Back to "Features"
  The Latitude Interview: Dee Smith

Is life as a professional sailor all it's cracked up to be?
It's hard work, but in the last few years, I've finally been able to make a decent living at it. The toughest part is all the travelling - last year, I was away from home 242 days, and 192 days the year before that. There are times when I'd like to stay home more, but this is what I do for a living - and fortunately Joc has been able to join me at some very nice places. There's a lot of pressure to perform on the race course, as well as all the usual politics. There's virtually no job security. . . on the whole, I'd say it's not a life for everyone.

Do you still enjoy sailing, or has it become just a job?
Oh, don't get me wrong, I still love racing sailboats. Sometimes I can't believe how lucky I am to actually get paid to do something I love so much - a lot of people really hate their jobs, are just in it for the paycheck. Not me! When the ten minute gun goes off, I still get as excited as a teenager in his first big race. If that feeling ever goes away, I'll know it's time to find another line of work.

What have you been up to lately besides the Whitbread?
The last 18 months have been a bit of a blur. After the Big Boat Series in '96, I did a few regattas in Florida, then went to Australia for the Sydney-Hobart and another series. I sailed on BZW Challenge in the Hobart, and we got screwed by the race committee - we chased flares and couldn't get all our time back. We should have won that race. Then I went to Key West and the SORC on Jameson, won both. Congressional Cup, won that. Sydney-Mooloolaba, won that. Antigua, won that. A Dutch ILC 40 regatta on MK Cafe, fourth. Then I went to the Mumm Pre-Worlds and Worlds on Moby Lines, second in both. Annapolis-Newport Race on Gaucho, first in class. Chicago NOOD on Vim, a N/M 39 that I've been coaching, won that. Kiel Week, ILC 40 Worlds, Big Boat Series. Ficker Cup with Scott Dickson, won that. Southern Cross. . .

Enough! Stop, please! But congratulations - that's quite a record. Are you disappointed when you don't win?
Well, yes, of course - but you can't win them all. I expect to outsail most people very time I go out. It really depends how prepared you are and who you're sailing against. I get really upset when I do stupid things, and we all do sometimes - but the important thing is to learn from the experience and not repeat the mistake.

Do you take notes after each race?
No, but I probably should. A lot of the top guys do that - Terry Hutchinson and Dave Dellenbaugh come right to mind. I guess I could fire up my laptop and write notes on the plane on the way home, but I haven't yet.

You have a reputation as kind of the ultimate 'hired gun'. What exactly do you get paid to do anyway?
I'm a free agent, really. Unlike many of the pros, who have vested interests in selling the owners certain boats or sails or products, I'm paid to look out only for the owner's best interests. My job is to overhaul the program, get it up to speed and then go out and presumably win the race. Sometimes I'm brought in early to consult with the owner on what boat to buy or build, and I've worked with a couple projects like that from scratch - the 50-foot Morning Glory, Jameson and ABAP Defiance, for example. But mostly, I'm paid to help win regattas, which fortunately seems to happen with some regularity. I love winning races, but I find it most gratifying when a boat I coached continues winning after I leave.

Why should someone hire you over the next pro?
I've been in the industry about 30 years, and I bring a complete understanding of the sport to the table. In addition to boatspeed, rules, tactics, driving and all the stuff you've got to know, I have 12 years of sailmaking experience under my belt, along with an understanding of the principles of naval architecture. I've sailed just about every type of boat in just about every condition and location you can name. . . I also think I've mellowed a lot as I've gotten older, and am maybe easier to get along with now.

A kinder, gentler Dee?
Well, yeah, maybe. I guess I don't have as much to prove anymore, or something.

What are some of the going rates for pro sailors anyway?
I just finished filing my taxes, so I know exactly how much I made last year - but I'm not telling you! It all depends on the event and the person. For doing a full Whitbread, I'd say the average guys gets about $50,000 this time. I'd guess that the watch captains usually get $100,000+, while the navigator gets even more. The skippers get the most, maybe even as much as $250,000 on the top programs, and up to twice that if they brought the sponsorship in. That may seem like a lot of money for going sailing, but remember it's a 24 hour-a-day job for 18 months or so in a row, and there are lots of dangerous and uncomfortable times. . . For something like an Admiral's Cup, Sardinia Cup, Kenwood Cup or the more prestigious ocean races, some of the best guys are getting around $10,000 - but, believe me, those salaries are rare. Usually it's expenses plus a set rate per day, somewhere between $400 and $1,000, sometimes with bonuses for winning. Some races, like winter Mexican stuff, pay little or nothing, but they're so much fun that the pros will do them anyway. Again, it all comes down to what you negotiate - everyone cuts a different deal.

Are there written contracts involved?
Sometimes, but not often. Usually you already know the person hiring you, and it's really rare that someone doesn't pay. You usually get 1099s, and sometimes W-2s, so there is generally a paper trail. I've been on both sides of these transactions, because for some programs, like Jameson, I'm in charge of the budget. I hire the people for the regattas, pay all the bills, take care of all the logistics, and basically run a turn-key operation for the owner.

With lots of money at stake, isn't there a win-at-all-costs mentality that might encourage bending the rules?
I don't think so. When I was just getting into the international sport, back in the IOR days, cheating was rampant. It was really sad, we lost a lot of good owners because of it. These days, I don't think it's as bad. We'll all push the rules as far as possible, but overt cheating is really rare.

Do you have an opinion on the lifejacket rule?
I have mixed emotions. It's like the helmet rule, which I don't really care for either - we need to be careful not to legislate stupidity. It's ridiculous to require PFDs in under, say, 10 knots, but obviously there's a time to put them on. We wore lifejackets and harnesses on Jameson in the Kenwood Cup last time, which was the lightest series ever. We didn't do it for safety, we did it because the added weight on the rail was fast.

Have you ever had any close calls?
Sure, in fact I almost went overboard in the Whitbread Race coming up the coast of Brazil. I came on deck without a harness on, called a jibe, and then went forward on the leeward side to untie the lazy runner. It was only blowing about 25, but a puff hit and suddenly my feet were getting wet. As we went into a broach, I wrapped my arms around the shrouds and ended up swimming, basically floating level with the deck. There's a lot of water pressure trying to pry you off the boat when you crash at those speeds.

Have you ever been scared out there?
I got a little concerned on a Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara Race in the early '70s on Rob Wade's Moore 24 Poltergeist. It was rough, blowing 30+ and we had our storm kite up. We were hauling ass, somewhere down under Sur around dusk. I still remember this ominous rumbling sound as the puff hit - it had to be blowing over 40 and now we're planing so hard that the whole boat is shaking and we're in a total whiteout. Then Jack (Halterman) freaks out - "We gotta choke it down," he yells. The moment he touched anything, we crashed with a vengeance! It was a real mess, but we got it back together eventually and won the race by five or six hours. When we finished, we heard the sad news about Pi sinking that night. . . Another memorable moment was going 21.5 knots on Leading Lady coming in from the Farallones. That had my full attention!. . . I guess there have been lots of moments that would qualify as 'scary', depending on how you define it.

What are some of your earliest sailing memories?
I was about 12 years old the first time my dad and I took out his new Gladiator in some race off Santa Cruz. We were just racing with a main and a jib, sailing along mid-pack when a boat ahead jibed and headed for the beach. My dad instructed me to find the binoculars and start looking for the mark in there, because the guy who jibed had set the marks earlier. Sure enough, the mark was in there - so we jibed over, and won the race on corrected time because almost the whole fleet had followed the lead boat to the wrong mark. It made a real impression on me - there's no reason not to do well on the race course, so long as you just keep your eyes open.

Why didn't you, or don't you, ever sail dinghies?
I did sail a little on Hobie Cats when I was younger, but basically I've been working in the industry my whole life and there's no money to be made in dinghies.

Have you ever owned your own boat?
Not since a Cal 29 that I inherited from my father in 1972. I lived on that boat for three years, and even raced my 'house' down the coast a few times before selling it in '75. These days I'm too busy for a boat anyway, and when I have some free time I'd rather go skiing, or ride my motorcycle, or even work around the house.

You aren't a member of a yacht club either, are you?
Actually, I am. I pay my $60 a year to Windjammers YC of Lake Tahoe, but haven't been around much to do any of their events. I tried to get into St. Francis once, and it didn't work. Blackaller and I were business competitors, and he made sure I didn't get in. I've promoted San Francisco sailing everywhere I go, and a lot of the East Coast boats have come here for St. Francis events as a result of my contacts. I wonder if the Yacht Club even realizes that. . . but at this point, it doesn't really matter.

What are some of the highlights of your sailing career?
There have been so many! I'd say that 1983 was a pretty good year. We won the SORC and were top inshore boat at the Admiral's Cup with Scarlett O'Hara, and came back and won the Big Boat Series with Bravura. Eclipse was kind of different - taking it to Antigua with racks and trapezes was a ball. Wall Street Duck was a good project, and I still remember sailing with Carl (Schumacher) on his brand new Summertime Dream when we won the quarter ton NAs in '79. Bravura and Coyote were great boats; Irv (Loube) always put together first class programs. . . Sailing with Bob Garvie on the various Bulleyes has always been fun, and that's pretty much what I'll be doing whenever I'm home.

Some of the European projects I remember fondly include the ABAP stuff, winning Cape Town-Rio on the little Morning Glory, and a bunch of fun on Container, Pinta, Rubin, Mean Machine, Amersterdamed and Marisa. I've done a heap of sailing on Italian, German, Irish and Dutch boats in the last ten years. They seemed to appreciate my services and paid pretty well.

Do you ever sail for free?
Well, it's kind of a conflict of interest - no pro should sail for free, if you think about it. But, sure, I do sometimes. I helped Gavin Brady win the Congressional Cup last year for free, just because he's a friend and I wanted to learn more about match racing. And of course I sail locally with my friends for free - Joc and I just did the Big Daddy with Nick and Terry Gibbens on their new Express 27. It was their first race, and we would have ended up second, I think, if Richmond YC had bothered to score us. Unfortunately, there was some confusion about our sail numbers - Nick's new sail had the hull number on it, rather than the five-digit number of the old sail, so they refused to recognize us.

What else are you sailing on these days?
Antigua Race Week on a Swan 68 with some European clients is next. That regatta is always a lot of fun without too much pressure. After that, I've signed up for three regattas on Jay Ecklund's One Design 48 Starlight - the Newport Series, Kenwood Cup and the Big Boat Series. Also, I plan to do a few races in Chicago, including the Chicago-Mac, on Vim and probably the Sardinia Cup on a new Castro 49. . . Locally, I'm looking forward to sailing the new Bullseye. It's the old Infinity, a N/M 49 that still has a lot of life left in it. It just got painted white over at Nelson's Marine, and will move to its new slip at St. Francis soon. Our first race will be Vallejo on May 2-3 - at this rate, it may literally be our first sail as well! We're looking forward to sailing against Morning Glory and maybe Swiftsure, if they get their act together. It'll be interesting to square off with each other for the first time.

Doesn't it seem a little odd to you to race grand prix boats under PHRF?
Yeah, but it's the only game in town these days. Anyway, if the ratings are right, it can still produce some good racing łalthough I'd much rather race one design or IMS.

You mentioned the 1D-48 class. How does that stack up to some of the other classes you've been sailing in?
It's by far the best competition in this country right now. They're hard boats to sail well, so every crew position is important - one bad link on a boat like that will kill you. Corel 45s or Farr 40s, on the other hand, are comparatively easy to sail. The Mumm 36 is a technically demanding boat like the 1D-48, but that class has gone downhill lately. The Worlds this year weren't very competitive - we came in second with Moby Lines, which we got just one week before. But I think you'll see that class make a comeback next year when the Admiral's Cup rolls around again. There's something like 112 Mumm 36s in the world, so they're not going to all fade away at once.

You put in a lot of time on Mumm 36s, right?
Yeah, I'm actually quite proud of our success with Jameson, as well as the work I did on No Problem. We had a nice run with Jameson, culminating in being part of the winning U.S. team at the last Admiral's Cup. I've been trying to win that thing for years, so I especially savored the moment. Tom Roche was one of the most fun owners of all time, and I enjoyed sailing with all the crew - Stu Bannetyne, who is a great driver, Alan Smith, Big Mike Howard. . . Neil MacDonald is just fun to be with. . . Marco Constant, Mike Mottl. . . what a great group of guys! I was sorry to see the boat get sold, but it was the right time.

What about the Sydney 40 and the 1D-35?
Both look interesting on paper. The Sydney 40 will get a huge boost from being the middle boat in the Admiral's Cup, just like the way the Mumm 36 got going. The 1D-35 should be a good boat - maybe they'll pick up where the Mumm 36 seems to have left off. I hope they sell a lot of them so that the one design concept works. You really need to have local fleets somewhere, you can't just be travelling all the time to Florida for events. The Corel 45s are an example of that - a good enough boat, but just 20 or 22 of them spread out around the world isn't enough of a critical mass to keep the class around for very long.

Besides your Jameson crew, who are some other guys you'd go anywhere with?
Geez, I'd have to really think about that - there are so many people I've sailed with over the years that I wish I could sail with again. One of the things that I love about my job is that I've been able to sail with so many good sailors from all over the world, and to learn from all of them. . . Some of the local guys I always enjoy sailing with include Nick, the Baumhoff brothers, Dennis George, Stu Felker, Kimo (Worthington) and John (Kostecki) on occasion, and others.

Present company excluded, who do you regard as the best professional sailors in the world?
Cayard and Kostecki come immediately to mind. Lawrie Smith is quite good; I really thought he was going to win the Whitbread. Gavin Brady is a young up-and-coming guy, so is Morgan Larson. I have a lot for respect for John Kolius, Robbie Haines, Terry Hutchinson, Kenny Read, Melges, Madro and lots of Europeans - they're all tough to beat. But these are just my impressions from my own little world - there are certainly some other great sailors out there I don't know. The round-the-world multihull maniacs are probably right up there, but that's a corner of the sport I don't know anything about - except that it looks like fun!

Speaking of maniacs, how was the Whitbread Race?
It was an extremely interesting adventure, and the sailing was fabulous. Picture surfing downwind off Pt. Conception during the spring for weeks on end and you get the general idea. It's the best sailing in the world - going around the world on cool boats with incredibly close competition. Seven of the boats are competitive, maybe eight or all nine by the time the race ends. A lot of people probably think I'm nuts for signing up for the two Southern Ocean legs, but that's what was offered to me - and really, the miles between Cape Town and Cape Horn are the real Whitbread. I'm glad I got the opportunity to go. The Southern Ocean is a beautiful place, but kind of cold.

Was it the toughest sailing you've ever done?
No question. I've done four TransPacs, five Fastnets, three Sydney-Hobarts, Bermuda, Jamaica, Cape Town to Rio, a bunch of Kenwood Cups, you name it - and every one of those races were picnics compared to this mission. The cold really gets to you after awhile, and often I couldn't feel my fingertips, though nothing nearly as bad as what happened to Kimo - he got the worst case of frostbite in the fleet. And the constant rush of water at you - what Cayard calls the 'firehose' - wears you down, too. I pulled my shoulder out trying to hang on to a winch as a wall of water swept over us, and a few times I was picked up and deposited at the end of my harness. It was brutal, and so was the competition.

How would you compare the two legs you did?
Leg II felt like more of a cruise, like we were delivering Chessie instead of racing it. We were very conservative, things like putting the sails below deck when it got really windy. Leg V was a lot better. After a pair of thirds in Legs III and IV, the boat and the crew were more dialed into the race. We were more aggressive in Leg V, but I don't think too much so. In a sense, we were going up the same learning curve Cayard went through in Leg II. At least I felt like we were finally racing.

Leg V sounded like a real roller coaster ride for Chessie. Tell us a little about it.
Two things knocked us out of the running: blowing up our mainsail - we sailed 2,700 miles with a reef - and then blowing up our brand new Code 8 spinnaker, a storm kite which wobbled too much anyway. We lost about 200 miles between those two problems. By the time we started having engine problems, we were already in the cheap seats. Initially, it was the water cooling system, but soon the bigger problem was with the starter. You wouldn't believe what we did to try to start the damned thing - making starter cranks and pulleys, banging the hell out of it with a hammer, we even tried heating the fuel and the fuel lines, but it was too cold to start. Finally it just crapped out, so we knew we had to get some help and we set our rendezvous plans in motion. That was about six days from the Horn, and luckily we had just topped off our water tank. Still we ran the tanks dry about three days out, and had to resort to making water with the hand-pump unit, which took forever. We were able to make enough for cooking one meal a day, and fortunately we didn't need to drink too much - it was still pretty cold and the wind was light, so we weren't really exerting ourselves physically that much. But we definitely couldn't have made it another 2,000 miles, so we basically had no choice but to pull over - which we did at Tierra del Feugo, about 80 miles past Cape Horn.

Was this your first trip around the Horn?
Yes, but I never really saw it. We were about a mile away, and saw the light, but then it clouded over and started raining. It really wasn't that dramatic of a moment, just one more thing checked off my list. Maybe I'm just too old and been around too long to think it's a big deal.

Your pit stop was a pretty controversial move, wasn't it?
Not really, except in one guy's mind - Grant Dalton. What we did we perfectly legal - the rule allows you to take on outside assistance within one mile of shore. Normally it's not a recommended way to win a yacht race, though. We were only anchored for an hour, but we had to sail in light air and adverse current to get there - the stop probably cost us 6-8 hours total. . . We were really lucky to be able to rejoin the race, pass a bunch of boats and end up third. It was an amazing comeback, really - although we really just took advantage of the situation as I think any boat would have in our position. Everyone focused on us pulling out a third on the leg, and they completely overlooked that we led the race about 99% of the first five days before we got into the Southern Ocean and started blowing things up. I'm probably prouder of the beginning of the race than the end.

What was your role on Chessie?
In Leg II, I was the tactician - I had lots of responsibility and no authority. Mark Fisher was the skipper, but he left after that leg for business reasons and hasn't been back. In Leg V, I was hired as the skipper. It was a no-lose deal for me - we couldn't do much worse than the sixth we got in Leg II, and it was a chance to redeem our first Southern Ocean showing a little, kind of the way Cayard was feeling, I suppose.

We approached Leg V much differently than Leg II, essentially breaking it down into three separate legs. The first part was about 600 miles to get to the Southern Ocean, kind of like a Fastnet Race. I was up all the time, trying to figure out weather and strategy - I even went up the mast several times a day looking around for wind. The second race was the Southern Ocean itself, where the tactics are less demanding and we just wanted to go fast and stay together - guess that didn't work! We had six guys on deck all the time, more than usual. The last leg, the trip up from the Horn, I went back to floating and trying to think of a way to pass the four Muskateeers and then Brunel.

There must have been lots of celebrating in São Sebastião.
I only stayed for two days, but I heard it was pretty good. The 40ish guys don't party like they used to, me included. But the young Whitbread guys still go for it!

What did you think of Whitbread 60s? Do they seem safe?
They're very powerful and fun to sail - and, yes, they're perfectly safe sailboats. People think they're too extreme because they see the videos of all the water on deck, but that's only for a few weeks in the Southern Ocean anyway. The average wind on the race course is something like 12 knots. If there are problems, it's more with the crews pushing too hard than with the boat itself - Silk Cut's dismasting may have been an example of that. I'd say these are probably the best ocean racing boats out there today, with incredible communications gear, two big watertight bulkheads, and backup systems upon backup systems.

Why aren't you doing the last couple legs? Can't Collins afford both you and Kostecki?
I don't know if it's an 'afford' thing - you know, I really don't know why I wasn't invited. I was willing to sit there as the second guy - they really wanted John to be in charge, which is fine. He's a great sailor. But if you added the experience I have to the experience John has, it would have been much more than two times either of us . . . It'll be interesting to see how John does in these last three legs. He'll be fine on the short leg up to Annapolis because he'll stay awake most of the time. Going across the Atlantic could be a different story.

What do you mean?
Well, he'll have the same problem I had - you can't stay awake the whole time. No one person can push a boat 100% after the first few days. He just doesn't have enough help in the afterguard, and they may fade after the first week like before. I honestly hope they don't, but that's what will probably happen.

Cayard doesn't seem to have that problem.
EF Language is such a strong program! They have about six guys who could be skippering their own boat in this race. They're going to win the Whitbread, and they deserve to. Cayard will undoubtedly get the next Rolex award, and will probably make a bundle on a book deal, too. . . Who'd have thought he could write that well? I thought his postings on the internet were fantastic. He really captures the mood, and the reports about the conditions aren't embellished. It was often worse than he described - I think there's sort of an unspoken code among pros about understating the wind strengths, wave heights and the danger factor.

Would you do the Whitbread again?
I want to, yeah, but I seriously wonder if I'd be able to do it physically. I could only go as a navigator or skipper, it's just too tough in any other role. The race is really punishing, and I'm not getting any younger. As it was, I think I was the oldest guy in the whole fleet, except maybe Magnus (Olson) on EFL. Well, George (Collins) and Dennis (Conner) are in their 50s, but you don't see them in the Southern Ocean.

What about the America's Cup?
That would be interesting, but I'm not sure I have the attention span or the kind of personality to last in those long, regimented programs. There's a lot of drudgery involved leading up to the Cup, and it can obviously be really political. I'm enjoying my life the way it is now, and will probably just keep doing what I'm doing. But if the phone rang with a really good offer, well, you never know. . .

Thanks, Dee, and have a good time in Antigua.
That shouldn't be too hard! Vallejo will be fun, too - see you up there!

- latitude/rkm

© 1998 Latitude 38