Benjamin (60, Norwalk, Conn.) and Haeger (26, East Troy, Wisc.) are first time winners of the award that was first presented in 1961. They were feted at a celebratory luncheon that included family and guests in the Model Room of the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan. In honor of their outstanding achievements each was presented a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master timepiece and a framed print of them in action from US Sailing.
“This is one of the top achievements I can look back on in my career, along with the Olympics and college sailor of the year,” said Benjamin, who is the oldest recipient of the yachtsman award. “Through an amazing odyssey of setbacks and opportunities, I have had the support and encouragement from hundreds of dedicated crews, coaches, friends and family. Today’s Rolex award is for all of us.”
“This is really a thrill. It’s something I didn’t expect,” said Haeger. “It’s amazing to be mentioned in the same sentence with people like Steve and my coach, Dave Ullman. They’re people that I have a great deal of respect for.” (Ullman was Yachtsman of the Year in 1996.)
The recipients reflect the variety and longevity of competitive sailing. Benjamin, in his golden years, has raced many boats around the world for the past five decades with great success. Haeger, on the other hand, is young in terms of age but accomplished beyond her years. She’s already amassed a résumé worthy of a lifetime, one that includes youth, junior and collegiate championships.
“She has a tremendous career ahead of her,” said Benjamin.
Haeger, a skipper, was a collegiate All-American at Boston College (2008-’12) and last August won the gold medal in the Women’s 470 Class at the Olympic Test Event with crew Briana Provancha (San Diego, Calif.) for the US Sailing Team Sperry. They also placed 3rd at the Open 470 European Championship last June and 4th at the 470 South American Championship last August. As of Feb. 1, the duo was No. 6 in the Women’s 470 world rankings.
Haeger’s competitive juices come from her family, where a friendly board game can devolve into a finger-pointing exercise. It was her father, Kent, who got her into the sport of sailing, and it is he whom she strives to please.
“My dad is the person who introduced me to the sport and it’s his passion that made me want to be a sailor,” said Haeger. “I’m a total dad’s girl and I do a lot to make him proud, but I’ve also developed my own love and passion for the sport.”
Last week Haeger and Provancha placed 6th overall in the women’s division at the 2016 470 World Championship, an achievement that gives the duo the inside track for the U.S. Olympic Team headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this summer.
“I accept this award for us as a team. It means that we are working together and advancing our goal of winning a gold medal,” said Haeger, who called Provancha up to the dais and the two embraced in a tearful hug. “We are a team. I admire her mind, her strive to be the best and, most of all, her passion for the sport. There’s no one else in this world that I would rely on. Thank you, Briana, for being a critical part of our team but also being my best friend.”
Haeger finished her career at Boston College as the female collegiate sailor of the year in 2012. Benjamin was also the collegiate sailor of the year when he graduated from Yale in 1978. He went on to represent the U.S. at the 1984 Olympics in the 470 class and won a silver medal.
Since then Benjamin has skippered many keelboats to many championships around the world. Last year he skippered the 30-foot Etchells class boat to victory at the North American Championship and 2nd overall at the World Championship. He also skippered a 40-footer named Spookie to victory in four offshore races: Ft. Lauderdale-Key West Race, Ida Lewis Distance Race, Marblehead-Halifax Race and the Vineyard Race.
“We were incredibly lucky to have the conditions and circumstances to win those races. That’s very rare in offshore sailing,” said Benjamin. “The Etchells has been a great class to join and we narrowly missed out on the world championship.”
Benjamin won the Halifax race by 13 seconds on corrected time but lost the Etchells Worlds by 2 points and plans to keep an active racing schedule this year. Like Haeger, he also was competing in an international race last week. Benjamin skippered his 52-footer Spookie to 6th overall in the Caribbean 600, a 600-nautical mile race in the Caribbean Sea.
“This is one of the top achievements I can look back on in my career, along with the Olympics and college sailor of the year,” said Benjamin. “It’s a great aspect of sailing, that it’s a sport for a lifetime. It’s one of the great things about sailing.”
Benjamin gave thanks to many notable sailors and had special thanks for Dr. David Samadi, who helped cure him of prostate cancer in 2010. “David had never been on a sailboat, and I promised to take him sailing. He agreed, and we’ve been sailing together several times, but only after he was sure that he had cured me,” said Benjamin. “After recovering from cancer, every day seems like it’s more important now.”
Rolex has sponsored the Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year awards since 1980. Rolex first became involved in the sport of sailing in 1950 because it represents the qualities that are akin to Rolex, namely elegance and grace in the face of extreme adventure.
A Rolex timepiece was a fixture on the wrist of Sir Francis Chichester when he became the first man to sail solo around the world in 1966-’67. Since then Rolex has become associated with rigorous offshore races such as the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race and Rolex Fastnet Race that test man and equipment, elegant regattas such as the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup sailed in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and prestigious clubs such as the New York Yacht Club and Royal Yacht Squadron.