, they won.
Beginners’ luck? Not really. The brothers may not have realized it, but they had discovered a sport that fit both like a glove. They had become natural-born sailors and being close friends as well as brothers, they have developed into a winning team. Nate steers the boat, while Michael is an athletic crew member.
Not content to be just day sailors, they entered a Sarasota, Florida, regatta last April 6-7, knowing the top two finishers would qualify to compete in the prestigious U.S. Sailing Chubb/Bemis U.S. Junior Championships for competitors 13 to 18 years of age. The regatta was scheduled to be held in early August out of Redwood City, California, overlooking the backwaters of San Francisco Bay.
They were disappointed with their fourth-place finish, but all was not lost. A few weeks later they received a phone call and learned the second-place crew had a conflict and would not be able to go to California. “And the third-place boat was disqualified for various reasons, so we moved up to second place overall,” Nate said.
California, here they come!
But before heading West, they went southeast to Beaufort, South Carolina, for the June 24-25 Junior Y-Flyer Nationals. Not only did they win, but they captured the Challenger Series Trophy for being the best first-timers in the Y fleet. That honor qualified them for the Championship of Champions Regatta on Long Island Sound on Oct. 3-6.
In California, they chartered a C-420 Class boat from the Zim Sailing Company to race on the Bay. As it turned out, they were familiar with the boat, but what they did not count on was the weather.
“What made it challenging was the breeze and towering chop, the likes of which we had never seen or experienced,” Nate said. Winds of 28 to 36 mph caused waves 4 to 5 feet in height. Their 13-foot boat would rise up on the crest of one wave, then plunge into the valley before climbing the next. In one scary incident, their boat buried its bow beneath a wave and it was like hitting a brick wall. The boat abruptly stopped, but not Michael. He was catapulted out of the boat and landed in the water some 8 feet away, while Nate held on to whatever he could grab for dear life.
“We flipped six times, three during the practice day and three during the first race,” Nate said. The boys were wearing PFDs atop insulated dry suits because although the air temperature on shore was hot, the Bay waters were frigid.
Some of their competitors kidded the Bowens about wearing those dry suits, but at least four other crews had donned the dry suits for the next racing day.
The Bowens finished 16th in the 20-boat field and won the Bemis National Sportsmanship Award. Not only was their overall experience priceless, but they were thrilled to meet two-time Olympic sailor Kevin Burnham, who had earned silver and gold medals in previous Summer Games.
“We would have liked to have taken Sailing 101 from him,” said Michael. “We enjoyed listening to his sailing stories and his perseverance in winning gold when he was 48 years old, and his adventures during the Olympic Trials,” Nate added. “He taught us how to stay upright, using waves to our advantage, quicker capsize recoveries and shared his contagious passion for sailing.”
The boys are fifth-generation Bowen brothers in Augusta, going back to Bowen brothers Hardware on Broad Street. They also have enjoyed and appreciated the support of their parents, George and Joan Bowen. He is a veteran Delta Airlines pilot, while she manages the family cattle ranch in Wilkes County.
Appears in the October 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.