Since the earliest days of yacht racing, professional sailors in a largely amateur sport have always had a mixed reception.
But the mere presence of a pro or two on board a rival does not necessarily mean defeat for other ‘Corinthian’ competitors and recent results at some of Ireland’s major regattas highlight this.
While some boat-owners opt to hire in professional crew-members — or at some international events, entire teams with a massive payroll — other boats might be professionally maintained but otherwise crewed by amateurs.
A third approach is the amateur team that have been heavily influenced by the professional sailing approach. It’s the difference between the average club crew that sail regular races but do little else to prepare for competitions.
Adopting the professional approach has served Crosshaven’s Nicholas ‘Nin’ O’Leary well in recent years as his exposure to the pros racing with his father Anthony’s Antix yachts over many years had a trickle-down effect.
“I’ve been on the amateur fence (for the last few years) and I was doing it very successfully and it was enjoyable beating pros at their own game,” he told the Irish Examiner yesterday. “It comes down to attitude and commitment but also how much time you can put into it.
“You have to ‘own’ your position on a boat and concentrate on that and not the eight or nine other variables happening on a boat at any given time. Probably the most distinct difference that pros bring to a boat is their constant racing mindset.”
But can the amateur crew with a professional mindset beat the pros?
“That’s the beauty of sailing — the chess board is so big. A GAA pitch is only so big but a race course is acres of space with variables such as wind, tides and other tactics.”
It’s now got to the stage where he feels he’s contributing more than the average amateur and getting paid in recent months means he has now changed his Sailor Classification to Group 3, the status for pro sailors and is preparing to compete in next month’s Rolex Fastnet Race with Alex Thompson on board Hugo Boss.
But owning roles, mindset and commitment are only part of the picture. Preparation is 50% of the winning formula reckons David Cullen, owner of Checkmate XV, a restored half-tonner that won last weekend’s Division 2 at the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta.
Like O’Leary, Cullen was heavily influenced by the professional sailors he encountered when he raced as an amateur with Colm Barrington more than a decade ago with successful campaigns in Ireland and the UK.
Managing his team involves setting a schedule at the start of the year and getting commitments up front from everyone on the crew panel. Those who commit the most time, which includes a share of the boat maintenance and preparation are more likely to be selected for the most important event.
For Cullen, that event will be the Half-Ton Classics Cup in Kinsale next month where many of the visiting teams will be racing with pro sailors, pushing the championship beyond the reach of even the best organised amateur crews so he too will have two or three pro crew-members on board.
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