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Interview: Zach Berkowitz, Finding What it Takes to Make it Happen

December 6, 2001
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International 14 world champ Zach Berkowitz of San Francisco is three years away from the big 4-0, but he refuses slow down on the water. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, because no I-14 sailor will ever really admit to having two dirty words in their sailing vernacular: displacement sailing. In winning–strike that–in dominating the 2001 worlds in November in Bermuda with crew Trevor Baylis, Berkowitz showed the 14 class that he and Baylis were kings, but holding onto the throne will not be easy. No I-14 world champ has ever been able to rule for more than a year because, as with any development class, you must stay ahead, or be left behind. Grand Prix Sailor spoke with the former TV meteorologist from his home in San Francisco where he’s building his latest venture–a PC arcade–and figuring out how to make his skittish skiff go even faster next time.

GPS: You won four straight races by huge margins and then sat out the fifth. That’s impressive.

ZB: It couldn’t get any better. But there was a lot of stress.

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GPS: What do you mean?

ZB: The first two races were very breezy and very long. We won each of those by more than 5 minutes, and then Hurricane Olga decided to show up and strutted her stuff for five days. It was very nerve wracking and difficult to sleep at night knowing that racing the next morning was going to be possibly abandoned, but you had to stay mentally alert to go sailing. After the first two races, we waited for five days knowing that we needed at least four races to make it a series. Olga finally started kicking through on Thursday, and Friday was the last day. We only had to sail two races, which we won.

GPS: You’ve always been at the top of the class, but have never won a world title. What’s the story?

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ZB: We were 10th at our first worlds in ’89 and since then have been very close in the last few years. We were winning in Australia against 140 boats when my crew [Karl Baldauf] pulled his back out, so we ended up third with a fill-in crew [Sam Gardner]. Then there were the worlds in San Francisco that we were very close to winning when the main halyard fell down going up the last beat. This year we decided that Karl, my longtime partner and best friend, should take a break for a year. He has all the skills, but he has a bad back. So I teamed up with Trevor. We grew up together, sailing our first world championship in Flying Juniors in 1979 (finished third). We did a bit of 18-footer sailing in the early ’80s but we haven’t really sailed together since. We had 11 months to put our program together.

GPS: Was it easy to get Trevor up to speed?

ZB: Trevor thrives with adjustments. He has a mind that lives for engineering. The 49er was like putting handcuffs on him. So we let him go and set up a program where we were going to work on twist patterns on the main and jib. He wasn’t too impressed with the gear I had at the time, so we spent the following year working with Jay Glaser and Dave Ullman to develop a jib that’s absolutely beautiful. Dave Alexander from Australia built four iterations of the main before we got one we liked.

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GPS: Reports from the event were that your boathandling was flawless.

ZB: Well, I don’t know if it was flawless, but we didn’t capsize. We were the only boat not to capsize in the series. Trevor learned an awful lot from sailing 49ers and he coached me in terms of our maneuvers. Among the fleet, there were a lot of nosedives and capsizes in jibes and douses. The leeward mark was very close to shore; so there was a lot of wave reverberations, and these boats have a tendency to go bow down. It got very dicey at the leeward mark

GPS: What were some keys to the win?

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ZB: We had great starts, so we were always top five out of the blocks and then just reacted to how our competitors were sailing. Trevor and my philosophy is simple–you start one-third of the way from either end. Trevor’s alignment on the line was perfect and we had enough speed that it didn’t matter where we started as long as we could do what we wanted to do 15 seconds after the start.

GPS: What’s the synergy between you and Trevor on the boat?

ZB: It’s very intense because he’s a perfectionist. For example, we were winning the last race and were on our last lap and I took a little bit of distance on the leeward mark while he was dousing the spinnaker. He pops his head up and says, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Don’t think I’m not getting soft on you.” One of the things that really made this regatta work for me was that I no longer had to take care of all the boat maintenance and development. I was able to pass the baton to him to the point where he would even rig the boat for me. In the past, this was all my role, and it added a lot of stress. Trevor is one of the best all around crewmembers out there. He thinks like a skipper but he’s realized the skipper’s role is too limited–all you can do is steer the boat.

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