Thursday, August 23, 2007

Adventures in Human Ballast

"If you can sail an 18-foot skiff on San Francisco Bay, everything else is easy."

That's Mike Martin speaking, a man who is clear on what he wants, and it's not all about 18s. He's also going to keep on sailing 505s until he wins the worlds as a driver, he says, "because nobody's ever won both as driver and as crew."

The crewing side he took care of in 1997, winning the worlds at the front of a 505 with Howie Hamlin on the tiller. This is getting-to-know Mike Martin day at the old blog, and here's the man . . .

On a 505, whoever's on the wire gets to be the tactician, as Mike points out, "because the driver can't be looking around." (The other thing about crewing a 505 is, you can set up your booties to aim spray at your driver's face if he starts to bug you.)

Driving a 505, Mike had a good run but not quite good enough at the 2007 worlds in Adelaide, Australia, so he'll have to keep at it (and I bet, if and when he succeeds, he'll be like other 505 sailors and just keep on sailing those sweet little boats). I caught up with him at Crissy Field, on the San Francisco cityfront, where he is racing 18-foot skiffs through Saturday in the Ronstan International. It was an instructive session as we talked our way through his beginnings in sailing, his discovery that he'd rather go high-performance, the three classes that have held his attention, and the challenges and future of those ever-lovin' wild things, the 18s. Wild, as this shot by Abner Kingman reminds us . . .

Along the way, Mike took time out to consult with young Danny Cayard, whose mast track was cracked and would surely prove a failure point for the rig if it went out again in a 20-knot seabreeze, and there was every reason to expect that 20 knots was coming on. It wasn't there yet, but you could feel the nip in the air, and the Golden Gate had its fog hat on, and that's a sure sign. Here's the consultation . . .

As he got Danny and crew Max Binstock and Cameron McCloskey started on repairs, the class master remarked, "I've been impressed with these guys. They're 29er sailors, so they have the idea, but they had less than an hour's practice time in an 18 before race one, and they finished both races of the day."

With Hamlin driving the 18, Martin in the middle, and a revolving cast of very quick talent on the bow, this is the American team that first made a dent in the Down Under stranglehold on this native Aussie hot rod, winning the worlds in Sydney not once but twice. But what keeps the 18s coming back to San Francisco Bay? In Australia, they're a phenomenon. Or, as Martin puts it, "They're part of the history and culture of Sydney Harbour; on the final day of the worlds you can't walk through the lot. But 18s are getting organized to become an ISAF class. The 2009 worlds will probably be in Europe, and some time in the next five years we should see the worlds on San Francisco Bay.

"And that will be interesting . . .

"There's no better place to sail skiffs than San Francisco," Martin says, "and there's no place that's harder. If you can sail an 18 on San Francisco Bay, everything else is easy. The point of bringing 18s back to San Francisco every year is not keeping it going but getting a class started here. To make that happen you need people with skiff skills and the money to afford the boats. There was a time when you couldn't find the skiff skills on this side of the Pacific. Now you have kids who sail 29ers and 49ers, and they have skills, so then you're looking at the other side of the equation, how to support a class of 18s, and that's the dilemma."

There's no dilemma in this picture, however. Look for more info on the regatta at the host St. Francis YC web site. Here's Howie Hamlin, Mike Martin, and bowman Paul Allen looking good in the Golden Gate . . .

Along about there in our conversation, we had another diversion, and as we picked up again I mentioned something about watching a fleet's worth of kids racing O'Pen BIC dinghies last weekend at Newport (I was there to sail Sonars in Hinman Masters team racing out of Harbour Court; the kids were sailing out of Fort Adams) in a regatta where the whole point was fun. That is, one of the courses offered was a square, with the requirement to sail a 360 on the top reach and to capsize (at least once) on the bottom reach – and with first place for the weekend determined by judges and awarded to the kid who had the most fun. The whole thing was on my mind because, in the morning email pile, I had found this photographic evidence from Peter MacGowan proving that the formula worked . . .

Mike Martin's thought: "That's a perspective that people who sail at a high level can lose – and Howie and I sail at a high level, even though we're not pros. The most fun 505 worlds I've ever had was when Peter Melvin broke his kneecap a week before the event, and he certainly wasn't going to make it, so I called Jeff Miller, who's a fixture with the local fleet here, and we went to the regatta with no expectations and no pressure. In a way, it was my best worlds ever.

"Mind you, winning is fun too."

So what happened at the 2007 worlds in Adelaide?

"Jeff Nelson and I won the pre-worlds in mixed conditions, then in the worlds we got a lot of marginal trapping [marginal trapeze weather]. That's not good for us, and the Danes [Jan Saugmann and Morten Ramsbeck] forced us to sail riskier than we like. That worked for a while, but like most risky sailing, it stopped working."

The next opportunity: Italy in October, 2008.

Me, I already know Howie Hamlin as a working guy who takes a few months off every year to go sailing [he sells commercial real estate, successfully enough to own a helicopter, and he doesn't take clients who don't understand the passion, and yes, there's a Blackberry for emergencies].

So what is the secret to how Mike Martin finds so much time for sailing? After all, he went responsibly into the work force after becoming Old Dominion's first national collegiate champion and a two-time All American. Today, as an engineer, he designs equipment for retinal eye surgery and, "I probably take eight weeks a year off. What I don't get as vacation, I take unpaid. My theory is that you gotta do what you gotta do. When I interview for a job, I tell them up front that I sail a lot. If that's not OK, then I'm not the guy they're looking for."

I'll paraphrase the rest of his words this way: Mike Martin works his buns off on the job to get ahead and stay ahead of his commitments, so that when the time comes, he can go sailing.


I asked, and Mike said . . .

"It's funny, I drive on some of these boats and crew on all of them. When Howie and I had two 18s in Long Beach (California), I steered one of them. But by far my favorite boat to steer is the 505. It's like a dinghy in light air, and it's like a skiff in the breeze.

"The 14 is somewhere in between an 18 and a 505. You can get away with moves in a 14 that you'd never get away with in an 18.

"Before I discovered speed, I sailed Lasers, Finns, and Thistles. I didn't have a junior program. I just bought a Laser and started racing with our local fleet on the Potomac. I also crewed for Brent Barbehenn. He taught me how to see the fleet from out front, and we won two Thistle nationals. Then, when I started at Old Dominion, the team wasn't even ranked. Then Charlie Ogletree came in the next year. Then Terry Hutchinson came in the next year. That was a great experience."

And that, you may believe.

Yes, Virginia, there is an America's Cup (sigh)

On the heels of Wednesday's New York court ruling in favor of an expedited hearing for BMW Oracle Racing's complaint against the America's Cup defender and his "you are all my prisoners" protocol comes a response to the effect that, “Larry Ellison is holding the Cup to ransom for competitive gain." The defender expresses himself "disappinted" that Ellison has actually gone to court.

I'll tell you the truth. I'm not ready to get my juices up about this court deal yet, but I can see us headed there unless the defender blinks.

Hasn't Ernesto Bertarelli ever been to "the room" and doesn't he know you don't want to go there?

Sometimes you get a big surprise.

BTW, I'm still looking for the right new name for the old blog, so don't be surprised to see it change again. Think, adventures in mental ballast—Kimball