Local sailors compete at world-class level - Soundings Online

Local sailors compete at world-class level

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Despite the challenges of sponsorship and career, these competitors continue to push each other

Despite the challenges of sponsorship and career, these competitors continue to push each other

The elite world of single-handed, high-speed ocean racing puts competitive sailors into an extreme category of the sport — where men and women racing full-time as professional athletes clock thousands of sea miles aboard state-of-the-art speed machines.

Hailing from Europe primarily, these full-time professionals cover a year-round schedule of dangerous and challenging races and their wins make front-page news at home.

What these men and women have in common with ocean racers in New England is a love of sailing and adventure. To compete and win against Europeans who receive coveted and generous sponsorship dollars to race on the best boats built is a tough act for most local sailors to follow.

Enter two New England men: Kip Stone, 44, of Freeport, Maine, and Joe Harris, 46, of Hamilton, Mass. The pair has made a lasting impression on the worldwide racing circuit in recent years, particularly in November 2005 when Harris became the first American to win the 4,500-nautical-mile Transat Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil in the Open 50 class.

Additionally, Stone’s record-breaking win in the Transat from Plymouth, England, to Boston in June 2004, has given both men international recognition and the respect of professional sailors at the highest level of the sport.

The difference between these two men and their foreign rivals is that they earn their sea miles and their living in much the same way many New England sailors do. In other words, they have to keep their day jobs.

When Harris is not racing, he is the chief financial officer and senior vice president at New Boston Fund, a $1.5 billion real estate investment and development company in downtown Boston. Most days the only physically dangerous thing he does is duck into a taxicab or race for the elevator before the door closes. He commutes home each night to be with his wife, Kim, and sons, Griffin, 8, and Emmett, 2.

Stone lives in Maine with his partner, Caroline Kurrus, and runs his own successful T-shirt company in Freeport, where he often works nights and weekends with little time to go sailing.

However, on race day either in the United States or overseas, the two men are prepared to compete and win some of the most extreme ocean races in existence against the thoroughbreds of the sport.

“Please don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my job, but I had actually hoped to find enough corporate sponsorship to race more professionally. Right now I don’t have the luxury of quitting and I do have to keep the day job,” says Harris who, like Stone, has financed much of his racing campaign himself and feels that getting corporate sponsorship is the biggest obstacle for him as a professional sailor. “It is tough to compete against Europeans who can do this full-time, while for me, working in the corporate world, it is very bottom-line oriented. If you are not here, you are missed.”

Fellow Open 50 sailor Stone is both chief rival and comrade for Harris out at sea. The two men share very similar ambitions in sailing and discuss their plans for the next round of racing from behind their desks.

“I think the biggest difference between Kip and I is that he is his own boss and I am an employee,” Harris says. “He does have that flexibility to take additional time off as needed.”

To illustrate their close rivalry, last November, Harris along with his crewmate Josh Hall, won the Transat Jacques Vabre in the Open 50 class in 19 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes, 45 seconds. Second-place finisher Kip Stone and crewmate Merf Owen were 17 hours behind Harris at the final gun. This is no small feat considering Stone was forced to leave the race course on the third day, retrieve a new mainsail from a coastal French city and return to the course.

“On the third day of the race we found ourselves in a situation where we had lost our mainsail and had no choice but to turn back,” Stone says. “To leave the race course was very, very hard and it was not clear if it was the right thing to do, but my grandfather always told me that when you have an opportunity to do something, you have to do it. You don’t have a choice.

“There was a race and we were still in it,” he continues. “We were so far behind, but we sailed as fast as we possibly could. We passed the entire fleet and we never thought we would finish within 17 hours of Joe. It goes to show that anything can happen in a sailboat race.”

Harris — who credits his win to great teamwork, a race with few mishaps and a boat that sails beautifully in downwind conditions — was not only elated with the win, but more to the point, “It felt like a huge breakthrough for me to finally beat Kip. We had come awfully close in other races but this was my first win against him.”

Waypoints along a course

Harris grew up sailing on Long Island and while his maternal grandfather made five trans-Atlantic crossings, his own father was also an accomplished sailor and teacher who sailed with Joe in many offshore races to Bermuda and Nova Scotia.

Harris graduated from Brown University in the early 1980s and spent time as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska. He bought a C&C 40 when he was in his 30s, and campaigned it in the Marion-to-Bermuda Race, the Newport-to-Bermuda Race and the Marblehead-to-Halifax race. He later owned an Aerodyne-38 and then purchased his Open 50 a few years ago.

“It is said that in ocean racing the hardest thing to do is get to the starting line,” Harris says. “In these boats, getting to the finish line is equally hard. I have found that missing my wife and sons has been the biggest hardship in all of this.”

Stone was born and raised in Marblehead, Mass., where youth sailing has been taught for more than 100 years. He had his first offshore experience on a boat delivery in the early 1980s while he was home from Middlebury College during Christmas break.

“There is a long tradition of sailors coming from Marblehead and when we were growing up — whether it is accurate or not — we called Marblehead the sailing capital of the world,” Stone says. “I was hugely inspired by natives like Ted Hood, who won the America’s Cup in 1974, and the legendary Phil Weld of Gloucester, who won the Transat [formerly the OSTAR] in 1980.”

That first winter boat delivery not only changed his plans to return to school right away, but it changed his life.

“It was one of those situations where the boat was late out of the yard and they had to make the yacht delivery during the middle of a New England winter,” Stone says. “I was completely unqualified to go, but I went. We hit a 70-knot gale off Cape Hatteras, but by the time we got to St. Maarten, I knew that I had no choice but to go sailing. I took four years off from college to do so.”

Following graduation from Middlebury in 1986, Stone eventually settled in Freeport, Maine, and spent nearly 15 years building up a specialty T-shirt business called Artforms. Stone continued to join some big offshore races but the lure of solo sailing remained.

“I always imagined what it would be like to sail alone — not because I don’t like sailing with others, but solo sailing is the end point,” Stone says. “The challenge of it is the lure.”

Friends, competitors

Stone and Harris’ rivalry began when each entered the single-handed Transat in June 2004 — a historic 2,800-nautical-mile race held every four years that begins in Plymouth, England, and finishes in Boston.

To enter the race, Harris purchased his Open 50, Gryphon Solo, a second-hand boat that had completed two Around Alone races with skipper Brad Van Liew at the helm. Van Liew won the event in 2003.

Meanwhile, Stone purchased the new Merf Owen-designed Open 50 he named Artforms, which was built in New Zealand.

True to his New England roots, Stone did not order the boat to be shipped to England prior to the race, but instead sailed it all the way from New Zealand to the starting line in Plymouth, England. Stone admits that his Yankee sensibilities had something to do with him transporting the boat under sail.

“Before I entered the Transat in 2004, most of the solo sailing I had done was in a Laser. For the most part, this solo sailing dream had been an intellectual exercise and a game of financial brinkmanship,” Stone says. “One of my greatest fears was that after spending nearly 15 years behind a desk that I was going to screw up and look like an idiot with a checkbook. When I finally got aboard Artforms, it hit me that I hadn’t been sailing in nearly a year. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do.”

During that grueling North Atlantic race, Stone not only caught up, but his decision to take a far northern route in frigid temperatures paid off. Stone won the Transat in a record-breaking 15 days, 5 hours, 20 minutes, 27 seconds.

“For me, the Transat was such a hugely rewarding experience. It was a confirmation that all the work, all the money, all the risk, all the time, all the preparation ended up with this win, at Boston, which is basically my hometown,” Stone says. “That race really became an end point.”

Stone and Harris met again in the summer of 2005 during the Bermuda 1-2, a fast and furious single-handed race from Newport to Bermuda and a double-handed race back.

“Since we both began racing against each other in June 2004, we are stronger out there together than we are apart. The two boats are similar and they really are like machines. When you wind them up in the right conditions they really do fly,” Stone says. “When Joe and I are sailing virtually side-by-side, it forces both of us to push and that is the great part of it. Ultimately, we know that one of us is going to beat the other every time, but we really enjoy the ride.”

While Stone is hoping to race in the famous Route du Rhum in 2006, Harris remains committed to professional sailing and international competition, but admits that without corporate sponsorship he might not be able to continue to campaign the boat.

“When this started I had a three-event campaign which included the Transat, the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Solo-Double Global Ocean Challenge which begins in 2007,” Harris says. “For me, participating in a round-the-world race remains an important goal of mine. If Kip races in it, too, it will be fantastic. The level of competition with him is always really challenging and exciting and it always makes me work harder.”

What ultimately motivates two under-funded New England sailors to compete against the world’s elite boils down to a shared appreciation for all of those great sailors who came before them.

“As I get to know the professional European sailors, I would say we are all inspired by those who came before us,” Stone says. “I grew up reading about Joshua Slocum who set out from Gloucester, Mass., on his voyage around the world, and by men like the late Phil Weld.

“French sailors are inspired by the accomplishments of the late Eric Taberly and the English love the stories of the late Sir Francis Chichester,” he continues. “I think what has been most amazing is that we have been able to follow in their footsteps. I am looking forward to the day when someone younger gets out on the course and is pushing us along.”