HIRW Espresso Shot: Little Fuss. No Excuses.

The inexperienced spectator could be forgiven for making the assumption that Hamilton Island Race Week was a glitzy affair. In its 35th year, its attracted sponsorship from the likes of Audi, Club Marine and Paspaley, as well as the attention of the international style set; with the fashion elite from Net-A-Porter making the long journey from their polished London headquarters. The event has grown steadily yet significantly over the years; going on to become Australia’s largest offshore yachting regatta – and one of the world’s most internationally-represented sailing events.

Of course living on a tropical island for a week isn’t a hard sell, and putting your brand name alongside an event that lures some of the best sailors in the world (and their luxury yachts) wouldn’t be the worst thing you could write into your company’s marketing plan either. Let me set the scene; turquoise water, skilled athletes and that tense, apprehensive energy that can only be found when there’s a winning feeling in the air. Salt water, I’m certain of it, gets under the skin and spreads. Once it hits your bloodstream, it becomes the cure for almost anything. When in doubt, head to the water because there’s little glitz about the water; its raw and its real – unapologetically so, and that for me, is where the real appeal of the week lies.
I was lucky enough to see most of the regatta from the water. The down and dirty, up-close and personal of it; spending time (and a race prep run) with the crew from Espresso Forte. The sailing fraternity as a collective, reminded me of the people I met a few years ago when I was invited to Lexington Kentucky for the world’s most impressive thoroughbred sale. Teeming with people whose passions and personalities match their fortunes – which is more often than not, where magic and mayhem collide. Where the means to make a difference meets the want to do so. I was amongst a bunch of mostly alpha men, combined with salt and innovation, and I decided then and there that sailing wasn’t dissimilar to horse racing. There is a heirachy in both, and a world in which only an insider would know the rules. You each have your place – and at the end of the day, regardless of what that is, you’ll find the multi-million dollar owners at the local pub, sharing a $10 jug of beer with their crew, i.e, their people. You and me.
In fact, I was surprised by how little fuss there actually is in sailing. Little fuss. No excuses. A friend of mine hit the nail on the head while I waited for my flight back to Sydney a few days later, texting: “I bet its not as glamorous as it all seems. I bet you got into the real heart of it”. And yes, maybe I scratched around at the surface of it all but much like anything else worth being part of, if you’re not in the team, then you’re just not at the heart of it. Be that as it may, I do know what it’s like to compete at an elite sporting level, and I do know what its like to be a part of a team. And now, following the events of the week, I also know what it’s like to miss it.
“No room for emotions in sailing”, said one of the crew when I asked him about the team camaraderie. I just smiled at the self-deprecating remark and silently disagreed. This is the ultimate team sport. They rely on each other to pull their own weight, and there’s little room for error. When the inevitable error does occur, you know about it. There’s no tip-toeing around it, it carries in that salty air; for me as an observer, and for them, with their innate sensibility for the water, the elements and the technical skill involved. There might be some truths to the ‘rowdy sailor’, but their skill is unquestionable, even to the most untrained of eyes.
With those untrained eyes, I looked for other things. The stories, the emotion and the every day. Sure they’re mostly alpha men; high achievers in their respective careers, but like any person consistently around other high performing individuals, it rubs off and forces you to lift your game. And to lift, you need a leader. Every successful team needs a successful leader.
Espresso Forte owner Laurence Freedman is that man for his crew. Quietly spoken yet authoritative in presence. The kind of guy who speaks – and you listen. Little fuss. No excuses. Arriving in Sydney 22 years ago with $10 to his name, he’d barely been on water, having grown up in Mafeking, South Africa. Freedman, now 71, is a self-made man, a pioneer of the investment management industry in his country. In 1980, he co-founded EquitiLink Limited, which grew into a global company with $3 billion under management. The businessman and former part-owner of Channel Ten runs a tight ship, even sending one of the crew into hibernation when he appeared sick during a team dinner. It had me picturing him in the boardroom walking out, having spent too much time on frivolous ongoings. Fussiness gets the first vote off the island. If you want to be a success, you make quick and precise decisions. And he makes them, with little fuss and no excuses.
I joined the crew on the water Saturday morning before the official start to the regatta. My first time aboard a racing yacht, and it was amongst the company of previous Sydney to Hobart winners, a crew hungry for race-like conditions, i.e. note to self; “don’t mess up!”.
That was a life experience I will cherish. A rare chance to see the inner workings of a racing crew – and as expected, there were no holds barred. It’s nerve racking to be on a boat with minute by minute orders, more often than not swallowed by the wind and moving at a rapid pace, much quicker than my naivety was prepared for. I lost a pair of sunglasses and a shoe trying to tack on time in the swells. It didn’t matter, the show goes on. There is something magical about the water that transcends time and place. Further to that, once you’re on it, you may as well leave your ego on the marina. You’re now at mother nature’s mercy. Growing up as a competitive swimmer I learnt quickly not to fight the water. You must befriend it, and work with it, never against it. Sailing is very much the same. If you listen to your ego and not your conditions while travelling at 16 knots offshore, and are working with 11 or so other crew members, you could find yourself in trouble quicker than you thought. Like the duck, what looks idyllic on the surface is quite another matter when you look beneath.
Laurence explained the boating dynamics for me: “I don’t believe in shouting. There are strong winds and a lot going on once you’re out there so its inevitable that voices are raised; its a practicality for communication, but I prefer to manage it, reducing it to a necessary minimal. Offshore racing is all about how you work (and act) together as a team. That’s what I love. It’s why I seek an all amateur crew. I look to put people together from different backgrounds and skills. My job is to empower and encourage”.
He used the word empower often. For a world where fewer and fewer owners have the desire (or perhaps the time and skill) to drive their own ship, Freedman takes his place on race day at the helm. And why shouldn’t he? Not only is he emotionally invested in his fellow crew, but he practically designed Espresso forte himself, with the help of New Zealand racing experts Bruce Farr Yachts, and as usual, he was exacting in what he wanted; which was to make sure it was both race ready and ‘cruisable’ when not. Right down to the finer details of resting comforts and hidden luxuries. It might make the yacht that bit heavier than her competitors but at the end of the day, isn’t it still people that win races?
The cruisable yacht didn’t move to badly; Espresso Forte won the regatta’s first two races in their division, IRC Passage Div 4.
*Please scroll below for photos

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