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Kevin Burnham Won’t Burn Out or Fade Away

December 31, 2002
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Courtesy Yc Cagliari

For much of the summer of 2001, Kevin Burnham sailed big boats in Europe, reaping the rewards of two decades of hard work in the 470 class and the Olympic silver medal he won in 1992. He called tactics on the J-class sloop Shamrock during the America’s Cup Jubilee and on an 82-foot Wally during the Maxi Worlds. But it was a brief detour to watch the 470 Worlds that left the deepest impression. “I went out for a few days in the coach boat,” says Burnham, a 45-year-old yacht broker for Nautor’s Swan. “Watching got my blood curdling. I just missed it so much.” A year later Burnham and 39-year-old skipper Paul Foerster, a 470 silver medalist from Sydney, were planing downwind during the final race of the 2002 470 Worlds. Rivals during the 1999 U.S. 470 Trials, they’d sailed together for just two weeks before the Worlds, yet they’d won their qualifying group and a podium finish was within reach.

How did that final race turn out?

There were seven other boats in the thick of things, so it was really exciting. We had a nice start, were able to hold our lane on starboard, and were on a lift. But all the boats that didn’t have good starts, that tacked onto port, came back inside of us on a big righty. So we rounded the weather mark not in the best of shape, but it was OK. At the leeward mark the spinnaker sheet and the twing–this had never happened to me before in 20 years of sailing 470s–went over the boom. I couldn’t get the chute in the bag. By the time we figured out we needed to hoist the kite again to get them off the boom we were in dead last. We sailed the rest of that race in last place and ended up sixth. We could’ve done better.

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How did you go from watching the 2001 470 Worlds to nearly winning the 2002 Worlds?

Last fall, I thought I’d give Paul a call and see if he was interested. I figured if he wasn’t, I would call it a day.

Were you worried your free-spirited style might clash with Paul’s intense, methodical approach to campaigning?

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I had my doubts. I was pleasantly surprised that he’s so focused and laid back at the same time. His boat preparation is second to none and he’s very relaxed in the boat. His approach is totally different than what I was used to.

In what ways?

I’ve sailed with maybe 10 different helmsman in the 470, and I’ve never seen anyone drive or set up the boat like Paul. I feel like it’s all new stuff for me, so I’m enthusiastic about it. He doesn’t make huge adjustments in the rig from heavy air to light air. There aren’t so many variables.

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Do you worry that you’re too old for the 470?

There are a lot of faces I don’t know. My first worlds was in 1977 and a lot of these kids weren’t even born yet. I love the boat, and as long as I can be competitive in it, I want to keep sailing it.

Have the newer trapezoid coursesaffected your tactical approach?

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No doubt about it, my tactics have changed. I learned a lot from Paul at the Worlds about the second weather legs. If we’re in the back of the pack, we’ve got to pick a side and go to the layline–the middle just doesn’t work. I found that out the hard way. He was patient enough to let me do that. I thought maybe we could pick off boats on either side by going up the middle. It just crushed us.

What’s toughest about sailing this boat at your age?

I’ve weighed the same since high school, and I’m as flexible as I’ve ever been. I’m not finding anything difficult. I’m just happy to be sailing the boat again.

Is there anything you’ve learned from raising your five-year-old daughter that applies to sailing the 470?

Patience. A lot of it. I’m a lot calmer now, though Paul may disagree.

You were known for your downwind prowess, but at the recent Worlds you felt your offwind speed was a problem?

We were definitely off the pace at the Worlds. And I always felt that I could pass boats if we were close to the pack. It’s frustrating not having that offwind speed, but it’s just a matter of technique between Paul and I. Hopefully.

Are you still sailing barefoot?

I’ve always sailed barefoot, even on big boats. In the 470 I have a better feel for the boat with no shoes on. If I was wearing shoes I’d be a little more clumsy.

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