High Water Mark

Championships place Skip Dieball among the world’s elite sailors
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Dieball (right) and his team (Jeff Eiber, left and Jon McClean, center) sailed the “Aretas” to a first-place finish in the 2015 Etchells World Championship. (Kylie Wilson, Positive Image)

Sometimes you have to place second to know what it takes to finish on top.

Dennis “Skip” Dieball (BBA92) understands this maxim. As an accomplished sailing professional—mainly in the One-Design class, where all the boats are virtually identical or similar in design—he’s won more than 30 major national and North American races. His achievements earned nominations for Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2004 and US Sailing’s Sportsman of the Year in 2010. 

Still, with all the trophies and accolades, there was something missing: a world championship.

Dieball almost claimed that honor in July 2015 when he joined a team competing in the Lightning Class World Championship. The field of 67 raced at the Buffalo Canoe Club, just outside Fort Erie, Ontario. 

“We came in second in that regatta,” says Dieball, 45. “Our crew led most of the week until the last few races. To be in the spotlight for the entire week and then fall short really lit a fire for me. The experience of losing a world title that was within reach was pretty tough.”

Dieball, who began sailing competitively at age 12, became serious about winning a world championship in 2012 when he joined forces with two other professional sailors (Americans Jeff Eiber and Jon McClean) to compete in the world’s most prestigious One-Design events. 

“We created a five-year plan, became intimately familiar with our boat [the ‘Aretas’] and got some coaching,” Dieball says. “We spent a lot of time with boat preparation. I’ve become pretty good at analyzing wind and weather for a particular day. Then there’s the actual racing part. It’s not easy. There’s no formula for success other than spending time in the boat and having a good team.”

In previous One-Design World Championship events, Dieball’s team finished 12th in 2013 in Rosignano, Italy and fifth in 2014 at Newport, R.I. Then, just four months after the disappointing finish at the Lightning Class event in Ontario, Dieball’s One-Design team finally raised the first-place trophy, outpacing 42 competitors to win the 2015 Etchells World Championship in Hong Kong. The regatta featured teams from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.

“The race came down to the last 200 meters, which was very exciting,” says Dieball, who was subsequently nominated for 2015 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. “We passed three boats in the last race to win it. We worked very hard toward reaching our goal, and finally getting it done was great. The experience was a lot of fun and very exhilarating.”

A Life on the Water

skip dieball at marina
Aside from competing and working, Dieball sails recreationally with his family and coaches the Grosse Ile High School sailing team. (Cara Jones Photography)

Winning the 2015 Etchells World Championship is the highlight of a racing career that began when Dieball was a youngster growing up in Toledo, Ohio. 

“My father is an accomplished sailor who competed nationally and my grandfather competed locally,” says Dieball, who now lives on Grosse Ile. “My family also sailed recreationally. I loved it. I played Little League baseball as a kid, but that pretty much ended for me when summer sailing started.”

Dieball’s parents put him in a junior sailing program at age 7. As a teenager, he competed in the junior racing scene on Lake Erie. But by Dieball’s admission, his racing talents didn’t emerge until after earning his finance degree at Eastern. By his early 30s, he raced in trials to represent the U.S in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.

During this time, Dieball also became involved in sail making. For 11 years, he ran Dieball Sailing, a full-service sail making operation based in Toledo.

“Over the past 25 years, I’ve become exposed to every facet of the sail making process, from gathering information to manufacturing, delivery and service,” he says. “My studies in entrepreneurship and finance at Eastern have certainly helped me from a business standpoint.”

Dieball sold his business in 2015. Now, he works as regional sales manager and One-Design representative for North Sails on Grosse lle. North Sails is the world’s largest sail maker, with more than 140 sales and sail care sites in 63 countries. 

When Dieball’s not at work, he’s on the water. He often sails recreationally with his wife Laurie and children Meghan (13), Mallory (11) and Max (2), splitting time between the Grosse Ile Yacht Club and the North Cape Yacht Club in nearby La Salle. Meghan is sailing competitively at the junior level, Mallory is just starting to show an interest and, right now, Max just likes being on the lake.

“I compete about 45 weekends a year,” Dieball says. “I’ll probably do a bit less and pick and choose events going forward. There’s so much travel and recovery time when you race, and I’d like to spend more time with my family.”

Of the events circled on Dieball’s sailing calendar last year, the most important were September 5-10, as he focused on winning a second consecutive Etchells World Championship.

Winds of Change

The 2016 Etchells Worlds took place at the Solent, a stretch of the English Channel between Southampton and the Isle of Wight. Fifty-eight teams from 11 nations entered the competition, which included numerous sailors who had won Etchells titles.

“We anticipated different water currents and wind changes than we experienced in Hong Kong,” Dieball says. “There’s a lot of aggressive water movement and a shallow which diverts the currents in different directions. Sometimes the current is favorable and sometimes it’s against you. Our team made three trips to the Solent in advance of the race to prepare. During that time, we used software to model water movements based on tide tables and the contour of the Solent.”

Unfortunately, after studying the currents, wind and general conditions, the weather pattern was completely different during three of the nine race days. That, combined with a penalty for starting the first race early, set Dieball’s team back. Still, they earned a respectable seventh-place finish.

“You can’t win a regatta in one day, but you sure can lose it,” Dieball says. “We jumped the gun in the first race, although we didn’t realize it until we received the penalty afterwards. We finished second but wound up last due to the penalty. That was a little heartbreaking. Race rules allow teams to throw out one race, so we made the first race our throw-out. But it created a very tough situation for us. After a throw-out, you have to race more conservatively.” 

The 2016 Etchells Worlds turned out to be the final one for Dieball’s team. 

“We accomplished what we wanted to achieve,” Dieball says. “We’ve been at it a long time and just decided to take a break. Sailing with those guys was a lot of fun—we’re friends first and teammates second. We started without much knowledge of our boat. But we had ambition, structure and great equipment. That’s what got us to the top in 2015, and I feel we competed at the top at Etchells 2016. I’m certainly proud of our achievements.”

Dieball says he has no firm plans to compete in world championships in 2017, although he’s leaving the door open on the 2017 Etchells Worlds in San Francisco. Now, he’s focused on spending time with his family and coaching the Grosse Ile High School sailing team.

“I really like helping the kids get better at sailing and sharing my passion with them,” he says. “I enjoy being able to do what I love rather than work in an occupation that was not by choice. Sometimes you have to step away for a bit and recharge your batteries, but I’m truly having a lot of fun.”

Contact Darcy Gifford, dgiffor2@emich.edu, 734.487.5375

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