Jon Faudree, head sailing coach at Jacksonville University, describes the sport half-jokingly.

“Off the water, you can pick out sailors because they’re tan and they’re bruised,” he said with a smile. “You look out and you see the sailboats on the water and it looks so peaceful and serene, but it’s far from that. It’s a really athletic sport.”

But the challenges are more than physical; they’re equally cognitive.

The moment a boat sets out on the water, the sailors must anticipate changes in the wind and waves, the flow and the current, then act on what they see.

“You could sail right there on the St. Johns River 20 different days, and every day you go out it would be different,” Faudree said.

When sailors are in a competitive race, they have to move faster, think faster, not only anticipating the movements of nature but also those of 20 or so other boats surrounding them.

It’s a balance that six tan, bruised and determined JU freshmen understand well. On their home waters at the South Atlantic Intercollegiate Sailing Association Spring Championship in April, freshmen Victoria Caba, Ian Ikeda, Peter Hidley, Hannah Knighton, Danny Lawless and Mara Strobel-Lanka made JU history when they qualified to compete in the College Sailing National Championship Semifinals, which will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The team’s victory marked the first time in school history that the JU team has qualified for the regatta, and one of the first times a team made entirely of freshmen will compete in nationals.

About 250 colleges have sailing teams and, of those, 36 will compete in the nationals.

“This sort of puts us in the spotlight for a team that before this year nobody knew existed outside of our conference,” Faudree said. “People are talking about us nationally, which is a lot of fun. When we go sail against teams in New England or the Mid-Atlantic region … there are a lot of people who are excited to see another team come out of nowhere.”

The achievement is another rush in a stream of forward motion and growth the team has experienced in recent years. Out of the six freshmen going to nationals, two — Knighton and Caba— never sailed before last fall.

“It’s hard to wrap my head around,” Knighton said. “A year ago, I didn’t even know anything about sailing and now, in a week I’ll be heading to nationals. It means so much. It shows that I’m a part of something so much bigger than me and has taught me that I can do more than I ever thought I could.”

When Faudree arrived at JU in fall 2012 after working as youth sailing director and head coach for the Rochester Yacht Club in New York, the JU sailing team consisted of five students, all of whom learned to sail at the university. By fall 2013, the team grew to 25 students, six of whom were recruited sailors.

“When the kids got here this year, we were really able to hit the ground running,” he said.

Last September, the JU team ranked 20th out of 27 teams in the South Atlantic Conference. Now the Dolphins rank fourth.

“We’re going up against schools that have million-dollar sailing centers and teams of 50, 60 people, where we have 25 kids and half of them learned how to sail last August,” Faudree said.

The small size of the team offers “unique challenges but also unique opportunities,” Faudree said. It gave it flexibility. Students who never sailed before could join the team and learn. Regardless of experience level, there were more chances for students to get on the water and to participate in regattas.

“We don’t have tryouts, and we don’t have a guaranteed spot to big regattas, and people don’t really know us as someone to be threatened by,” said Strobel-Lanka, who began sailing with her family six years ago. “So when we go to regattas and we do really well as freshmen, it means so much more than if I were a third-string on some bigger team. … Here at JU, the work that I put into it is building it for future generations.”

At the same time, the team lacked many of the competitive pressures often associated with larger programs. Faudree lightheartedly viewed the regattas they competed in as “glorified practices” and “great learning experiences.”

Lawless, who also began the sport in childhood, was recruited by Faudree, who began coaching him when he was an eighth-grader in New York.

“A lot of teams are very high pressure, going, going, going, but here we’re more relaxed,” Lawless said. “If I sailed at another school, I don’t think I would be sailing as much as I do.”

Starting in August, the team practiced three times a week on the water and worked out twice a week in the campus gym.

At the end of spring semester, while much of the student body made a beeline from exams to planes, trains and automobiles carrying them home, the six JU sailing competitors spent the week after finals preparing for nationals. They practiced twice a day, strapping GoPro cameras to their sailboats so they could see, study and learn from the day’s successes and failures.

As the team goes on to national semifinals, Faudree said he is “not too worried” about the competition, but instead more focused on taking in another learning experience and enjoying the event.

“Our goal was to get there,” he said.

For the student sailors, it plays into larger individual goals to become better on the water.

“I love that anyone can learn to sail, but it takes years and years to master it,” Strobel-Lanka said. “You can do it for the rest of your life, and you’ll never have it completely figured out, but that chase of figuring it out is really fun.”