By Airwaves writer Joe Cooper
The rapid commercialization of the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race has introduced to the rest of the sailing world in a dramatic fashion the idea of “professional sailor”. But just exactly IS a Professional Sailor?
At the top of this pyramid are the “Top Guns”. This is the miniscule pool of sailors at the ultra-elite level–the likes of Ben Ainslie, Russell Coutts, Paul Cayard, Jimmy Spithill and their compatriots around the world. Commonly these elite sailors will fly into the regatta, do their magic thing and fly off to the next one. That is when they are not under contract to either a VOR or America’s Cup program. These two events are the largest consumers of professional sailors and supporting “technicians” who make their daily bread as “professional sailors”. And some go back and forth between events.
Outside of these two events that the non-sailing public in the US are exposed to, one needs to go to Europe, particularly France to find more pro opportunities. In Europe there exists a community of professional sailors and support teams who compete in “regular” yacht racing, in specialty classes like the TP52 and in the solo sailing scene. The solo scene is hugely popular in France in particular and the teams are today fully funded sports entities with many members and multi million Euro budgets sponsored by in some cases billion Euro publicly traded companies across a wide cross section of industry. These programs are in a very real sense Professional Teams.
To a young sailor with high-level skills and successes in high school, college, or perhaps in one-design or smaller keel boats (AND has a passion for sailing) the idea of being paid to “go sailing” or “sailing for a living” might sound pretty attractive.
But just what does this idea of professional sailor really mean? I think there are several classes of sailors that might accurately describe themselves as professional sailors. But the variations in actual sailing skill can be pretty wide though.
After the “Elite” there is another group, a much larger cohort of sailors, split into a few sub classes. There are those who get paid for their sailing skills, for instance navigating, (think VOR) or sail trim skills, or grinding, big, fit and strong AND ideally good to very good sailors. Basically the larger and more professional programs have professionals at all positions. Think the TP52 community. The open 60 and Maxi multihull teams have not only sailors, but large support teams that go along with them.
These folks are the support technicians, the guys and increasingly, girls, who prepare the boats. Many are retained for a particular trade or craft skill and are hired for this specific skill they bring to bear on the program. They may not have the elite sailing skills necessary to be hired for just sailing, but their sailing skills are perfectly fine. This group includes boat builders, riggers, sometimes sail-makers, and electrical and electronics specialist. A work perk for this cohort is often delivering the boat after a race.
Any professional program or team needs leaders, people who in this case have good sailing skills, and so an understanding of the requirements needed to get it all done. So a breadth of sailing experience and good people, planning and management skills are very desirable. Depending on the program, some, perhaps many of the support team will sail on the boat. At the highest level though, VOR and AC, the sailors sail and the techs fix stuff (at least ashore).
Top sailing skills will get you noticed, as will World or Olympic successes, but these top results are available only to a select few. The most logical pathway to a life as a Professional Sailor is not only to have top-level sailing skill and success, but technical skills to. Oakcliff Sailing on Long Island Sound is the closest thing in the US to a school for professional sailors. At Oakcliff Sailing you can “study” elite sailing AND develop mechanical skills. If you have had summer jobs on racing boats, you know or have seen what these various skills are: a bit of fiberglass work, a bit of winch maintenance, maybe some paint touch-up skills, perhaps some carpentry fitting out the container or the trailer.
If you’re inclined, you may spend some time with the sail makers, riggers, electrical guys and so on. And if you pay attention you will notice the management skills of the boat captain at play. Skills and experience in planning things like transport & logistics, managing the work-flow, getting important parts in or out of different countries with a variety customs both legal and social, dealing with vendors and boat yards and the universe of interpersonal activities humans need to develop.
During the 2011/12 Volvo I did a review of the crews sorting by country. Something like 45% of the sailing teams were New Zealanders. Why? Apart from the fact they sail year round, all the time, almost regardless of the weather, and they live in a country renowned for hard weather. The second component to the success of the Kiwi’s in offshore sailing has to do with the educational system in NZL. The idea of a trade skill is at least on a par with the idea of a university degree in NZL. In the US, well not so much. The meme in the US is that “vocational” school is for the “not so bright kids” is both wrong and changing.
New Zealand and many other countries have very well-developed apprenticeship programs intended for high school graduates. These apprenticeships teach young men and women a craft and/or a specific skill. Reading through the skill sets of the Kiwi’s aboard the VOR boats reveals a universe of boat builders, engineers, electricians, hydraulic specialists, sailmakers, riggers and guys with deep computer and electronics skills. Having mechanical skills AND top end sailing skill is a very high value combination. Especially now in the VOR where the crew limits demand each person crew in the crew be not only a good sailor but who can contribute a skill to support the boat when the shore team is not around.
This technical or mechanical expertise is of value to a team, any team, but at the end of the day personality is a large component, a key essential required of the individuals of any team effort: Personality, effort, fitting in, being prompt for work, if being not early. I have seen, twice, a mediocre sailor get selected for America’s Cup programs by dint of the above. He demonstrated all of these characteristics and was always the first to the boat and the last to leave.
And do not under any circumstances underestimate physical fitness. Being in top physical condition, including cardio vascular performance, strength, fast recovery time after effort and flexibility will all demonstrate to the boat’s management that you are a serious professional, or at least intending to become one.
Finally there is that great residual image everyone has of sailors: having a few beers. I have some mates in the UK who are keen on solo and double handed sailing although as amateurs. One season they pooled their funds and hired one of the top French solo guys to come over for the weekend and do a series of coaching sessions. On the Saturday afternoon after sailing and formal debriefing, the owners all went to the pub to have a beer and talk about the day. The coach went to the gym for his work out and when they later met for dinner he drank only water.
Years ago the guys who worked on race boats enjoyed it, had fun, drank beer, traveled the world and in general got up to all sorts of mischief. We certainly made a living. Today it is possible for good sailors with some technical skills to make a life of it.
By Airwaves writer Joe Cooper