the afterglow of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Regatta in Rio, 49er skipper Thomas Barrows admits he and his teammate, Joe Morris, are still on a steep upward trajectory. The talent at the top of this high-performance skiff fleet is arguably greater than that of any other Olympic sailing discipline. It takes at least a decade of training and international campaigning to be seriously considered medal-worthy, and he and Morris are only just getting started, relatively speaking.
“It’s pretty amazing to look back on the last three years and think about all the help and support people have given us in various ways,” says Barrows, the lean 6-foot-1-inch skipper. “It would be a big win for U.S. sailing and junior programs if we can get to the podium.”
His and Morris’ commitment to the campaign has been an all-consuming uphill battle since they first hooked into the trap wires shoulder to shoulder. They were new to the 49er and had spent most of their formative years racing in college sailing regattas, where the courses are short and there’s little boat tuning required.
They both excelled in the small-course, high-intensity stage of college sailing. In 2009, I was filming a television show from the college nationals in San Francisco, and that’s where I first observed Barrows, who was dominating the A division as a Yale Bulldog standout. In the strong winds that whistled through the Golden Gate, Barrows regularly sailed away from the 17 boats in his division, winning the regatta with a 3.8-point average. The second-place boat was a distant 34 points back at the conclusion.
Barrows’ confidence in strong breeze comes from growing up sailing in the warm winter trade winds of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but he also spent his summers in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which is known for light winds. His experiences in both conditions make him the well-rounded sailor he is today.
While Barrows, 28, is a four-time All-American and 2010 College Sailor of the Year, Morris, 26, is a fellow Bulldog alum and three-time All-American skipper — outstanding credentials combined. “At the most basic level, the repetition of doing hundreds of starts each week builds a foundation that never leaves you,” says Morris. “Having gone to college together, we developed a really close relationship.”
Barrows studied sociology with a concentration in Chinese studies, and Morris was a history major. After graduation, they worked in the marine industry for a brief time. Barrows coached at Yale and taught windsurfing lessons at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas. Morris worked on sailing television productions and spent six months at a technology company in Switzerland. Real-world jobs would be put on hold for a while, however, as both Barrows and Morris had been inspired at a young age to become Olympians. For Barrows, it was his local hero Peter Holmberg, who had won a silver medal in the Finn class in 1988. “That seemed like a good goal for me,” he says in reference to Holmberg. For Morris, it was a speaker at his yacht club who captured his imagination with stories of the America’s Cup, racing around the world, and the Olympics. “Something clicked,” he says. With great college careers behind them, they believed the Olympics were the next logical step.
Shifting gears from college sailing into a far more technical and international realm is difficult, however, and as they started seriously campaigning in February 2013, they realized the scope of the challenge ahead. “You definitely have to seek out people who have the experience in the boat to get up to speed with tuning,” says Barrows, explaining how they made the transition. “Then you have to fine-tune the boat to your own liking. The big jumps that we made came from working with 49er-class-specific coaches (Chris Rast and the late Trevor Moore). Both are past Olympians and were the biggest help for us.”
The most challenging hurdle for aspiring American Olympians is securing adequate funding. Morris estimates they’ll spend $500,000 over four years. Almost half of their schedule is allocated to raising money and working on logistics. They sail as often as they can.
“It’s a disadvantage [that] we have to raise a lot of our own money,” says Barrows. “It’s easy to get bogged down and think about what everyone else has and what you don’t have. We have tried to compartmentalize that a little bit and accept the reality of our situation.”
In many ways, adds Barrows, it’s like running a small business: “Our profits are our good results. It’s about managing things efficiently.”
He should know. Rio will be his second Olympic appearance. At age 20, in 2008, he finished 21st in the Laser, representing the Virgin Islands. “The Olympics feel pretty different compared to other regattas, but you snap out of it quickly as long as you stay focused,” he says.
A solo campaign is far easier than the doublehanded variety, however, and Barrows and Morris couldn’t go it alone on a GoFundMe budget. For coaching, they turned to Evan Aras, another top college sailor, with whom Morris once raced. He’s been a critical factor in their improvement. “We saw that [49er Olympians] Erik Storck and Trevor Moore made a big jump after adding David Hughes as a coach,” says Morris. “When Evan became available, we thought it was a no-brainer. He has been great at the coaching. He is very smart and highly organized.”
Another transition was Morris’ shift from having the tiller in his hands to being the eyes at the front of the boat. “I did a fair bit of crewing growing up,” he says. “To me it doesn’t really matter. There is so much going on in Olympic-class racing for both jobs. I was just looking for the right person to sail with. It just so happened that Thomas had been steering a 49er for a few years. When he asked me to sail with him, I was open to the idea. I changed my body a little bit to get into much, much better shape. I was able to bring some good things to the table as a skipper that helped us on the racecourse. It also helps to ask leading questions to the helmsman, to help give your own input without trying to make the decision for him. Also, bringing tactical awareness into the quickly developing situations that one encounters during skiff sailing is key.”
Barrows adds: “With an experienced helmsman as crew, we can help each other out more with each other’s roles. Before the race, we come up with a strategy, but during the race, I spend more time looking around. At critical moments we both try to decide what will be the best strategy.”
The experience of racing a 49er runs the “full gambit of emotions,” Barrows says. At times it’s fun, and at times it can be frustrating. Sometimes he wishes it were as simple as college sailing, but when he and Morris are doing well, the rush is undeniable. “Most of the races, you get all the way to the left side of the course,” he says. “How you exit the left is the second most important part of the race after getting off the starting line.”
Morris nods in agreement. “You have to be ready to take an opportunity when you see it, which in a 49er comes up pretty fast,” he says.
That’s literally and figuratively speaking, of course.