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Norfolk man aims for America's Cup
Norfolk man aims for America's Cup

Some college students make summer memories exploring Alaskan glaciers or biking through Europe. Graham Landy’s vacation from Yale University has found him tossed into the frigid San Francisco Bay by a 40-foot, wing-sailed racing catamaran that went belly up.

“Definitely an eye-opener,” Landy said.

Especially so when the mishap followed by weeks the May death of a British catamaran racer, Olympic champion Andrew Simpson. Preparing for a potential berth in September’s America’s Cup finals as part of Sweden’s Artemis Racing team, Simpson’s 72-foot, seven-ton machine, its carbon fiber and Kevlar wing 13 stories tall, capsized in the same bay.

Norfolk’s Landy, part of a nine-man American crew entered in the inaugural Red Bull Youth America’s Cup, said his boat’s fall during a training session “was all very controlled, and we were all safe.” But it was a jolting lesson learned.

“This is the most high-performance sailing you can do,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it scary, but you definitely respect the power of the boats and how windy it is. The consequences can be pretty high, as we’ve seen.”

Peril has grown quickly in turbocharged America’s Cup racing as money, technology, politics and competitive fire have propelled the sport over the past few years to extreme limits. Traditional monohulled sailing – “chess on water,” as it’s been called – has been supplanted by cats that pulse through waves on foils at 40 mph or more, a gale force, faster even than the rushing wind.

The youth cup, to run Sept. 1-4 preceding the America’s Cup, will feature 45-foot cats that aren’t quite as fast or as dangerous as the 72-foot marvels used by the pros. Still, helmets, flotation vests and knives will be standard issue for the crew as defense against trouble that can unfold in a flash.

Sure, it’s eye-opening. But what’s a father to do when, as Neil Landy said of his son, “From age 8, all he’s ever thought about was sailboat racing. It’s his reason for being.”

The tide that pulled the boy was both relentless and inexplicable. His family lived on the Lafayette River, near the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club, but owned no boat, no kayak, no canoe. The best his father offers is that seeing water daily fascinated Graham, so much that a summer visit to a YMCA water camp led within two years to lessons from Anna Tunnicliffe, then an Old Dominion All-American and a future Olympic gold medalist.

“She has a magnetic personality, and she and Graham were inseparable,” Neil Landy said. “To this day, they’re good friends. They see each other on the circuit.”

In rapid course, Graham was competitive nationally. After a year of high school at Norfolk Academy, he urged his parents to let him transfer to Hotchkiss, a $50,000-a-year boarding school in Lakeville, Conn., with a strong sailing team. “His ambition, his drive ... you make it happen,” said Neil Landy, a periodontist in Virginia Beach.

What ambition has bought now for Graham Landy, 20, himself an All-American collegian, is a summer in San Francisco among elite 19- to 24-year-olds being nudged, for the first time, up the America’s Cup sailing ladder.

Along with boat design akin to Formula 1 race cars, introducing young blood to the game is meant to invigorate a 162-year-old series that remains outlandishly expensive and exclusive.

“It’s long overdue,” said Charlie Ogletree, coincidentally another former ODU sailing star, and a four-time Olympian hired to coach Landy’s crew, named Oracle Team USA45 Racing. “There’s been no real feeder system or minor league,” he said. “Very few sailors can get into the America’s Cup arena.”

That lack of opportunity, in fact, is one reason Landy purchased a 470, a double-handed monohull dinghy, and had begun training at the U.S. Sailing Center in Miami for a 2016 Olympic bid over semester break. Around that time, however, America’s Cup organizers announced the Red Bull Junior Cup, and Landy was quickly invited by a couple of Southern California college sailors he knew to join a team they were forming.

It meant Landy would have to table his Olympics quest until 2020. But it also would offer him a rare, immediate chance to see and taste the billionaire’s league of yacht racing.

However, though he and his teammates directly launched a drive to raise $500,000 – they’re beyond halfway there – to pay for three months of training, coaching and competition in the Bay Area, they couldn’t just sail straight into the youth-cup spray.

After May’s collegiate championships, at which Yale won the Fowle Trophy for best all-around program, six teams auditioned for two spots to represent the United States. They were judged by the pros of software magnate Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA, the America’s Cup defenders, on 45-foot cats most had never driven. At Yale, Landy sails 420 double-handed dinghies or Flying Juniors.

“There was a steep learning curve,” Landy said. “A couple Oracle coaches were on board to help, but we were mostly figuring it out ourselves. It’s faster, and there’s more coordination among crew members, but you recognize that it’s still sailing.”

They impressed enough to gain Oracle’s endorsement, after which AC45 Racing was “adopted” by the affluent enclave of Tiburon, north of San Francisco. Host families stepped forward to house and feed the sailors, and training and sailing facilities were arranged.

Most days begin with two-hour gym sessions – Oracle Team USA provided the training program – before full afternoons of work on the water in a two-man, 18-foot catamaran and a 40-footer for five men.

The youth cup’s 10 teams won’t get their 45-foot competition boats from Red Bull until mid-August. That will leave about two weeks to practice before the eight-race competition – each race takes about 30 minutes – on the actual America’s Cup course.

The main difference between the youth and pro regattas, aside from boat and crew size, is that youth members must hold passports from the country they represent. Many members of Team Oracle USA, for instance, are Australian, including skipper Jimmy Spithill. And Ogletree, who at 45 still competes in mono and multihulls, skippered China Team last year in the America’s Cup World Series.

However, both levels of the sport put a new premium on cardio endurance and physical strength.

“If you look at the professionals sailing the boats, they’re truly amazing athletes, which is different from how sailing is often portrayed,” Graham Landy said.

As the tactician, Landy is the lead strategist, the guy who during the race thinks “two or three moves ahead,” he said. Boats will have a six-man weight limit that averages out to about 176 pounds per man.

And while Landy is just 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, “his strength-to-weight ratio is probably higher than anyone’s on the boat,” said Ogletree, who relocated from Houston with his wife, Lizz, for the summer.

“My impressions are he’s a together guy, young and intelligent. He’s adapted really quickly to everything here. I think when race time comes, he’s going to be solid on what he’s good at, and what he’s good at is tactics. He oversees what everyone’s doing in the maneuvers, and he’ll make sure the team is prepared for the next maneuver.”

Ultimately, the goal is to outduel another U.S. team, two from New Zealand, and single crews from Australia, France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Win or lose, Landy won’t get to stick around to watch the big boys defend the America’s Cup against a rival currently being determined through the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Classes at Yale, where he is a history major, will have begun by then, and Landy will need to get right back to school as well as his familiar East Coast waters.

He’ll have taken a pioneer’s first steps, though, toward a possible future in rare air – America’s Cup racing, should the winds blow Landy that way.

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