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Sailing community mourns death of trailblazer Sandra Tartaglino

Sandra Tartaglino competed at some of the highest levels of sailing. (Facebook)
Sandra Tartaglino competed at some of the highest levels of sailing. (Facebook)

In the world of high-performance sailing, Sandra Tartaglino was a titan and a trailblazer.

As one of the few female skippers of Formula 18s, a popular class of two-person catamaran sailboats, Tartaglino competed at some of the highest levels of sailing, according to her fellow competitors, including several world championships and extreme distance events, like the Worrell 1000, a 1,000-mile race between Florida and Virginia Beach.

On the first Sunday in August, she won her division in the Buzzards Bay Regatta. A week later, she would compete in the New England 100 Regatta in Newport, R.I., an event she organized to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

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It would be her last race.

Around 2:45 p.m. Sunday, a couple driving a powerboat plowed into Tartaglino’s vessel in Narragansett Bay, killing the experienced 60-year-old sailor.

The state’s Department of Environmental Management is investigating the incident and expects to release a preliminary report this week. According to the department’s spokesman, “alcohol was not a factor” in the crash.

Tartaglino’s death has reverberated throughout the tight-knit community of catamaran sailors, who remembered her as a strong yet kind-hearted competitor whose passion for the sport was obvious. She was known for giving out homemade brownies to her fellow sailors at the conclusion of a race.

“She was a fierce competitor on the water and one of the nicest people on the shores,” said Jeff Dusek, a former representative for the USF18 Eastern Area, who crewed for Tartaglino a few years ago. “She was well-known and well-loved by a much broader sailing community.”

Tartaglino, who lived in Tiverton, R.I., served as the longtime class treasurer of the US Formula 18 Association, according to the group’s Facebook page, an organization dedicated to the sailing and promotion of F18s.

“Sandra was an amazing woman, tough competitor, and dear friend we all learned so much from her on and off the water,” the post said. “While she passed away doing what she loved, she was taken far too soon and will be truly missed.”

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Women sailors, in particular, looked up to Tartaglino as a role model. Caroline Atwood, a Tufts University graduate and world-class sailor on the US Sailing Team, met Tartaglino in 2017 at a regatta in Newport. What impressed her about Tartaglino, besides her skill as a sailor, was her refusal to “shy away from [her] femininity” in the male-dominated sport.

“I think it’s really easy as a woman at the top level of a sport to be so consumed with proving that you’re just as good as the guys to adopt this kind of stone-cold attitude and that wasn’t Sandra at all,” Atwood said. “She was unflinchingly nurturing, kind, and welcoming to everyone that came into the fleet.”

Tartaglino’s death has also served as a reminder of the serious dangers inherent in their sport. Catamaran sailing is both physically and mentally challenging, and sailors are vulnerable to elements beyond their control, such as the weather, the waves, and increasingly, other boaters.

“I can’t stop crying thinking of what happened to her,” said Lise Duchesne, a F18 skipper from Quebec City. “Every time we are on water, crossing motor boats, we are [unaware] of if they know the rules. Are they drunk? Did they see us? Why [did] they come so close to us? I sail putting this fear aside, telling myself that I have never seen or heard of such an accident. But now, it happened to one of the rare women practicing this sport. I’m in shock.”

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Deanna Pan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.