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What makes an ocean racer?

Jan 1, 2003

Equipment is often the focus of microscopic attention within the sailing community, an emphasis that undoubtedly contributes to the impression that offshore racing is mainly a technology contest. In reality, insiders know that the skills of the sailors who operate the equipment are still of paramount importance. However, because the most accomplished sailors generally gravitate to the best-financed teams where they race the latest boats, it's difficult to assess credit for victory.

Assessing the importance of the human factor is great deal easier when it comes to one-design racingprecisely because the basic premise of one-design sailing is more-or-less identical equipment. Open-ocean one-design events are still a rarity, although this is starting to change. At the forefront of the blue-water offshore movement are events like the Transat AG2R, in which top French stars race doublehanded across the Atlantic in 31-foot Beneteau Figaros. On a larger scale, there's Chay Blyth's immensely successful BT Challenge plus its imitators on the pay-as-you-go ocean racing scene. And commencing sometime next year, there's almost certain to be long-distance pro racing utilizing Pierre Fehlmann's soon-to-be-completed fleet of eight or nine 80-foot Gran Minstral one-designs.

With opportunities in ocean racing expanding steadily, it's instructive to examine the backgrounds of today's top offshore sailors with an eye to identifying the personal traits and outside influences that have brought them to the peak of the sport. Increasingly, it makes sense to think of this progression in terms of a "career path," because for a growing number of the most successful sailors racing has become as much a job as an avocation.

It has become a truism that the best big-boat sailors lay the groundwork for their expertise through intensive dinghy racing that often begins at a young age. For example, New Zealander Chris Dicksona two-time America's Cup helmsman and a dominant presence in the last Whitbreadcame into prominence as a three-time World Youth Champion and an Olympic 470 skipper. Cam Lewis, arguably America's most accomplished pro sailor of the past decade, was a champ in Lasers and Olympic Finns. But as with most broad generalizations, there are some striking exceptions. All else being equal, it's obvious that an outstanding career in racing dinghies probably does lay the groundwork for superior blue-water performances. But some small boat champions have no inclination to head offshore, and, of those who do, some will not succeed in mastering the additional skills required. Lastly, personal charisma and salesmanship often make a real difference when it comes to landing the best rides, and it isn't always the best sailors who end up aboard the best boats. On the whole, however, there's a strong correlation between small-boat expertise during the early stages of a sailing career, and big-boat success a bit later.

Boat sense All the same, the uncertainties don't end here, because there are at least two ways to interpret this correlation. The usual conclusion is that small-boat sailing is the best (maybe the only) way to cultivate the intangible "boat sense" that enables the truly outstanding sailor to consistently find a little more speed than everyone else.

On the other hand, it's also possible that, due to the limited number of crew positions aboard elite offshore boats and the even smaller number of fully sponsored racing opportunities in events like the BOC, Vendee Globe, etc., the sailors who get the best opportunities will be those who have already proven themselves. In other words, the rich will tend to get richer, perhaps not so much in the financial sense, but certainly in terms of top-level offshore racing experience.

Quite possibly the only other route to the top ranks in ocean racing is the self-financed one, and, indeed, many big-boat campaigns (Gran Prix IMS, ULDB sleds, etc.) are approached in exactly this manner. The typical pattern is to hire key sailing personnel to drive, navigate, and manage logisticsin other words to run the enterprise like a business (albeit one with a negative cash flow). Not surprisingly, the people who race this way come from the ranks of the wealthy entrepreneurs and high-powered executives.

When it comes to shorthanded or singlehanded racing, the self-financed approach becomes more problematical, because it's a very rare individual who combines the necessary sailing skills with extraordinarily deep pockets. Nevertheless, those who triumph in the business world are almost invariably intelligent, energetic, goal-oriented, highly organized and willing to accept risks. Take an already exceptional individual, throw in a healthy measure of athleticism, and you're most of the way home; the only missing ingredient being the years of more-or-less full-time racing that the itinerant pros can boast of.

American Steve Fossett is proof that this approach can work. Less than four years ago, this Chicago-based commodities trader decided to take a serious run at ocean racing. Immediately after purchasing Florence Auhaud's 60-foot open class trimaran Pierre 1er, which he renamed Lakota, he won the doublehanded Round Britain/Ireland Race with experienced multihull racer David Scully aboard as crew. When sailing singlehanded, he placed fifth against the top pros in the 3,600-mile Route du Rhum, and since then has concentrated on setting offshore passage records.

Most recently he's concentrated on Pacific records, including the fastest-ever times from Los Angles to Hawaii and from San Francisco to Yokohama. In most of these undertakings, Fossett has been accompanied aboard Lakota by highly experienced offshore sailors such as Scully, California multihull designer Pete Melvin, Ben Wright, and Brian Thompson.Adventure sports are a passion with the 51-year-old Fossett, and ocean sailing comes on the heels of mountain climbing, dog-sled racing, transocean ballooning, marathon bicycling, and a variety of motor sports. Maintaining a high level of physical fitness into middle age has obviously been a key to his achievements, together with his intelligence, determination, and business/management skills. Recently, Fossett was selected as one of six finalists for the 1996 Male Sailor of the Year, awarded annually by the ISAF (International Sailing Federationthe new name for the IYRU).

A shake-up in SavannahThe man who ultimately won Male Sailor of the Year came from the opposite end of the racing spectruma one-design specialist who has built a career around Olympic class sailing. Germany's Jochen Schuemann was trained in the awesome East German "athletics machine" of the 1970s, winning gold medals in the Finn class in 1976 and the Soling class in 1988. A stint as technical manager of the big-budget AeroHyro program, aimed at making Germany number one in offshore racing, came to and end last year when Mercedes Benz withdrew its sponsorship. But in Savannah, at age 42, he was back in peak form as he convincingly won the Soling Goldone of the few repeat winners in an Olympics which saw the established order turned topsy-turvy.

Prior to 1996, Olympic regattas have been dominated by the "sailing superpowers": the major European sailing countries, the U.S., and New Zealand. A few countries did spectacularly well in the 1992 games, with Spain winning five golds, the U.S. medaling in eight out of 10 classes, and New Zealand doing the same in four.

Not so in 1996. This time around, 30 sailing medals were divided among 22 nations, and only Brazil (two gold, one silver) captured more than a couple. Despite the home-court advantage, team USA fell far short of expectations, emerging with just a couple of bronzes. The top finishers were distributed fairly uniformly from nations all around the world, with no continent or geographic area showing clear-cut dominance. Also worth noting is the fact that sailing has become the third-largest Olympic sport (after swimming and athletics), both in terms of participating countries and number of athletes. Medals were won, not only by extremely costly, high-powered programs (Spain and Brazil) but by remarkably modest ones (Poland and Ukraine).

All in all, it looks as though the efforts to "democratize" sailing have finally begun to bear fruit, and this sport can no longer be regarded as the exclusive province of the wealthy western countries. It's a shift that's rippling upward through the sailing world, and now that it has reached the Olympic level, it will almost certainly have an impact on blue-water racing. Key factors contributing to the newly leveled playing field are an unprecedented free flow of coaching and crewing expertise around the world, and an international movement toward training children to race sailboats at young ages.Certainly, if the aim is world-class performance in small-boat one-designs, there's mounting evidence that an early start will improve the chances of success. More than half the Olympic medalists in Savannah launched their racing careers in Optimist dinghies, many while only seven or eight years old. Optimist racing is currently growing at an explosive rate worldwide, with about 80 nations now sending their top young sailors to a highly competitive world championship. Therefore, it stands to reason that Opti grads will be even more prominent in future Olympics and other major one-design regattas.

More broad-based youth programs reflect an overall democratization of sailing as the organizers strive to bury the sport's elitist "yachting" image. But as in the case of skiing, basketball, etc., a naturally gifted athlete who gets professional coaching early in life gains a significant advantage over others who don't discover the game until their teenage or young adult years.

Istivan Balyi, an international authority on athletic development who has worked extensively with the Australian Sailing Team, describes sailing as a "late involvement sport." This is in contrast with "early involvement sports," such as swimming and gymnastics, that must be tackled seriously by ages six to eight if there's to be any real hope of ultimate success at the international level. According to Balyi, "11 to 13 is the optimal age for motor learning and fitness development in both boys and girls. Missing the most appropriate training age [means a sport] can be trained, but it will never be optimized."

Of course, when it comes to preparing for shorthanded ocean racing, the picture is less clear due to the many factors other than pure sailing prowess that have an impact on success. All the same, early exposure to sailing is far more likely to help than hurtas the worldwide pool of brilliant youth sailors continues to grow, the "late bloomer" will be fighting ever tougher odds.

The French formula Of all the major sailing nations, France is the only one that has consistently supported a viable blue-water racing "industry" that's in any way analogous to the major North American professional sports such as basketball, hockey, and so forth. Salaries are by no means in the ballplayer leagueperhaps $70,000 a year plus moderate performance bonuses for the starsbut it's still a good living for a keen racer who deeply loves the sport. French ocean racing has become a magnet for talented young sailors from around the world, but almost without exception the skippers who land the major sponsorship deals are French nationals.

And France is very good at cultivating home-grown talent. Nationwide junior programs ensure that most children have an opportunity to learn some sailing, and those who show real promise are actively encouraged to progress further.

What makes the French system unique are the opportunities to progress from one-designs into blue-water racers via a series of logical stages. One major stepping stone is the Mini-Transat, a two-stage transatlantic singlehanded race for 6.5-meter (21-foot) keelboats. Originally conceived in Great Britain and first run in 1977, the race was won in 1979 by Californian Norton Smith in the Tom Wyle-designed American Express, but has since become an overwhelmingly French event. Last time around (autumn 1995), the winner was Yvan Bourgnon, the younger brother of multihull ace Laurent Bourgnon of Primagaz fame. The fleet of about 60 boats included at least a dozen super-competitive entries whose skippers will probably become national sailing heroes in years to come. The winning margin after more than 4,000 ocean miles was just an hour. Mini-Transat boats have evolved to be even more radical than BOC open 60s. The Mini-Transat boats have very low freeboard (a risky trend that has recently been curtailed), enormous fractional rigs, deep bulb keels, and lateral water ballast or swing keels. They exceed six knots in any but the lightest breezes and sometimes double that speed.

The 1987 Mini-Transat was the launching pad for 39-year-old superstar Isabelle Autissier, who placed third in her first major singlehanded race. Coming from a cruising rather than racing background, she's proof that there are still other routes to the top besides a youth spent in dinghies. Recipient of the 1995 World Female Sailor of the Year for her record-setting New York to San Francisco run followed by a spectacular first-leg win in the last BOC, Autissier is sailing a new 60-footer in the Vendee Globe. Another stepping stone to glory and major sponsorships in France are the offshore one-design events such as the AG2R mentioned earlier. The established stars also use events like these to stay in peak form, and the 1996 race included names like the Poupon brothers, Florence Arthaud, Jean Le Cam, and Alain Gautier, winner of the last Vendee Globe. Gautier (with Jimmy Pahun) won, with Arthaud/Le Cam in second. Some unsponsored entries did well with finishes as high as fifth, so there is ample opportunity here for skilled but yet-unheralded sailors to gain exposure. Victory margins in the three AG2R races held so far have been incredibly small: three hours in 1992, one minute in 1994, and six minutes in 1996 (after an 80-minute time penalty to the winners). The water-ballasted 31-foot Beneteau one-designs used in the AG2R were first wheeled out in 1990 to replace the antiquated (and very costly) IOR half-tonners sailed in a famous singlehanded contest called the Figaro Solo. This is a three-week, four-leg marathon that takes the fleet from France to Spain, then to Ireland, and back to France. While racing against the established stars, newcomers also battle for the Skipper Elf trophy, which comes with a special prize valued at about $150,000the use of a Figaro Beneteau One Design plus full racing expenses for the following season.

Finally, the same fleet campaigns in the Tour de France, an extended series (26 races in 1996) that approximates the classic cycling contest. Unlike the other events on the "Figaro circuit," this is a fully crewed series, with famous match racing helmsmen such as Russell Coutts and Chris Dickson often making guest appearances. Last year Vincent Fertin's winning entry was helmed for a week by match-racing ace Paul Cayard from San Franciscofurther evidence that the dividing line between inshore and offshore sailing stars gets fuzzier all the time. Developing talent in the U.S.

Until quite recently, youth programs on this continent have not kept pace with the rest of the sailing world. Training has traditionally been handled by individual yacht clubs that rely on volunteer coaches or young part-time instructors rather than on career coaching specialists. The collegiate circuit does a fine job of honing the skills of many young adults, but preteenage training has been hit and miss at best.

Recognizing the problem, U.S. Sailing has been working toward a multifaceted solution. Their so-called "Olympic Path" program has three main components: first, a talent initiative to coordinate grass-roots programs for ages eight to 18; second, an infrastructure initiative to develop coaching expertise, coordinate clinics, etc.; and third, a support initiative aimed at bringing the financing for U.S. racing programs up to world standards.

It's an ambitious program, but already there are positive results at the ground level. At the 1996 Optimist Worlds in South Africa, Team USA placed two out of five sailors in the top 10by far the best result in decades.

In recent years, the U.S. has produced many superb offshore sailors, including a few who have reached the upper ranks in the singlehanded game. Dawn Riley, for example, certainly qualifies as one of the world's premier all-around sailors. She is the first woman to race in two America's Cups and two Whitbreads. With a lifetime of every sort of racing as well as some extended cruising under her belt, this 31-year-old midwesterner has the talent and experience to remain prominent in high-profile racing for years to come. Likewise, Steve Pettengill, second-place finisher in the last BOC, has proven his ability to compete at the highest levels, given a bit of help in the sponsorship department.

Unfortunately, because sailboat racing gets little media attention in North America, raising funds for ambitious programs has always been an uphill struggle. Hopefully, this is will gradually change as sailing and communications evolve hand-in-hand to deliver more exciting TV coverage. Thanks to satellite links and the Internet, armchair aficionados can now follow racers around the world, and in some cases enjoy real-time video coverage direct from the southern ocean.


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