They Work Hard for the Money

Illbruck Challenge

Fifteen years ago there were two professional sailing circuits--remember ProSail and the Ultimate Yacht Race? A future of cash-prize major-league sailing seemed to beckon, but then fizzled when funding dried up. Sponsors and audiences didn’t buy into the concept--as a rule they still don’t in North America--and pro sailing around the buoys hasn’t developed, except for sailors in some classes who earn per diems to race. Instead, big-league racing today falls into long-distance and match-racing categories, and neither is what I’d call glamorous for the majority of participants.

Comparing racing in a 40-foot ProSail catamaran to racing a Volvo 60 around the world is like equating a daily run to a succession of triathlons. This month’s cover story by Terry Hutchinson, Richard Clarke, and Keith Kilpatrick details how extreme this race is. Frequently changing sails and shifting tons of gear from rail to rail, the crews race each six-hour period between position reports as a sprint. They’re wet, exhausted, often dehydrated, and nearly starved; it’s no picnic, and injuries are common. Better to be an armchair skipper, regularly pulling up to see who’s gained or lost, look at onboard pictures, and read the crews’ e-mails, or simply waiting to tune into the ESPN program for each leg.

Life is less painful on the match-racing track, but at best it requires constant overseas travel; at worst, sailors risk getting bored to death. Most pro match racers can either be found competing internationally or training for the America’s Cup, although a good deal of the participation in the former is driven by teams preparing for the latter. They send their specialists to hone their skills in several of the eight regattas on the Swedish Match Grand Prix Sailing Tour, the marquee match-race series. There’s $600,000 in prize money up for grabs, and most of the events are overseas--though a recent schedule change upped the number of North American events from one to three. That means that unless you’re an expert already and have a Cup team backing you, the time and money you’d have to commit to live and race in Europe and elsewhere would far outweigh the financial rewards. Hopefully that’s beginning to change but time will tell.

In fact, most America’s Cup sailors never actually go on the international tour and instead live by a tough, unexciting regimen of six or more days a week of physical training, boat work, and two-boat testing. It’s a steady paycheck, but it’s hard to keep your enthusiasm high for work that’s often tedious and detail-oriented, keeps you far from home, and involves little actual competition.

Although it’s possible I’d come up short in the skills department, I could imagine racing Hobie 21s, Ultimate 30s, or ProSail 40s for a living. Of course, I wouldn’t mind steering a Volvo 60 down a succession of giant waves in 35 knots of breeze in the Southern Ocean--but only for an hour or so. Today’s pro sailing’s too hard. I think I’ll leave it to someone else and follow it on the Internet and occasional cable shows. By the way, if your cable company doesn’t carry the Outdoor Life Network, start lobbying now before their coverage of the Louis Vuitton Cup begins in October. Meantime, when you’re not planning your own modest, presumably amateur, campaign for next season, look for entertainment on the Volvo website, where you can track who’s winning and losing and who’s joining the growing ranks on the disabled list.