BERMUDA – If it’s a vehicle on the water, Josh Martin can not only find a way to make it go, but he’s also going to try and move as fast as humanly possible in it. He used to be a regular entrant in the jet ski race around the island, until the race was put on hold after a fatal accident. A Bermuda native, Martin jokes that he’s the face of water sports in Bermuda, quite literally, as he was once on a billboard.
Martin’s had his share of close calls, even being involved in an accident on a trip from Florida back to Bermuda early in 2017. Their 35-foot catamaran hit 160 mile per hour winds as two storms came together. The ship survived two and a half days before toppling end over end into the sea. There were no injuries, and a Tokyo ship carrying cars had to pick them up.
For as much as Martin has seen and all the boats he’s been on – including the one ferrying media members to and from the Royal Naval Dockyard where he’s the first mate – the America’s Cup operates on another level.
“When you see that you’re like what the f*ck,” Martin says. “You’re blown away. Boats aren’t supposed to do that.”
If someone from Bermuda who has basically spent his whole life on boats can still be taken aback by the grandeur, excess, and pure speed of the America’s Cup, just imagine how someone who’s never been sailing at all feels.
Shomari Warner was a baggage handler at the Bermuda airport before the island announced plans to enter a team in the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in 2017. Tryouts were announced and advertised in the paper, and 120 people showed up, including Warner.
Warner, who had never sailed prior to making the team, used to box and caught the eye of coach Richard Clarke for his quickness and athleticism.
Clarke wanted to take a unique approach to the team, one that got more than its share of comparisons to 1990s sports movies like Cool Runnings and The Mighty Ducks. The final Bermuda team for the Youth Cup consisted of 1/3 of a team new to sailing post tryouts. But what they had was drive, ability, and the willingness to learn.
As Clarke saw it, a blank canvas was rare in sailing. There weren’t any bad habits. There was no caste system or guys making the team because of their name.
“I stuck numbers in tape on their backs,” Clarke says of the early days of training. “It wasn’t about names. There was no politics.”
What there wasn’t a shortage of, though, was a desire to make Bermuda proud, and the island responded.
One gas station printed out 12,000 bumper stickers, and they sold out. Mind you, there are 65,000 people on the entire island. And because of the constant training, the chance to grow together, and the help from experienced sailors, the Bermuda team far outpaced expectations.
“You know, you really feel that they’re behind us,” Team Bermuda member Owen Siese said. “Especially when we’re on the water, racing … It was crazy just, the sailing around inside the boundaries. We’d get to the boundary, all the boats within hearing distance, blasting air horns. Every time we rounded a mark, all the yachts around, blasting air horns. Crossing the finish line in front of the grandstand, the crowd goes wild. But, to hear the crowd is so behind us, it, you know, it’s just an incredible feeling.”
Team Oracle, the USA squad that ultimately failed to defend its America’s Cup title against New Zealand in this year’s event, mentored the Bermuda team hands on, and there’s no substitute for top equipment and consistent reps under the guidance of an elite team.
While Team Bermuda didn’t win – Great Britain’s Land Rover BAR Academy topped the podium, with New Zealand and Switzerland rounding out the Top 3 — seeing what Bermuda could do in just a couple years, in a host country, likely made new sailors out of kids on the island.
“They’ve got a lot of support here,” Team Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said during June 18th’s press conference following USA’s 0-4 start to Emirates. “They obviously got a lot of support from us, and they’re a real talented group of kids.”
After Team Bermuda made the Youth finals, they became the adopted cup team of the entire island. There was talk of giving kids the day off school to watch the last races.
“If they were a bunch of rich white kids from the yacht club,” Clarke said, “the country wouldn’t get behind us. We’re a mixed race, mixed gender team. We always knew the backbone of this group, and we just didn’t want to come in last.”
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Hans Peter Steinacher started the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in 2013 as a chance to add another run in the ladder when going from sailing enthusiast to the elitism at the top of America’s Cup teams. This was a way to give athletes or prospective sailors a chance at top equipment, top trainers, and consistent sailing conditions. And in return, the main Cup teams would have a feeder system and get a close look at the future of the sport.
There was a proof point almost immediately. New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling, who led the Emirates team to their win in 2017 over Team Oracle, was on the 2013 team that won the inaugural Youth Cup, so entrants in the 2017 edition had not their model, but a natural mentor in the process.
“It’s really good for the younger generation,” Team Next Generation USA skipper Carson Crain said. “The kids who are 12-16 right now. They see what our team has done back in the states, and a couple years down the road, they’re saying, ‘that’s what I want to do. How do I get there?’ That’s what our team has been focused on. If we can help them out or include them in team activities, that’s ideal.”
Crain just missed the cut on Team Oracle, and took on his duties as a leader seriously for Team USA. He and the rest of the American Youth team also spent significant time with Team Bermuda, as they formed a partnership in training. Crain has turned his attention to an Olympic campaign, and he’ll be right back trying to make Team Oracle for the next go-round.
Crain is exactly the model athlete that Steinacher looked for when he envisioned the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup. The 23-year-old Houston native is finishing a sports management degree at Rice University – he took some time off for training – and is incredibly knowledgable about what it takes in today’s sports environment to build himself up while being a reliable teammate in the process.
This is at the crux of sailing’s future. Appealing to younger generations takes speed in all forms, speed in the boats, speed of getting the product out to the masses, and speed in rising through the ranks. But there also has to be a bridge to get athletes onto teams and take away some of the individualism and loneliness that is typically attached to sailing.
Giving young sailors a team, and a flag to fly under, helps push them even further.
“The young people are not well connected,” Steinacher said. “They’re connected to each other, but not to sponsors, not to teams, and not to designers. They train hard on every boat, but they are always very shy to go in the big picture of the America’s Cup. This is what we wanted to break up, and we broke it up.”
Along with connectivity, there’s one more component that the sport needs to not only survive, but thrive into the future. It starts with getting sailing in front of fans more consistently – and giving fans names to cheer for on a regular basis.
“The toughest thing with sailing is having it as a proper and reoccurring circuit,” Crain said. “It’s tough for viewers to stay involved. But if you have a constant series, you can build heroes. And that’s what our sport is lacking.”