Sunday, December 17, 2006

Men from Mars

I asked readers to write posts in their blogs about the people who inspired them to take up sailing. Speaking for myself, I grew up in a place and a time -- a working class neighborhood in England in the 1950s -- where sailing was just not one of those things that you even imagined you could do. It would have been less bizarre to express an ambition to move to Mars than to say I had a yen to take up some supposedly elitist sport like sailing. But I always had this strange idea that messing about in boats would be fun.

Then when I was in my twenties I was lucky enough to work (at the IT department of a major multi-national) with two young men who were, at the time, among the best small boat sailors in the British Isles: Philip Crebbin and David Wilkins. They both had Olympic ambitions and I used to enjoy hearing their tales of weekends spent at various sailing competitions. I think the HR manager who handled university recruiting in the year Phil and Dave were hired must have been a sailor himself and was working on the theory that the ability to waggle a tiller and steer a boat round the buoys fast had some correlation with the skills necessary to be a future captain of industry. Who knows? He may have been right. Makes more sense than some of the tests used by recruiters these days.

Phil was dominant on the British dinghy scene at that time and twice won the Endeavour Trophy, the British Champion of Champions event. He also won the 470 World Cup in 1976. Phil and Dave both sailed in the 1976 Olympics, Dave in the Tempest for Ireland and Phil in the 470 for Great Britain, but neither came home with a medal.

Phil left the company in the late 1970's to focus on his sailing career full-time and was successful in being selected to sail the Soling on the British team in the 1980 Olympics. Of course Margaret Thatcher had different ideas and somehow got the weird notion that stopping British sailors from competing in Estonia would somehow persuade the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Much to her surprise, Leonard Brezhnev was not impressed with the Iron Lady's gesture. The Irish government, perhaps having a more realistic view of its ability to influence the old man in the Kremlin, allowed their Olympic athletes to attend the 1980 Games and my friend David Wilkins won the silver medal in the Flying Dutchman class.

Phil Crebbin went on to play a leading role in some of the America's Cup challenges by Great Britain in the 1980's, as skipper in 1983 and technical director in 1987. He won the Admiral's Cup, and the 8 Metre World Championship six times. He is now one of the principals in Race1, a Grand Prix Racing charter company.

Dave went on to sail in other Olympic Games and also played an active role in the development of the club at which we both sailed in the 1980's, Rutland Sailing Club. I came to know him better after I moved to Rutland around 1985 as, at that time, he was the driving force behind the club's junior program. Both my sons learned to sail in that program and Dave sold us our first Optimist. We lost touch after I moved to America in 1988 but I met him again purely by chance at the Laser Masters Worlds in Cadiz in 2003 where he was doing some coaching. I see he is still sailing a Laser himself, winning the Rutland Sailing Club Laser Championship a few weeks ago.

Looking back, I think it was working with these young men and seeing their enthusiasm and commitment to racing that gave me the urge to learn to sail, buy a boat, and get into the racing scene myself a few years later.

But it was the members of the Laser fleet at my first sailing club who really inspired in me a life-long passion for the sport. They passed on to me their sense of fun and enthusiasm for the Laser; they taught me tactics by pulling moves on me on the racecourse and then explaining to me afterwards how I should have countered them; they taught me respect for the rules by winning protests against me but always treating me in a friendly and sportsmanlike manner; they encouraged me to travel and to compete with them at other local clubs; they showed me that ice and snow are no reasons to stop sailing in the winter. And every other place I have sailed since then I have found Laser sailors just as welcoming, just as helpful... and just as competitive. Thanks to all of you.

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