Dark hair, scruffy beard and a winning smile.
That's the new face of small-boat sailing and it belongs to Bora Gulari, the 2009 world champion in the Moth class and the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year.
Having clocked a top speed of 30.31 knots, he also holds the unofficial world speed record in this class. What distinguishes Gulari in the rather traditional sailing culture is his Turkish heritage (sailing is not yet very popular in Turkey), his past in windsurfing and that rare quality in this world: a propensity to share his knowledge with competitors.
Nothing displays Gulari's iconoclastic qualities better than when he came out on top with the Rolex award by beating a platoon of other American sailors who'd won 2009 world championships in more established classes.
"These are real boats, you know," Gulari says, making the point that these miniature carbon-fiber rockets that weigh less than 60 pounds fully rigged deserve to be taken seriously. "Getting this award was amazing not just for me, but also for the class and all the people who sail it."
A dinghy on steroids
The Moth is an 80-year-old development class that went from flat-bottomed skiff to one of the most exciting boats by using hydrofoils that lift the hull out of the water. But what looks easy from shore is a high-speed balancing act that takes a while to master. What separates the men from the boys is not the ability to "fly," but to keep the boat on the foils during maneuvers. A good Moth sailor, Gulari explains, needs to be curious, a stickler for preparation and mechanically inclined. With a graduate degree in aerospace engineering and a workshop where he builds custom parts that are influenced by radio-controlled planes or boats, he has an edge.
"I guess I know a lot about things that fly," he jokes. The Moth responds to subtle changes ... if you get it right, your speed improves not by a tenth of a knot, but by several knots." For that reason he always carries a GPS to track his performance.
Charlie McKee, a two-time Olympic medalist and Moth sailor praises Gulari's approach. "He thinks technically and uses his knowledge in a practical sense, so the Moth is perfect for him."
But the bedrock of Gulari's success is "time on the boat times three." He estimates he sailed more than 4,000 "Moth-miles" in 2009 and continues to think about sailing even when he's not on the water. "Bora has tremendous feel to squeeze the last ounce of speed out of these boats," says McKee. "It's not that he just wants to win. He also wants to sail his boat properly and in perfect balance. At the same time, he's open to sharing insight, which shortens the learning curve for everyone."
Helping others, Gulari argues, makes them better so they can push him harder, which makes him better.
Gulari's ascent did not follow the traditional path. "I didn't have a big track record in junior and college sailing or in Olympic classes. I was a windsurfer."
While it can be challenging to jump from boards to boats, it worked out to his advantage because he already had a feel for speed and balance, which is critical for the Moth.
He picked up sailing from his father, Erdogan - a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan - and his mom, Esin, the dean of the College of Engineering and Science at Clemson University in South Carolina and a member of the National Science Board. They came to the United States in 1969 to study at Cal Tech in Pasadena, Calif. While working on their thesis papers, they also learned how to sail. It became not just a pastime, but a passion.
Back in Turkey - in Ayvalik on the coast of the Aegean Sea, about 20 miles from the ancient city of Troy - the Gularis sailed a sporty 505 dinghy. "It's a phenomenal place with wind from the north," says Erdogan. That wind can be sudden and strong. It's called Bora and inspired the boy's name.
Bora was born in 1975 and soon was along for the ride. "Mom was in the trapeze and he was safely tucked away in his bassinette, sun on his face," Erdogan says.
Later, when the family lived in Michigan, Bora began to tool around on a surfboard with an umbrella as a sail. But by age 5 he had become a bonafide windsurfer thanks to a shortened rig his father had fashioned. "In his first regatta, we told him to follow the others," Erdogan says. "But when he saw the finish line he sheeted in, passed them and won." At the awards ceremony he received a brick to slow him down.
"Bora always had a wild side and was enthralled by speed," his dad says, noting that he also was a gifted student who excelled in technical matters and mathematics. But he did not want to follow in his parents' footsteps. After high school, Bora left the family's house in Ann Arbor, Mich., to attend the University of Michigan's engineering college. He lived in the dorms and began tinkering with motorcycles, which had Esin and Erdogan worried. In Kauai, Hawaii, where the family owned a vacation home, Bora tested the beach-bum scene and learned daredevil windsurfing tricks. A crash left him with a punctured eardrum. To his parents' relief, he returned to his studies but switched from naval architecture to aerospace engineering, which he found more challenging and rewarding. Sailing always remained an outlet and his mom made sure he had a boat, not a motorcycle. She got him a 49er, but despite some initial fun and success, it wasn't an ideal fit.
Coming full circle
After losing the 49er Olympic trials in 2004, Gulari considered another campaign with the RS:X windsurfer, but got sidetracked by YouTube videos about small sailboats that seemed to fly. Then something clicked. Sight unseen, a down payment for a Moth was made and he never looked back.
Winning a world championship after only two years in the class and the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award was distinction, reward, redemption and validation rolled into one.
The Internet and social media spread the news about his success and he's received interview requests from Turkish media. "My Turkish is not great, but I get by," he says. "Maybe I'll go back some day to start a [sailing] trend."
His proud parents, who separated in the mid-1990s, remain his staunchest supporters. "We are happy when he is," says his father. As long as he is skipping across the waves with wind and spray in his face, Bora Gulari is in his element.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.