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Sail Like a Pro

Learning to Sail Like a Pro

Growing up in the States, I was among many who would give anything to play basketball like Michael Jordan. Gatorade even launched a campaign with the catchy jingle, “Be like Mike.” But only the pros and a select few would ever be able to play a game with MJ and learn from the basketball great. When it comes to sailing, however, the legends of the water allow the sport to thrive and grow in part due to an intimate bond with even the most novice sailors.

This year, in North Sound, Virgin Gorda, Bitter End Yacht Club welcomed eight of the world’s top professionals and dozens of amateurs to the 25th Pro Am Regatta. The event carried a light tone, but also displayed professional-level competitiveness as veterans squared off against newcomers in five days of fleet and match racing events. In the end, 63-year-old sailing great Ed Baird nudged out 28-year-old Olympic gold medalist Anna Tunnicliffe. But at the end of the event, it wouldn’t matter who won or lost; rather, the event’s winners would go home with a boatful of knowledge.


Pro Am Regatta Chairman Bob Phillips might have best summed up the interaction between professionals and amateurs.

“Think if you could go to a golf resort and play with the top golfers in the world,” he said, comparatively. “Here you’ve got the guests sailing with the best.”

Further, he added, the event does wonders for Virgin Islands tourism.

“It’s huge because of the PR it brings,” the 40-year sailing veteran and Tortola resident said. “The one segment of the tourism industry doing really well consistently is sailing—sailors sail no matter what the economic restraint.”


Baird said he has seen the event evolve since he first attended it 25 years ago.

“The biggest difference is the resort has matured and the facilities have improved—and so has the level of guests that have come to participate,” the veteran said. “The first few years we were down here, it was lightly attended. But as word got out about how special it is, people really started coming down.”

Baird noted that the event now brings out many more amateurs, “and although it’s all about fun, you really feel the excitement and energy that [amateurs] bring.”

The event, he added, brings out anyone from “the occasional Wednesday night racer, to the serious club guys.”

Sailing amateur Chris Smith came down from Tuscon, Arizona for his third Pro Am Regatta. He was one of eight to represent the Arizona Yacht Club. For Smith, the Virgin Islands allow him to sail in an idyllic setting under steady trade winds. And he also gets to enjoy the waters with “pros I’ve only read about.”

“The majority of [the pros] are talking while they’re sailing, so you’re listening and you’re learning an immense amount,” he said, adding that he learned invaluable strategies about wind approach, racecourse management and tacking from greats Ed Baird, Peter Holmberg and Andrew Campbell.

Amateurs asked said they were particularly excited to see up-and-coming sailors participating in the event. And for the young pros, the event equally allowed them to learn from their older counterparts.

“Everybody can learn from each other,” said 28-year-old Anna Tunnicliffe, who in November won the women’s 2011 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award. “It’s a great event for us to show what we know—it keeps the sport going and sailors gaining enthusiasm.”

Even with a long list sailing accolades in her young career, Tunnicliffe humbly admitted that she has a lot of room left to grow and learn from others.

“Ed and Peter and Dave are guys I look up to—they’re my heroes—so I get to learn, too,” she said. “I feel like I’m the real am[ateur] here, with a chance to sail with the pros.”

Overall Standings
1 Ed Baird
2 Anna Tunnicliffe
3 Zach Railey
4 Peter Holmberg
5 Dave Almond
6 Matt Burge
7 Tom Lee
8 Andrew Campbell*

*Campbell did not compete in the final match racing competition.

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