The Next Generation

These guys have a foot in the door to the big league, hoping to wedge it open for young American sailors to follow.

next generation
These high-performance sailors of Next Generation USA intend to put American sailing talent front and center at the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in June.Next Generation USA

● In my teens, some 30 years ago, my sailing life was far simpler than it is for youth sailors today. As we raced to the top of our regional regattas, we aspired to reach a major junior championship, and beyond that, high school nationals, and then on to college sailing. Those who wanted to dream big had the Olympics. Professional sailing was hardly a consideration; the America’s Cup and Whitbread Race were for old guys, and beyond that, there really was nothing else. For young sailors of my generation, the path forward was straight and narrow.

That’s not so today, right? The sport’s evolution from simple dinghies and big keelboats to smaller athletic sportboats and foilers has created more opportunities for younger sailors to get in on the grand-prix action sooner. Most owners of high-performance raceboats, whether one hull or more, simply can’t handle their craft without crews that either know what they’re doing or are physically capable of sailing them to their full potential. Consequently, more young sailors now expect to get paid or even sponsored to race. It’s good money, if and when they can get it. There are also other avenues to pro sailing that never existed when I was young: Take the Extreme Sailing Series in foiling GC32s and the World Match Race Tour in tamer, but equally athletic, M32 catamarans.

Man, to be a young sailor today.

What got me thinking about this recently was a conversation I had with 23-year-old ­Carson Crain, an Olympic windsurfing aspirant from Houston, Texas, who called to talk about this summer’s Red Bull Youth America’s Cup. Crain and five of his buddies had just found out they’d been selected to compete. As Next Generation USA, they have one of 12 slots for the regatta, which is essentially a side-stage performance during the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda, much like it was in San Francisco in 2013.

For Crain and his fellow 20-somethings, ­however, acceptance into the Red Bull spectacle is not a simple matter of showing up to race a foiling AC45. No, there’s a lot more to it, and it will cost an arm and a leg. Crain, who is majoring in sports management at Rice University and has campaigned an RS:X for the past few years, is versed in the challenges of fundraising. Coming up with the funds to participate in the Red Bull regatta, however, is far beyond anything he’s ever encountered.

But it’s not holding him back one bit.

The Next Generation USA mission was hatched when Crain watched highlights of the San Francisco edition. Back then, organizers handed over the keys to the AC45s and let a bunch of cowboys go at it, most of them with little experience in the boats. The New Zealanders, led by current Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling, whipped the fleet, and nobody got hurt. One could argue the regatta was actually more compelling to watch than the Cup itself, until Oracle staged its miraculous comeback.

“I thought that it was so cool,” says Crain, who was 20 at the time. “I wish I could have been part of one of those teams, but I was too young.” When his older brother was hired to the design team at Artemis Racing in 2015, his resolve to get in the Cup game was solidified. He wanted in to the Red Bull, he says, and would stop at nothing to get there.

His first call was to longtime sailing friend Reed Baldridge, and together they assembled the team and started making calls.

“The one thing I’ve learned through this is you have to be ruthless with getting to the right people,” he says.

Initially, that meant hounding an elusive Roman Hagara, the man essentially in charge. During the America’s Cup World Series in New York in May 2016, Crain flew in for 24 hours to sit down in a cafe with Hagara and Justin Abrams, Red Bull’s athlete marketing manager, and peppered them with questions for two straight hours. The biggest surprise from the meeting was the requirement to charter a GC32 for qualification trials in Europe, the first of many hurdles. There are only a few of these expensive and high-tech foilers available, all of them in Europe, and no one was interested in making one available to them. Every time he thought he had one lined up, it fell through.

As persistence and luck would have it, in October 2016, Crain finally connected with 49er gold medalist Iker Martinez, of Spain, who agreed to charter his boat to the Americans. The cost for seven days would be roughly $30,000, including travel, insurance and other expenses. They footed the bill themselves, with support from a few of Crain’s Olympic donors. “I threw in every cent I personally had to cover the damage deposit,” he says. “I bet big on our team, that it would work out.” This past November, the six current sailors of Next Generation USA — Crain, Baldridge, Matthew Whitehead, Markus Edegran, Scott Ewing, Preston Farrow — traveled to Spain to prove their collective talents on the GC32 in front of the Red Bull selection team.

“We first went out in 8 knots, Iker hands me the tiller extension and says, ‘Go for it,’” says Crain, vividly recalling the moment. “We two-sail foiled straight away, which isn’t easy on the GC32. Everything was going faster than I anticipated, and at first I was driving like a madman. I had some ugly moments, for sure.”

They went out again the next day in 13 knots, and by the conclusion of the qualification session, they felt as though they’d made their point, and even impressed a few observers. Still, they returned home unsure if they’d done enough to earn the Cup’s only American slot, and it wasn’t until mid-December when Crain received an email confirming their entry. “I remember reading through the thing and was incredibly happy, but then I starting thinking about everything we have to do, and that’s when it hit me.”

And so the countdown was set in motion. With the racing set to begin the first week of June, Next Generation’s “pathway into professional sailing” (as the RBYAC describes itself) is steep. Its preferred budget (“to be seriously competitive,” says Crain) lies somewhere around a half-million dollars; other teams are said to have budgets upwards of $1 million. The task of raising such an amount over two months is monumental, Crain admits. Especially because they have to finalize sponsors by late March in order to have logos placed on the sail. There’s damage deposits, charter fees, entry fees, travel, training, coaches, and costs right on down to the toilet paper in their team housing. It’s all on them. Oh, and there’s the training too. More time in the GC32 and only seven days in May in the AC45F.

“It is a big and daunting challenge,” Crain admits, “but the numbers don’t bother me. Sure, it’s a staggering amount of money, but what’s more staggering is that we have to do it in such a short amount of time. If we’d known a year ago, it would’ve been easier.”

So how do a bunch of unknown 23-year-olds (except for Ewing, who is 20 at this writing) go about knocking down boardroom doors asking someone to underwrite their sailing with no past results, media impressions, or activation plans to deliver? They’ll have to figure that out posthaste, but in the meantime, they’re making a plea to anyone who believes their underlying goal: to inspire and provide opportunities for today’s American high-performance youth brigade — the new skiff sailors, foilers and catamaran racers — to stake a claim in the future of professional sailing. “We’re not the big names of an older generation, but we are a new opportunity,” says Crain. “As a country that has always been highly regarded in sailing, we should embrace the next generation and the opportunities our efforts can provide future youth sailors.”