The “Members Only” syndicate, formed by Jay Cross, Hannah Swett and Brian Kinney, won the first major regatta for the new one-design IC37 keelboat class. While they began the season as the team to beat, poor results in subsequent events bumped them to dark-horse status going into the National Championship in late September. After three days and eight close races, however, the syndicate and their teammates put themselves back atop the class, winning the championship in the final race of the regatta.
“At the beginning of the season, none of the teams had sailed the boats before,” Kinney says. “We were fortunate that we won the first event, but had some missteps; so it was a bit of a redemption to come back and win the big event. It was one of those regattas where we didn’t make it easy on ourselves.”
You won the first race, then followed up with two seconds. That’s a solid start.
Yes, but then we threw up a 13th on the second day. We were winning the regatta comfortably on the last day, and we were punched in the first race of the day—but had a boathandling error that was entirely my fault at the first leeward mark, and that race ended up being a fifth. The next race, we sailed the best beat of our entire regatta to get from midpack to fifth as we rounded the last weather mark, but we missed a course change for the downwind leg and dropped back to 11th. Scratching our heads at our unforced errors, we knew going into the last race that we were down by 1 point. We had to either win the last race to win the tiebreaker or get a boat behind us and the second-place boat. We had a great start, and they were on our hip all the way out to the left side of the course. When we finally tacked, we just crossed, rounded the mark first and just kind of sailed away to win that one. It was the most satisfying regatta win I’ve ever had because of the way we did it as a team.
What made this new team so good?
The three of us that started the team come from small-boat sailing. Jay was an Olympian in the International 470 class for Canada and is a top Etchells sailor today. Hannah did an Olympic [women’s match-racing] campaign, and I’ve sailed small keelboats for a long time. We all brought people from our past sailing experiences to the team. Each of us brought our own core bodies to the team, and everyone meshed well together. Our team’s chemistry was spectacular over the course of the year.
Were you or others on the team involved with the early development of the boat; particularly the tuning and boathandling guides?
No. The tuning guide and how to sail the boat was done by Melges and North and that’s one of the nice things about the class. There was a ton of support from North [official sail provider] with regatta coaching. The class is especially restrictive with on-the-water coaching during events, but has instituted things to get everyone up to speed.
How’d you manage to lock in Steve Benjamin as your tactician?
We’ve all known him for a long time through the Etchells, and Jay reached out to him and invited him two months before Nationals. Believe it or not, he wasn’t committed, and said he’d love to. One of the nice things about our program is that we’re all people with day jobs: our bowman Brian Fox is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company; Jay is the president of Hudson Yards, the largest commercial real estate development in the world; and I run a large trading operation, so we’re all people that charge hard during the day—but we also take our sailing seriously. I think that was attractive to Steve in that he was jumping into a program where we at least had a clue on how to get the boat up to speed and around the course.
What did Benjamin bring to the program that was perhaps missing during the midseason slump?
He looks at the racecourse differently than most people do. He does tactics in an incredibly thoughtful way. We all know of rock-star sailors that think three or four steps ahead, but he’s another level higher. For example, there was an instance in one race where we were in third most of the way around the racecourse, and we were coming up the second beat in a crummy lane. We sailed in this lane about a minute longer than I would have. If I were calling the shots, I would have bailed much earlier. The first-place boat was on top of us and the second-place boat was squeezing us from below. The lane collapsed, and we kept sailing in it. We were pretty far toward the starboard-tack layline before he finally bailed out. We tacked up to the last bit of left at the top of the beat and rounded in second by two lengths. In doing so, we jumped the guy in second.
When we were sailing in, I asked him if it was a high-confidence move, and whether he felt strongly that the upper left was going to pay. He said, “Yeah, 100 percent.” So I asked him why we hung in that lane for as long as we did. He explained that, if we had tacked the moment the lane shut down, the second-place boat would have come back with us, preventing us from getting the leverage we needed. Because we tacked when we did, he said, the guy in second probably presumes it’s a lane issue and not a move to get left for the shift. Your average tactician is thinking about what to do when the lane collapses, but Steve’s thinking about how to make sure the other guy doesn’t follow us left. That point ended up meaning a whole heck of a lot in the end.
With everyone’s rig pinned at the same settings for the regatta, per class rules, how do you get a better set up?
That part of the class rules is kind of a nice thing. With the Etchells, every morning there’s a debate over tune, sail selection and all of that stuff, but not on this boat. The things that we can tune are the bricks under the rig, our outhaul tension, and our main and jib halyard tensions. We’re constantly playing the things we can. Steve changed how we set up the main and the communications around mainsail trim. The communications were much more structured around where we were with our backstay tension; and that was nonstop. In the midseason, we were primarily focused on targets. With Steve, I was looking around a lot less and much more head-in-the-boat the entire time, looking at the sails, the speedo and the compass. It was clear my job was to keep the boat going as fast as possible. He was really vigilant about communications, exceptional with moding. The second we strayed two-tenths of a knot from the mode we were supposed to be in, he was all over me.
One observation was the remarkable differences in sail trim across the fleet. What was working for your team?
I found that we were sailing with looser leech tension than most. When it was windy and wavy, for example, I was trying to give Jay as wide a groove as possible to drive to. Someone watching said they thought our mainsail was working way more than everyone else’s.
There’s a tendency to get tight leeched and bound up, and then the only way they could make it work was to pinch really hard. There were a couple of times when Jay would struggle to hang onto his target, so I would just ease the main, find a new baseline and give him a wider groove. For us, the gear shifting was nonstop…in and out, in and out for three straight days.
With the jib, because we can’t cross-sheet, it was harder to be as aggressive with the trim; one thing we’ll try next year is repositioning our runner trimmer to be more dynamic with the runner. That would be the next big step for us.
When you think back on this win, what’s the primary takeaway for the team?
That there were moments in the regatta where everybody on the boat did something that helped us win the event. Everyone had a moment where they either got us points or saved us from disaster. And from our perspective, that’s the cool thing about our program; that everybody brought different people together and it worked. I’d never sailed with Linda Lindquist [pit] before this summer, and she is amazing. She is just an awesome sailor, and incredible on the boat. Brian Fox [bow] might be the best bowman that nobody’s ever heard of—and now, I don’t think Jay wants to get on a boat without him ever again. And it all kind of tied together with Steve. He’s a silver medalist and a rock-star sailor with a Rolex, but he’s insanely collaborative. I think we’ve all sailed with a tactician that comes into a new team and starts barking orders. But Steve integrated everyone, asked us about our roles and our opinions. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I knew he’d be good, but he fit the mold of our program well because we have good sailors that want to be part of the team, and he assimilated perfectly in a collaborative way.