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A Tornado Olympic Medalist Warms Up to a New Kind of Cat

From deep inside his newfound cruising life, Charlie Ogletree opines on the state of Olympic sailing. "First Beat" from our April 1, 2009, /SW eNewsletter/

March 31, 2009

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Herb McCormick

With his wife, Lizz, at his side, and a gentle breeze rustling the nearby waters in the sensational Bahamian anchorage of Georgetown, Charlie Ogletree surveyed his winnings: one trophy, three flags, two hats, and perhaps most importantly, three big bottles of Bahamian rum.

“Well, not quite a silver, Charlie,” said someone who knew of Ogletree’s incredible sailing career, which numbered four Olympics with John Lovell as the U.S. representatives in the Tornado class, and included a silver medal the duo won at the Athens games in 2004. But Ogletree wasn’t taking the bait.

“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the bottle’s gold seal label and laughing. “This is better. This is gold!”

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Well, maybe it wasn’t really better. But on multiple levels, it sure was different.

For Ogletree’s latest stash wasn’t accrued in an Olympic, Grand Prix, or One-Design arena, all of which are familiar venues for the 41-year-old professional sailor. But, as with his well-chronicled Tornado campaigns, it was scored aboard a catamaran. This time, however, it was aboard the couple’s Catana 401, Kaya, which they’d sailed from Houston all the way to the Bahamas, recording one adventure after another all along the way. The sailing life that Charlie and Lizz Ogletree have now embraced is one that many of his fellow pros wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Yes, the former Olympian, now retired from Tornado sailing, has gone cruising.

“I give my parents a lot of credit for that,” he said. “I grew up cruising with them and learned to love the water before I got into any kind of serious racing. That’s always stayed with me.”

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In a total coincidence, I ran into Ogletree at the Miami airport in mid-March while en route to Georgetown on Great Exuma Island to cover the annual Cruising Regatta for Sailing World’s sister magazine, Cruising World. Once there, the Ogletrees and their fast, good-looking cruising cat weren’t hard to keep track of. Much of the “regatta” is a non-stop festival of parties, volleyball tournaments, trivial-pursuit contests, talent shows, and on and on. But there are a couple of sailboat races, the first a roughly 20-miler around Stocking Island, and the second an around-the-cans affair in Georgetown’s vast and beautiful harbor.

Double-handing with Lizz, Kaya scored a third among the multihulls in the distance race. Then, for the in-harbor contest, the Ogletrees invited aboard a cruising couple that had never raced before, and won the thing. When all was said and done, along with the individual prizes, Kaya’s scorecard was good enough for first overall in the multihull division. At the awards ceremony, Charlie and Lizz handed over the trophy to their incredulous crew, but wisely kept the rum.

“Anybody up for a party?” he wondered.

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The Ogletrees left Houston for the islands on December 31st of last year with a very tight weather window; Charlie needed to be back to Key West to sail a Melges 32 at race week by the middle of January. Their six-day crossing of the Gulf of Mexico was, as they say, eventful: Winds varied from nothing to 40 knots, Lizz smashed her finger in the massive refrigerator door, and Charlie performed a pair of fuel-filter changes underway.

“It was the first time we’d had the boat in rough weather, so of course all the sediment in the fuel tank clogged the filters,” he said. “That was my welcome to cruising.”

On the next leg, to Nassau, Kaya withstood 55-knot winds and the Ogletrees even hove-to for a few hours so they could approach the port in daylight. But since then, it’s been mostly smooth sailing.

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“We’re having a blast,” said Charlie. “We’re meeting so many different and interesting people. It’s been perfect.”

Originally from North Carolina, Ogletree grew up sailing Lasers, Sunfish, and 420s, then ratcheted up his racing career after matriculating first to Tabor Academy and then to Old Dominion University, where he was named an All-American and helped ODU win a national championship. “Everything was going as a normal sailing career progresses,” he said, with more than a trace of obvious modesty.

From there, he eventually took a job with Shore Sails and began hitting the J/22 and J/24 circuit. It was during that time that he reconnected with an old college sailing friend, John Lovell, who had started dabbling in the Tornado. The pair won their very first Miami OCR regatta, in 1993, and followed that up three months later by winning the nationals. The rest, including four Olympics and that aforementioned silver medal, is history.

Lovell and Ogletree decided to call it quits after the Beijing games, and these days, while still pursuing a very active pro career, Charlie is also finding time to chill. In fact, one of the only ways to even slightly disrupt his largely laid-back demeanor is to ask about the Tornado being removed from Olympic competition.

While bemoaning the politics that he feels was at the root of the decision, Ogletree also sees the matter in a broader context.

“I think there’s a little disconnect between ISAF and US Sailing and what’s actually happening in the sport of sailing, as opposed to what they perceive should be happening,” he said. “I think participation in the sport is waning a bit because we’re so traditionally minded. The kids coming up want to sail 49ers, kiteboards, Tornados‚stuff that competes with skateboards or surfboards or snowboards. They don’t want to sail a Yngling or a Star or something that’s slow and they’re not attracted to.

“You see so many hot college sailors and afterwards they don’t go into the Olympic classes. The go and get a job. The classes just aren’t that fun.”

For now, however, all of that is someone else’s problem. Before I departed Georgetown, Charlie and Lizz handed me their boat card, adorned with a pair of palm trees and a simple saying: “Always keep island time”

The Ogletrees seem to be following their own advice. The ex-Olympian is off the clock.

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