by Steve Hunt
Sail1Design encourages YOUR feedback. Please share your story or thoughts at the bottom of this article!!
How cool would it be to get paid to race sailboats? It’s VERY cool! Fortunately I can say that, because I’m one of the lucky ones who gets paid to sail. I am very passionate about sailing and feel extremely lucky to call it my profession.
For those of you who enjoy racing sailboats as much as I do, you may be wondering what it takes to do the same, and how someone actually becomes a pro sailor. Hopefully my story can shed some light on pro sailing and help you decide if it’s a possibility for you.
First of all from what I have observed there seems to be a few different types of pro sailors. There are those who are really good at working on boats, preparing winches, splicing running rigging, polishing, and doing all of the things it takes to prepare a fast boat. There are also those who have excelled at dinghy racing and have won a lot of regattas in their life, and are extremely good at getting a boat around the race course. Some sailors have the total package but most fall somewhere in between the two types. Winning teams need a mix of both.
An underlying theme that all pros posses is a love for boats, racing, learning and hard work. Becoming great at any sport requires dedication and passion. You have to care deeply about winning sailboat races if you want to become a pro. You have to enjoy practicing and spending the time it takes to approach mastery. And it takes a lot of time! Skill alone can get you far in Junior sailing but at some point “level-of-effort” separates the good from the great.
With that said, lets look at how it happened for me. I did pretty well in Junior sailing but was nothing special, and my high school did not have a sailing team, so I mainly sailed in the summers and raced J/24s growing up. My dream in high school was to sail in college, become a two time all american and win college nationals. I figured if that all came true maybe I would go on and try to win a gold medal. I thought a lot about becoming an amazing sailor and looking back at my successes I can confidently say it is important to dream big. If you are going to think about anything, you might as well see yourself succeeding and winning. If you fall short, you will still be better off then if you had visualized something less then the best. Dream big!
College sailing started off rough. My first week I was ranked 15th on the team at the College of Charleston. When I realized there were only 14 boats I was super bummed thinking I did not make the team. The coach told me to hang in there and work hard and it would all work out. I did just that. I made my mission to become great at college sailing and I never missed a practice in five years. Literally I did not miss one practice. I red shirted my Sophomore and Junior year, first semester, which allowed me to sail my entire 5th year. I was playing catch up on those who had done more dinghy sailing and I was on a mission to beat them. I remember times practicing at Charleston when practice was canceled due to light air. I would grab a crew and sail right beside the dock against the current, staying in one place over the bottom. If we had nice wing and wing jibes we would hold even on the dock, and if we messed up we would move backwards. Nothing could stop me from practicing. In addition, on some of the optional practice days no one showed up except for my crew and I so we would go out and sail rudderless by ourselves. We spent many hours sailing rudderless and I know that helped our boatspeed tremendously. Learn how to sail a boat without a rudder, making it look like you have one, and I can guarantee you will be tough to beat.
All of the hard work paid off. I ended my college career a two time All American and was happy to have a successful 5th year, placing third in sloops, second in team racing and winning A division at dinghy nationals. Our team won the Fowle Trophy that year. At that time I felt like I had conquered the sailing world! Little did I know I had not. haha After college it was either become an accountant or start sailing 470s. After some encouragement from the Olympic Committee and supporters from my home town yacht club, Hampton Yacht Club in VA, I decided to go for it and try to sail in the Olympics.
The Olympic Campaign was a lot of work, very difficult and we had some decent success. I don’t regret it at all but it was tough! With two crews over the 7 years we placed 3rd in the 2000 trials, and fourth in the 2004 trials. Over those seven years I become much better at sailing and got to travel the world sailing against the best. The Olympic level is as high as you can get and it is EXTREMELY difficult to do well. It is also hard raising the money necessary to support a sailing campaign. After Seven years and a ton of Olympic Sailing/Fund Raising I decided to take a break from sailing and work full time. (I had worked in between sailing events over those 7 years)
Now to the pro sailing. After all of my sailing experiences and years of dedication to the sport I think I was pretty good at getting around the course. My “real” job was okay but I did not love it. My break came when my friend Bill Hardesty, (who I became friends with through college sailing, and the Olympic campaign), asked me to come trim main on a Farr 40. He said there was a pro spot available (Farr 40s allow four pros on the team) and asked me if I wanted to get paid for sailing. I asked him what the down sides were to becoming a pro and he said there were a few but not many. If you become a pro you usually get asked to sail less, because many classes have pro restrictions. You also cannot sail J-105s, because they do not allow pros. And if you decide to stop pro sailing, you have to wait two years before being considered an amateur again. Another consideration is that you have to travel a lot which can put a strain on relationships. The upsides are you usually get asked to do an important position on the boat such as trimming or tactics, all expenses are covered and you get paid to race sailboats. I thought it sounded great because I love racing sailboats! It also sounded neat to get paid to sail, rather than paying to sail, which I had done my whole life.
I went for it and started doing more and more sailing over the next few years, then eventually left my “real” job (project manager for a defense contractor) to sail full time. I also starting coaching Point Loma High School during those years which helped with the income and kept me home more than if I just did pro sailing. You find many pro sailors have a few sources of income to help diversify their income and create some level of security. In addition to sailing for various clients they may take care of boats, do some coaching on the side, or work at a sail loft.
Getting paid to do what you love is the best thing in the world. My life is basically sailing, coaching kids how to sail, playing sailx online (career development :), surfing (exercise), writing and spending time with my family. I love it all and feel very ble
ssed. I got a break because I knew a pro sailor and he respected my abilities.
Before closing I should mention that in addition to being very good at sailing you need to be able to function within a team. You see some pros out there who are less than desirable to sail with. They have some level of success because of their talent but they end up losing jobs because people do not have fun sailing with them. I think it is important to work on your people skills just as much as your sailing skills. At the end of the day people want to have fun and do well. If you can help create a fun vibe on the boat, teach the less experienced sailors with respect, and help the boat win, you can make it as a professional sailor. You may not get rich, but you can live comfortably getting paid to do what you love, which many people would say is being rich in itself. Good luck with whatever you do in life and sail fast!
Sail1Design welcomes your comments…. scroll down and chime in!