Interview with a Newport ‘pirate’

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Rhode Island sailor recounts crewing aboard the Pirates of the Caribbean team in the Volvo Ocean Race

Rhode Island sailor recounts crewing aboard the Pirates of the Caribbean team in the Volvo Ocean Race

It was a gray lumpy day in the North Sea off Holland when the Volvo Ocean Race fleet set off on the ninth and final leg of the 36,000-mile round-the-world yacht race. When the boats crossed the finish in Gothenburg, Sweden, June 16 the American team Pirates of the Caribbean swept past the other boats and claimed their only win of the race. The Pirates of the Caribbean team placed second overall in the race behind ABN Amro One, 96 to 73.

Newport (R.I.) native Jerry Kirby was a part of that Pirates team as one of the bowmen. Kirby, who is 50, is no rookie in the world of professional sailing. He has participated in five America’s Cup campaigns, including winning in 1992 aboard Bill Koch’s America3, defeating Paul Cayard (who skippered the Pirates of the Caribbean boat in the VOR) aboard Il Moro di Venezia.

In May the VOR fleet wrapped up the sixth leg of the race from Annapolis, Md., to New York City. Soundings’ staff writer Jason Fell caught up with Kirby in the Big Apple where he reflected on the race, his career and working with skipper Paul Cayard.

How old were you when you started sailing?

Oh, gosh, I was 4 years old. I think now that I’ve turned 50 I’ve started to forget half of what I remember. Seriously, there are a lot of young new faces on the big boats. It’s been a lot of fun interacting and getting to know those guys.

What advice do you give some of the younger guys?

To just keep your mouth shut and outwork everyone.

How long have you been doing this professionally?

Since I was 19. And, obviously, the pay structure was a little different then. Back then being a professional sailor was a concept. It wasn’t a reality. You had to have it as a passion. You wouldn’t put yourself through that because there wasn’t enough money. Now, for a young person looking at pro sailing, they can make real money, in the Cup and in the Volvo. They can buy a home and raise a family and actually make a really nice living — if they’re good enough. But just like any other professional sport you make the jump from an amateur hobby to where people are willing to pay, you have to have a pretty hefty resume and some skills to go along with it.

How has it been working with Cayard?

We’ve sailed together for a long time. We’ve sailed together on Jubliation, Sidewinder. Knowing Paul when he was in his early 20s when he was a super-intense competitor, and he’s still got that fire. The guy’s a freak of nature. I started calling him Felix, you know, from “The Odd Couple.” He’s so meticulous about stacking the boat, about where the stuffs are stored. Right away he laughed and goes: “Yeah, I’m pretty particular.” It’s fun to see him, who’s almost my age, who still has hardcore experience and a hardcore competitive edge and attitude. But at his age he’s a little more reflective and seems to really be enjoying sailing and the whole experience.

Do you think that attitude of Cayard’s benefits your team’s overall performance?

Oh, for sure. There are times when he’ll tell you that he doesn’t need to be everyone’s friend. He pushes everyone really hard. He pushes himself harder. When you see a guy and all of a sudden a bucket comes flopping out of the bilge and it’s Paul, you know, he’s mopping the bilge at 2:30 in the morning, it shows that he’s a hard worker. He’s a good leader.

What has been your team’s biggest obstacle?

Honestly, just keeping the boat in one piece and managing the team. We’ve had some guys get really banged up. Our watch captain is in a cast. We were thinking about replacing him but he’s a real anchor of the team. He’s a real tough competitor. Even when he’s at only 50 percent he’s still super-human. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. You just hope that your boat and your people can tough it out.

What’s your opinion of the boat?

Awesome. It’s the boat speed. After years of sailing keel boats and seeing a tenth of a knot, you know, the improvements over 30 years have been so incremental. The first canting keel boat I sailed on was Pyewacket. It was eye-popping. All you can say is “Holy smoke.” This boat is even more so. You take it out into places where you typically don’t go. Middle of the Atlantic. Middle of the Southern Ocean. You go to places where you get huge swells and big wind. You see things on this boat that you’ve never seen before. Thirty knots-plus, pinned. Water’s flying everywhere.

Your team got a late start in preparing for the Volvo Ocean Race. Did you guys get right into it or did that set you back?

You know, Paul tells this story about how he’s at this studio in Burbank, Calif., and these Disney executives are asking him if it’s even worth it for Disney to get involved at such a late date. Paul knows that preparation is the basis for any successful campaign. Ideally you’d want to get started at least 40 days before the start. So he, of course, should have told those guys to forget about it, but he was so excited he said, “Look, we can do it. We’ll get a group together. It’ll take us a while to compete. By the time we reach Brazil we should be competitive and by the time we get to the North Atlantic we should be fighting for top position.” He had no idea what ABN [Amro One, the race winner] would do, obviously, but his script almost played out perfectly.

Being 50, do you see yourself racing still or are there any plans to retire?

This is a professional sport. If you’re still getting invited at this age to perform, then I’m not asking questions. I’ve been asked before about retiring. You don’t get a choice. In pro sports, the phone stops ringing. It’s not easy. You spend a lot of time in the gym. I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me. So, it’s great to still sail with these guys, who are the best in the world.