As Kiefer Pirrung (Col ’09) steers a speedboat across the glassy surface of the open water of Lake Anna, Austin Holbrook (Col ’11) performs stunning alley-oops and acrobatic antics—he jumps, flips upside down, completes a 360-degree rotation and finally lands on the other side of the white froth of the wake.
“I’ve always loved being on the water, and all my life I’ve water-skied, sailed or scuba dived whenever I could,” says Pirrung, shouting over the noise of the boat’s engine.
Pirrung is co-president of the Virginia Water-Ski and Wakeboard Club at UVA, and though the high-speed, clenched-fist fun of water skiing is leagues away from the quieter, slower pace of sailing, Pirrung has much in common with Whit Overstreet (Col ’09), commodore of the Sailing Association at UVA.
For one, their boats share slips at a marina on Lake Anna. For another, they have seen their clubs flourish during their time at UVA.
Pirrung founded the club in 2006 when he discovered there were few opportunities for him and others to enjoy the “thrill and serenity that you feel when you’re gliding across the water.” He even drove a borrowed boat from Michigan to Virginia, but in 2007 the club raised funds to purchase a 19-foot Moomba.
Club co-president Alex Newton (Col ’11) says the skill levels of the more than 100 participants vary from water-skiers who compete in intercollegiate contests to complete newbies. “The club provides equipment and instruction, so even the uninitiated can get their feet wet,” says Newton, buckling himself into a club-owned life jacket in preparation for his turn on the skis.
Ken Elzinga, an economics professor who is a faculty adviser, recalls teaching a blind UVA student how to water ski. “When she got up and skied down Lake Monticello, I was more excited for her than anytime I had skied myself.”
The club’s officers hope to move team practices from Lake Anna to Lake Monticello, which is closer to Grounds, and the group has offered its facilities to the University for a beginners’ course in water-skiing and wakeboarding.
Registered with USA Waterski as a collegiate team, the club competes in the Southeast Conference, which includes schools from Georgia Tech to Clemson. “Schools, especially [those] located in Texas, Florida and on the West Coast, give scholarships for water sports, and young athletes are recruited to compete on an intercollegiate level,” says Pirrung. “Our club is still in its infancy, but it has a lot of potential.”
The sailing association also is building its competitive resumé. A member of the Mid-Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association, the group is an underdog compared with more sailing-focused schools like the U.S. Naval Academy or Georgetown but performs neck and neck with Virginia Tech and William & Mary.
“The regattas are both laid-back and intense,” says Overstreet. “They are very sociable off the water, but on the water, rival skippers will rip your head off if you make a mistake and foul them.”
Last year, several UVA teams went to a regional regatta in South Carolina. Nine UVA sailors carpooled to Charleston, slept on couches and floors of students from the host school, then placed 14th out of 16 in the race.
Overstreet has helped spark a renaissance of the sailing club, which has gone through ups and downs during its 30-plus years. A native of Albemarle County, he was a consummate landlubber until his first year at UVA, when he was taught to sail by Fleet Captain Joel Morgan.
“He shared his passion for being out on the water, the quiet of it, and the self-sufficiency of sailing in a small dinghy,” says Overstreet. “We agreed to an exchange: If he taught me to sail, I would undertake responsibility for the survival of the club and share with others what he’d given me.”
Overstreet inherited a fleet in disrepair, but in the past few years, the Alumni Association’s Parents Committee has donated two new boats and club members designed and built a dock financed by the Student Council.
As with the other club, skill levels vary among the sailors. “We’re inclusive of novices, pleasure sailors and serious competitive racers,” Overstreet says.
Such is the appeal of water sports—dancing on the thin line between two elements, riding on surface tension, moving faster on water than legs can travel on land.
Wakeboarder Holbrook is a case in point as he attempts a particularly difficult trick—a Whirlybird. When he lands, he disappears abruptly into the water, leaving the towrope dangling uselessly.
“Point one for the lake,” says Pirrung, laughing and circling the boat back to where Holbrook has resurfaced. “The lake’s always a worthy adversary.”