Dark horse, perennial take Rolex titles

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Consider these well-known names: Matt Fisher, Chris Larson, David Loring, Mike Martin, Jim Richardson, John Ruf, Matt Struble and George Szabo.

They all won sailing world championships for the United States last year, but were passed over for the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award.

Bora Gulari was the dark-horse candidate.

In one of the toughest contests in recent memory, that honor was reserved for Bora Gulari, the world champion in the very fast, very technical Moth class. The women's award went to favorite Anna Tunnicliffe, who repeated her 2008 win and also won the women's Rolex World Sailor Award in 2009.

Dark horse

Gulari was a popular choice for the men's division, albeit one that did not necessarily follow form, given the long list of world champions in more established classes. It recognizes a sailor who came from windsurfing, tried but failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2004 in the 49er skiff and subsequently turned his attention to the Moth, a tiny non-Olympic construction class that's been around for 80 years.

In its latest incarnation it's the Moth hydrofoils, which raise the hull out of the water in a delicate game of speed and balance that Gulari has mastered better than anybody else. He also established a new world speed record for Moths, breaking the 30-knot barrier for the first time.

"Winning this award is amazing," a jubilant Gulari says. "[Julian Bethwaite, the Australian skiff guru] said it is huge for the United States because it put the spotlight on dinghy and small-boat sailing in non-Olympic classes."

Gulari's win at the Moth world championships last summer at Cascade Locks, Ore., was the culmination of a focused group effort.

"He thinks technically and uses his knowledge in a practical sense, so this class is perfect for him," says Charlie McKee, a two-time Olympic medalist and professional sailor who also sails Moths. "He shares insight, which shortens the learning curve for everyone."

Gulari, born in Istanbul, Turkey, graduated from the University of Michigan in 2001 with a degree in aerospace engineering. He came to the United States as a toddler and was incubated with the sailing bug by his parents, both high-ranking scientists and former 505 sailors. His father, Erdogan, is a professor at the University of Michigan and mother, Esin, the dean of the College of Engineering and Science at Clemson University, is a member of the National Science Board. "When windsurfing came up in the early 1980s he tried that, but he was too small to handle a regular rig. So he used an umbrella to sail the board downwind by himself," Erdogan Gulari remembers. "Even then, Bora was fascinated with speed."

A second Rolex

Like Gulari, Tunnicliffe was born on foreign soil, in Doncaster, England. Like Gulari, she learned sailing from her parents. But unlike her fellow Rolex award winner, she took a more conventional path to the top, sailing Optimists and other small boats before switching to the Laser Radial in 1999, the Olympic class for the women's single-handed event. She capped her achievements with a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Quingdao, China, and has been a household name at the Rolex awards. She has been nominated five times and now won it twice in a row, making her the first woman to do so since Betsy Alison in 1981-82.

Anna Tunnicliffe is the first woman to win the award twice in a row since 1982.

"Winning a Rolex award is amazing, but winning it twice in a row is unbelievable," Tunnicliffe says. "I had a great year going out and having fun, challenging myself in different classes."

Her 2009 resume included winning the ISAF Sailing World Cup series, the Laser Radial women's North American championship and finishing third at the Laser Radial world championship in Japan. Looking ahead to the 2012 Olympics in England, her focus is on qualifying for the women's match-racing event, a new discipline. "The difference [to fleet racing] is that you only have one opponent to watch," she explains. "If you make a mistake, it is harder to recover."

At the end of 2009, Tunnicliffe and her crew of Molly Vandemoer (also nominated for the 2009 Rolex award) and Alice Manard were ranked 20th worldwide in women's match racing. And what about trying Gulari's domain and trying to sail on hydrofoils? "My husband Brad [Funk] is currently sailing a Moth and I did it, too, during the Boston stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race. They're freaky boats, but fun."

The 2009 Rolex Yachtsman/ Yachtswoman of the Year Award was won by two immigrants from the old continent who represent the pinnacle in their respective classes, yet have taken different paths in their development. Without much intent, the award also turned into a celebration of dinghy sailing, but in doing so must have disappointed an extraordinary number of world champions (on the men's side) and top finishers in international high-level events who all merit recognition. It is a luxury problem to have so many who are so good.

This article originally appeared in the Home Waters Section of the March 2010 issue.