Morgan Trubovich knows a thing or two about the pro sailing circuit. He’s campaigned as a trimmer in all 5 America’s Cup competitions since 1995. He’s been a winner of the Sydney-Hobart Race and the Fastnet Race. In fact he’s won races all across the world, from China to the Caribbean. We tapped Morgan for some advice on how others can become a pro sailor – and here’s what he had to say.
I get asked this question a lot: “how did you become a professional sailor? What should I work on to improve my chances of becoming a pro sailor?”. It is not an easy question to answer. I have been a professional sailor since 1993. And in all that time I haven’t met two pro sailors who followed the exact same path to get there. There is not a clear development schedule to the top of sailing like there is in tennis, for example. My path was as unusual as some of the others at the top of this sport. I was a very good soccer player. I loved soccer. My father loved sailing. He would take me racing on his boat with all his mates and I didn’t enjoy it that much. I was scared. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t tip all the way over? There was a lot of yelling. I wanted to stick with soccer and play for New Zealand!
At 14 years old he came home one day and said “congratulations son, you made it into the (brand new) RNZYS Youth Training Programme”. I didn’t even know I had applied. There was a 16 year minimum age requirement – he had changed my birth year. Harold Bennett (super coach) still thinks I am 2 years older than I really am. I nervously entered the new facility and boom! I was hooked. I have literally been obsessed with racing boats ever since. It was something about that learning environment and competitive situation. Something just clicked. I have never looked back. So, given that there are so many different ways to fight your way to the top of this sport, here is my answer to the three top things I think someone who has pro sailor aspirations should focus on:
A strong personality builds a great attitude. I am a strong believer that this is the number one attribute needed for success at the top of our sport – and our lives! Sailing is a frustrating sport. So many variables. A lot of them completely out of your control. Even when you have worked incredibly hard to perfect your equipment, figured out your best hydrodynamics, gotten your aerodynamics nailed down, your fitness and body kinetics perfected and have studied all of the racing rules of sailing – along comes a random gust of wind, a huge wind shift, and you are suddenly in last place. Yes, this is our sport. Complicated, difficult, frustrating. But this is where that personality comes in. Can you be calm in the face of adversity? Can you still communicate with your team (or yourself) the same way when you are in last place as when you are in first place? Can you treat team mates (and competitors) with respect, even when you are frustrated? Can you rise to a challenge (because this sport delivers challenges in spades) without becoming an a**hole? Because if you want to be a professional sailor – and want to have friends when you are done being one – then that is what you need to work on.
Your personality. Be kind. Be fair. Play by the rules. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Listen to other people (everyone has something to teach you if you listen hard enough). Have a sense of humour. I am not saying you need to be a flag that blows wherever the wind is blowing. You need to pick your times to put your head down and put everything you have into it. I am saying that you can’t let the frustrations of your environment make you unpleasant to sail with. Our sport is frustrating by the sheer nature of it. Work on your personality. If you are the fastest 100m sprinter in the world, you can be a professional sprinter. If you are a great sailor but have a terrible personality, you might not be a professional sailor for long. Because no one likes to sail with an a**hole.
While improving your personality is the most important attribute for success in sailing (and life), it is also the hardest. But “dedication” is also no walk in the park. This is where sheer hard work comes in. Are you willing to do more than the other guy? Are you prepared to do the extra work to master a maneuvre? Are you willing to stay out that extra hour because your setup doesn’t feel quite right and you want to try something different? This is where your dedication comes in. Just like there aren’t many people with bad personalities at the top of our sport, there are also not many people who are lazy. I was born with a large dose of obsession. Luckily I found myself falling for a sport where obsessive traits are rewarded as there is never a perfect race. I have been chasing (and continue to chase) the perfect tack, the perfect spinnaker set, the perfect Medium jib shape my whole life and deep down I know it will never happen. But I get a thrill from improvement. That takes dedication. Work on that.
I am not talking about book smarts. Or spelling. This is sailing intelligence. I am not sure if people are born with this, or if it is developed over time. But I suspect it is a combination of both. A great personality and a huge amount of dedication will overcome a small lack of sailing intelligence. But not a complete lack of it. You need a basic level of sailing intelligence to be able to figure out solutions to very complex challenges. Being able to analyze a situation quickly and choose the right move separates the good from the great in this sport. Some people just seem to have it. You can tell when you travel through the airport with them. Before you have ever sailed with them, you can tell which people are going to be intelligent on the boat. It doesn’t mean greatness automatically…it isn’t ranked above personality and dedication. Plus, there is a way to increase this intelligence on a boat (or reduce it). Time on the water. That same sailor who showed such intelligence navigating the airport might disappoint you on the boat if they have only sailed once this year. Likewise, the person who stood at the wrong baggage claim for 30 minutes might be a super star on the boat if they have been sailing every day of the year working on improving their skills. So while a basic level of smarts is needed to be a professional sailor, time on the water can make a big difference to your sailing intelligence.
I will stop at that. There are obviously hundreds of items that help people get to the top of this sport. And so many different ways to get there. Follow your own path. Figure out what you want and then go for it with all that you have. But don’t stop working on your personality/attitude, your dedication and your sailing intelligence (time on the water helps). Good luck!
– Morgan Trubovich
Main image © Gilles Martin-Raget // Bottom image © Carlo Borlenghi.