The crew of Provezza in the 52 Super Series in Cape Town

Chris Hosking: “Grand prix sailing still seems to be quite strong”

With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the whole planet, it has meant a great deal of uncertainty for sport in general and sailboat races are no exception. What will the impact be on our sport? What changes will there be to the economic model? How do races need to change? How will sponsors behave?

To try to get to grips with this new situation, Tip & Shaft is carrying out a series of five interviews about the future of sail racing. Here we speak to Chris Hosking in order to better understand what the past few months have been like for a grand prix pro sailor and what he sees as the future. Newport RI based Aussie Hosking has been project managing TP52 builds since 2004 and sails as mainsheet trimmer on Provezza on the 52 SUPER SERIES. Like many others at his level he also sails on the J Class circuit and the 44Cup circuit. 

So Chris what has life been like these past few months?
Well in some respects it has been good to be at home, not travelling and living out of bags all the time, being with my wife and our dogs but we have not worked since March and don’t really know for sure when we will start again. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment in our history quite like this it’s just shut down work for so many people. I think there’s 40 million people unemployed now in the United States. Obviously, I’m a part of that statistic and its wiped out our industry completely. We did the Antigua Superyacht Challenge on the J class and then I flew home. At that sort of time, I think it was around March 17 this virus was kicking off and there was a lot of indecision about whether or not regattas were even going to go ahead. But the minute St Barth’s was cancelled our team manager said, ‘Guys get home however you can’. And immediately after that the TP52 Worlds were cancelled in South Africa and that was it, nothing since then.

So even if this kind of happening is not really covered by contracts or sailor agreements, I understand most owners on the Grand Prix scene have been quite decent and supportive….. as far as you know? 
It was a sort of unwritten word. I guess you could say in the industry that if a regatta is cancelled for whatever reason, generally within a three week period, you get paid some sort of compensation for that regatta. In our situation with Svea was we were paid 100% for St Barth’s.

But there are not many fixed contracts of employment or engagement in your business as a pro sailor? 
Even before this some of us had contracts or crew member agreements. Some of the teams that I’ve worked with we’ve had a contract and some of the teams haven’t. In my particular position now the 52 team I’m with don’t have contracts so it really leaves you in the hands of the owner and his goodwill whether he wants to look out for you or not. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag among the TP52 fleet I know of some teams that have been paid at least 50% for every regatta that has been cancelled so far. But there are other teams that have been paid absolutely nothing.

So the learning from this is maybe that there have to be more comprehensive agreements across the sport? 
This is professional sport and the top end of the sport that we participate in is fully professional. You you could have any old Jack jump on a boat and be able to sail it at the competitive level that the owners require of us. So I do think it does need to become a little more structured. Certainly the way to do that would be to have contracts between the service provider (which is us) and the owner of the boat. It is a business after all. I definitely think that is the way forward, absolutely.

From what you know of your colleagues and peers, has it been a struggle or have most guys built themselves some kind of contingency, rainy day fund?
I think you’d be foolish if you didn’t really, financially irresponsible if you didn’t. We do know sailing is a relatively fickle industry. This is the owner’s hobby. It is a luxury sport and something that these guys are obviously very fortunate to be able to be in a position where they can spend the money that they do to enjoy the sport at this high level. But they can turn it off whenever they feel like it. Literally they can get out of bed one the morning and decide ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. It does not take a pandemic to stop your income coming in. I do think you have to be responsible and make sure you’ve got money saved away to live through those light spells where there isn’t much work and this is obviously one of those times. I don’t think anyone expected it to go on for as long as it has and obviously it affects all of us financially. For me personally I’m quite fortunate that I have looked after myself financially and we can probably weather this one out till March next year if we really had to.

But decent pro sailors at the level you are operating at, 52 SUPER SERIES, RC44, J Class, Maxi, Superyachts, are making good money. 
It depends on your role on the boat, obviously tacticians are getting paid. Your good professional (with a key role, say the pitman) is on anywhere from 600 to 1000 euros a day I’d imagine. And some will be doing upwards of 150 days a year at least. But it is not a game where you’re going to retire at 60 with millions of dollars in the bank, there’s obviously a very rare few that have been extremely successful. A lot of the sailors that went through that Version 5 Americas Cup when they salaries were really big, and they were on those long contracts, some of those guys have done very well. But there are guys like my good mate Robbie Naismith who invested heavily in property with the salary he was making in that period and he’s done really well. But those salaries are gone now no question, no one is getting paid that super money.

But you can pretty much choose how long or short your season is?
The season starts thinning out quite rapidly in September. You do then have to get from October into March before it starts really opening up again. Me, I’ll go down to Asia and do a few regattas down there, maybe a Sydney-Hobart and some that stuff in Sydney but the pay is nothing like in Europe and the regattas are far fewer obviously.

And from your viewpoint and what you know so far, do you think this pandemic will cause a reduction in the number of owners happy to operate at this level and spend the money it takes? Or do you think most love it so much they will still make it their priority?
I do think they will mostly carry on. A guy like our (Provezza) owner he’s been sailing a hell of a long time. Maybe he talks about retiring still from time to time but I’m sure he doesn’t want to finish his sailing career on a note like this with a great big pandemic pause ending his illustrious career. I’m sure he wants to finish on a high note and I’m sure a lot of owners feel the same way so they’ll bounce back next year.

But are they likely to be more conscious of budget and saving where they can? 
As you know in my career, having been a former boat captain in the fleet, I was always taught as a nipper to spend money as if it was your own. I think regardless of how wealthy an owner may be you have a responsibility to spend their money as efficiently as possible to help them achieve their goals. It’s one of those ones you go through every year where you say ‘right the owner wants to win the season’ and in order for that it’s going to cost you X in sails and in crew, people, containers and the infrastructure and everything. For sure I don’t think any of us spend money like its falling out of trees. But we are always trying to be as cost effective as you can be to help the owner achieve their goals as I’ve said. I certainly hope all will continue. The 52 SUPER SERIES owners are a really remarkable group of owners and very diverse. I mean when you have a look at all the owners and how they make their money it’s a very interesting, colourful group of people. But, yes, some are going to be affected more than others. But we are operating in an area of the industry where these guys have got enough money to be able to continue to do this. It’s the 40 footer racer or cruiser racer guys that does the regional sailing that has been knocked hard enough. They might be the ones who will need to reduce or stop campaigning.  Look back to the global financial crisis and it wiped out the middle of the yachting scene. But the J/70’s and Melges 20 type boats that emerged are still super strong. Grand prix sailing still seems to be quite strong.

You do some racing on the J Class and Superyachts, do you see that arena as a more robust market? 
Well for sure we’ve seen an explosion in super yachting in the last five to 10 years. Ten years ago you could walk throught the STP yard in Palma and a Perini Navi would’ve been a massive super yacht but now you walk and they have proliferated. There are so many of them now and these owners genuinely seem interested in wanting to race these boats. They’d never do a circuit of regattas like the 52’s where they do 6 regattas a year, they might do two or something like that. But they consume a lot of experienced people to sail these boats so I do see super yachting just continuing to grow irrespective of the pandemic or any economic doom that’s forecast as a consequence of it. I’d like to think that the 52 owners are wealthy enough that this class should remain strong.

You are based in Newport, are things opening up for racing on the East Coast USA yet?
It’s quite interesting actually I’ve been called by Gavin Brady for the owner of the Maxi 72 Vesper (ex Momo). Their schedule for that is Vineyard Racing in Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard in the end of July, start of August. The Ida Lewis Distance Race in the middle of August, The New York YC’s annual at end of August and the New York Club Rolex in mid-late September. And  it seems if there’s enough interest that the regattas will go ahead but we need to socially distance on the boats. But obviously you know a boat like Vesper is the old an IRC 72 normally requires 22 people to sail it. But we are looking to sail it with 10-15 people and not using spinnakers. We’ll use a code zero or some sort of sail like that, try and sail the boat with a reduced crew so the owner can still get out on the water and have some fun and enjoy sailing.

And what about the RC44 and the 44Cup you are a bit of a fan and think they will survive OK? 
I’m a massive fan of a 44, they’re such a fun and exciting boat for sail and I really do think they’re great value for the owners. The quality of racing compared to what those guys spend is really good value for money in my opinion. I understand that Cowes Week has been cancelled and obviously that was going to be a regatta for the 44’s to go to this year. The boats are currently in Portoroz in Slovenia and I understand that the boats are going to stay there and if there is an opportunity to have a regatta then we will.

Given the situation now and the future of grand prix sailing what’s your advice to young pro sailors?
You got to have a skill you cannot now expect to be paid to sit on a boat and be a trimmer. You’ve got to have a second skill set. I know so many guys who are really accomplished riggers or sail makers or boat builders in addition to pro sailing. You need to bring so much more to the team than just pure sailing talent. That’s certainly my advice, get an education and get a skill that becomes indispensable to a sailing team and all of a sudden, you’ll find yourself becoming in demand.

What does grand prix sailing have to do to evolve and strengthen its offering? 
I wish I knew, I don’t know what to say. One thing is that we do all love the sport and I’m passionate about the sport. Make no mistake if I had money I’d be a boat owner too and I’d be doing what these guys are doing! I often dream about it. I can imagine if you had the money and wealth to do it it’d be so cool. Imagine steering your own boat on the best circuit in the world it’d be so awesome. I hope there are other passionate sailors out there in the world who do have the money and do have an interest in it who come join the circuits. Whether it be a 44 or a 52 or even a J/70.

Photo: Martinez Studio / 52 SUPER SERIES

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