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Where to guv’nor?

Volvo Race winner and double Olympic medallist Ian Walker is perfectly positioned to add to the debate about the future pathways for today’s young offshore sailors

In 1996 John Merricks and I were fresh from winning an Olympic silver medal in the 470 class and had little or no keelboat experience. Despite this, our goal for 1997 was to try to sail the small boat (Mumm 36) for Britain in the Admiral’s Cup. We immediately started racing Melges 24s to learn about keelboats and, thanks to the support of Peter Morton, Graham Walker, Richard Matthews and boat owner Tim Barrett, we got our chance with Tim’s Mumm 36 Bradamante.

We had no idea what we were doing to start with – I remember our first offshore training when we used to shine torches at the telltales all night, not wanting to rely on the instruments! Running backstays were a whole new world. We had so much to learn but at least we were out there training and doing it.

We had seven months and approached the campaign with the same zeal as the 470. Importantly, we had a really good,


experienced crew and help from some older, wiser heads like David Howlett. A silly mistake offshore cost us a podium at the Mumm 36 worlds, but we ended up winning our first Fastnet and winning our class in the Admiral’s Cup. Were it not for a spurious protest by the Italian team we would have been top boat overall. The reason for my story is that if I was a successful young Olympic sailor now I am not sure what I would be aiming to do. There is no Admiral’s Cup and no smaller technical keelboats with worldwide appeal like the Mumm 36 or the One Tonners, on which to learn the art of grand prix keel- boat sailing. These boats were sailed by some of the best sailors in the world and provided a manageable step up to sailing much larger boats. Today you might sail a Melges 24, J/70, C&C30 or even an SB3 as a small keelboat, but what bigger keel- boat do you sail after that?

There is local IRC racing in some countries but more often than not the owner will want to be steering – and what international events do you aim for? In 2016 the best keelboat sailors in the world are in RC44s, TP52s or the Maxi 72s, and of these only the Maxi 72 can really go offshore. What owner in their right mind would trust their multimillion-dollar keelboat programme to some young dinghy sailor who hasn’t served his big boat apprenticeship?

More importantly, with the America’s Cup, Extreme Series, Tour de France and World Match Racing Tour all in cata - marans, why would you bother sailing a keelboat at all? I can fully understand why any aspiring professional sailor would want to go foiling or sail catamarans – as long as they enjoy being in the gym all day. All of this is great news for guys like me. That is successful sailors who have done their apprenticeship in big, high-perfor- mance keelboats and understand the intri- cacies of setting up keelboat rigs, keelboat manoeuvres, keelboat tactics and, just as importantly, working with owners and boat captains. With limited young talent coming in, the average age of professional sailors on the grand prix keelboats, superyachts and even the Volvo Ocean Race can go up and up.

If you want to get on a big keelboat programme and you are not the owner’s son, you really only have two choices. Firstly, you could go and win multiple Olympic medals (even this is no guarantee of success). Secondly you need to get as much big boat experience as you can, have a great work ethic/attitude and somehow endear yourself to the decision makers (skippers, tacticians, boat captains) in the big programmes. This of course means meeting them in the first place. For over 30 years the Volvo Ocean Race was the goal of many an aspiring young


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