Ull­man on Pros, Again

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In these pages in 1986, Dave Ull­man de­clared we should “get the pros out of rac­ing.” As a pro­fes­sional sailor him­self, it was a star­tling pro­nounce­ment, call­ing out the ele­phant in the room. Even to­day, it’s not un­usual for that in­ter­view to come up in dis­cus­sions about the role of pro sailors in sail­ing. More than three decades later, in a sport where the land­scape has trans­formed in many ar­eas, Ull­man shares his per­spec­tive on the past and present role of pro­fes­sion­als in sail­ing.

What prompted your con­clu­sion in 1986 that pros don’t be­long in sail­ing?

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, in the early 1980s, peo­ple started bring­ing pros on board PHRF boats. That was in the early stages of pro­fes­sional sail­ing, where most of the pros were sail­mak­ers, such as my­self, or other in­dus­try peo­ple. We weren’t ac­tu­ally paid to go sail­ing. We raced with cus­tomers, helped them sail their boats, but we were ba­si­cally pro­mot­ing or sell­ing our prod-

Af­ter 30 years and a steady evo­lu­tion of the sport, Dave Ull­man re­vis­its his ear­lier opin­ion on a hot-but­ton topic.

ucts. As I said in that in­ter­view, one prob­lem with that was there were only so many good sailors in the in­dus­try, which meant a lim­ited pool of ta­lent, and with­out them, you prob­a­bly didn’t have a good chance of win­ning. Plus, and maybe more im­por­tant, it took the fun out of it for own­ers be­cause they re­al­ized they didn’t have a chance of win­ning with­out a pro on board.

How would you de­scribe the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia big-boat fleets to­day?

There are no longer many fam­i­lies, mid­dle-class peo­ple or teams sail­ing PHRF boats. It’s be­come much more fo­cused with much more ex­pen­sive pro­grams and, in many cases, big­ger boats. As you get over 50 feet, you al­most need to have pros on board. But I think this has more to do with the econ­omy than the pres­ence of pro­fes­sional sailors. Mid­dle-class reg­u­lar peo­ple can’t af­ford to have ocean-rac­ing boats. There are still Wed­nes­day night beer-can races and things like that, where you can find smaller PHRF boats and a more ca­sual at­mos­phere. In those sit­u­a­tions, not hav­ing pros there makes per­fect sense. If we were talk­ing bas­ket­ball, it would be like hav­ing Lebron James com­ing in and play­ing in an AAU tour­na­ment. That’s not who PHRF was meant for. It was meant for rac­ing at a more re­laxed level.

What changes have you seen in the ac­tual pro­fes­sion of pro sail­ing?

Pro­fes­sional sail­ing re­ally came into its own with Den­nis Con­nor’s 1987 Amer­ica’s Cup cam­paign. That pro­gram was re­ally well-man­aged and thor­ough, and as I un­der­stand it, peo­ple got paid to go sail­ing in that cam­paign. From there, into the 1990s, there was some purely pro­fes­sional sail­ing, but peo­ple like my­self ended up ba­si­cally dou­ble- dip­ping: sell­ing prod­ucts, such as sails, and get­ting paid to sail with cus­tomers. By the 2000s, most of the pro­fes­sional sailors didn’t ac­tu­ally work in the in­dus­try. They make a real liv­ing just as pro­fes­sional sailors, which to me means mak­ing enough money to sup­port a fam­ily. To­day, the whole def­i­ni­tion of what a pro is has changed dra­mat­i­cally. You have pro­fes­sion­als who ac­tu­ally are pro­fes­sion­als. Then you had pro­fes­sion­als who were sell­ing and push­ing prod­ucts and, in lots of cases, get­ting peo­ple to over­buy the prod­uct to get their ex­per­tise. That doesn’t hap­pen much any­more. It’s much more straight­for­ward. You have a pro, you pay them, you know what you’re get­ting, and you know what it costs.

How big a pool of pro sailors do you think ex­ists to­day?

Back in 2007, just be­fore the re­ces­sion, my wife and I did some re­search on this be­cause we were look­ing at start­ing a sort of ta­lent agency for pro sail­ing, a way to join own­ers and pros to pro­vide a good mix for both. The re­ces­sion killed that idea, but back then, we did fig­ure that the num­bers were prob­a­bly in the 400 to 500 range in the United States, which in­cludes the $ 200 to $ 300 per diem guys, as well as maybe 200 to 300 at the top end, those who can ac­tu­ally make a liv­ing do­ing this, mean­ing they can sup­port a fam­ily.

Have you changed your mind about ex­clud­ing pros from sail­ing?

Yes, be­cause the sport has changed. Now I think it’s more, keep pros out of some facets of rac­ing. Take a look at one- de­sign rac­ing. Some classes have no pros, some classes such as the Etchells are wide open — and it seems to be work­ing quite well — and then there are classes like the J/70, which I’m quite fa­mil­iar with, where pro­fes­sional sail­ing will cer­tainly hurt the class and might even be the demise of the class. There, to sus­tain growth, they should limit the num­ber of pros — maybe one pro on board. But it’s re­ally up to the class. It must be con­trolled by class rules, re­flect­ing where the mem­ber­ship wants it to go.

Is the prob­lem of hav­ing pros sail­ing in fleets to­day much dif­fer­ent than it was in 1986?

To some ex­tent, there’s still lim­ited ex­per­tise; there are only so many pros. But more im­por­tant, it makes the ex­pense of go­ing to re­gat­tas way too high for the mid­dle of the class. Back to the J/70: If you’re pay­ing three pros per day, and per prac­tice, that’s quite ex­pen­sive, and most of the class prob­a­bly doesn’t want to com­pete against that. The idea there was to have equal rac­ing at a rel­a­tively eco­nomic bud­get, but now, it’s re­ally ex­pen­sive to win in that class. It runs the risk of los­ing the bot­tom half of the class. And the re­sult will be a fur­ther de­crease in the num­ber of boats rac­ing.

So is it mostly about cost?

It’s also that the pros are so much bet­ter, or they wouldn’t be pros. A big part of it is the num­ber of days on the wa­ter. Sure, they be­came pros be­cause they were quite good to be­gin with, but add to that their time on the wa­ter, and it far out­weighs what any­body who makes a nor­mal liv­ing could ever do.

Are to­day’s owner- driver rules a step in the right di­rec­tion?

Yes, for many classes. Again, it de­pends on the class, but for most one-de­signs, it’s the right thing. Part of the prob­lem right now is that a num­ber of own­ers sail in many classes, and they would like it if their pref­er­ences ex­tend across all of those classes.

For those who think pros should not be al­lowed to race, do you think if the pros were sud­denly re­moved from a fleet, the same peo­ple who are win­ning now would still be win­ning? Would it re­ally change the re­sults much?

In most cases, the own­ers who are driv­ing are re­ally good sailors. So it wouldn’t dra­mat­i­cally change, but it would give the peo­ple in the mid­dle of the class a much bet­ter chance. And if it’s only a per­ceived change for the mid­dle of the class, then that’s OK. Per­cep­tion is re­al­ity. I think you’d also find that re­ally good am­a­teur crews would rise to the top.

What about the ar­gu­ment that even if you’re an av­er­age sailor, pit­ting your­self against the best in the sport will make you bet­ter? Is that per­spec­tive valid?

It’s nice to pit your­self against the best, but on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, no. Most peo­ple are too com­pet­i­tive to go out and get to­tally beaten up ev­ery time. So there needs to be classes in which they can race. At one end are classes where any­thing goes. You want to race against the best peo­ple? Get one of those boats and race against them. Not in­ter­ested in rac­ing at that level? Fig­ure out whether the class you’re sail­ing in matches your ex­pec­ta­tions. Un­der­stand the money you want to spend, the time you want to spend on prac­tice, how much ex­per­tise you need to race your boat. Some classes should be re­served for a dif­fer­ent level of com­pe­ti­tion. There needs to be some­thing for ev­ery­body.

Do you see the pros as hav­ing other roles in our sport beyond mak­ing boats go fast and help­ing win re­gat­tas?

Sure. By do­ing clin­ics, coach­ing, giv­ing sem­i­nars in one-de­sign classes — giv­ing back. Most of the re­ally good pros do that. More of those are be­ing done by sail­mak­ers try­ing to sell prod­ucts, but that’s not to say that pros shouldn’t be en­listed to help. So there’s def­i­nitely a give-back. And pros could cer­tainly do that in classes, even where they’re not al­lowed to sail. It would help the level of sailors. It’s not what’s best for the pro­fes­sional; it’s what’s best for the sport. “For the sport” means for the peo­ple who own boats and are par­tic­i­pat­ing and the peo­ple crew­ing — not the pro­fes­sional crews. We al­ways have to keep that in mind. Q

“To­day, the whole def­i­ni­tion of what a pro is has changed dra­mat­i­cally. You have pro­fes­sion­als who ac­tu­ally are pro­fes­sion­als.”

Dave Ull­man, pro­fes­sional sailor, sail­maker, and Olympic coach has a longterm per­spec­tive on the role of pro­fes­sion­als in the sport. P H O T O : PA U L T O D D / OUT­SIDE IM­AGES

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