James Boyd Photography / www.thedailysail.com

Inside the British Keelboat Academy

We look at the Cowes-based operating for creating professional yacht racing sailors

Wednesday April 4th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom

While the RYA’s various programs, nurturing British youth sailors up through dinghy classes, has had spectacular success in creating Team GBR’s outstanding Olympic sailors, progressing talent through to other areas of the sailing still has some way to go before it achieves similar success in the UK.

The Artemis Offshore Academy is finally going some way to address the lack of British sailors heading into the French-dominated world of shorthanded sailing. Meanwhile the British Keelboat Academy in Cowes provides young sailors with the necessary training to set them up with a future in big boat racing.

The BKA was set up in October 2009 from a combination of the RYA Keelboat Program and the UKSA’s GBR Yacht Racing Academy (which in turn developed out of the Bear of Britain program, established by the late Kit Hobday). According to Luke McCarthy, Racing Manager and Head Coach at the BKA, the partnership works well with the RYA providing access to sailors, clubs and coaches, while the UKSA, where the BKA is based up Cowes’ Medina River, offers excellent facilities, including 250 beds, plus workshops, conference rooms, berthing for boats, etc. “It works as a genuine partnership both from a contribution financially but also the resources at each end as well.”

The aim of the BKA is to get sailors, aged between 18 and 24 and from a wide variety of backgrounds, into top level yacht racing, via activities and tuition both on the water and ashore. This in turn prepares them to become either a professional or a top level amateur big boat sailor, or into the shore crew of a top team or into the marine industry.

At present, the BKA has at its disposal three J/80s, David Aisher’s J/109 Yeoman of Wight and the Niklas Zennstrom-owned Farr 45, Kolga and they have previously campaigned the TP52 John Merricks II.

Candidates apply to the BKA with a selection process taking place in September. Those that are successful, if they come from dinghies and have little or no prior experience of keelboats then get fed into the BKA’s Development Squad, while a few already with keelboat experience head directly for the National Squad. Typically new recruits sail the J/80s, while the National Squad sail on the J/109 and the Farr 45.

Over the winter training comprises work ashore with technical training. The J/80 crews sail one weekend a month over the winter, while the National squad cranks up at the beginning March with a few weeks to lead into the first events of the season.

At present there are 38 sailors in the BKA and Luke McCarthy says they are looking to expand this, particularly via their two additional regional centres at Plas Menai in North Wales and Port Edgar in Scotland. At these centres there are typically three to five weekends over the summer (starting the weekend after Easter) where sailors can try keelboat sailing and get some initial training.  “In conjunction with the RYA, we book a coach who goes and runs those, but it is up to the individual centres to get the youngsters booked on and to manage their own activities,” says McCarthy of these.

Another reason for these preliminary sessions is to get the young sailors used to being coached, while they also act as a precursor to selection for the BKA proper. As McCarthy explains: “The region centres [which also includes Cowes] act as a feeder allowing sailors to get a taste of bigger boat sailing before they have to commit to the whole squad campaign, to smooth the transition into bigger boats. We are encouraging each of those centres to run their own regional mini squad, so we can get a little bit of an idea of who the sailors are before they come to the full selection down here.”

The regional centres are also there to ensure that the BKA isn’t purely for those who live in the south of the UK. McCarthy says they try to make entry to the BKA as egalitarian as they can. “Everyone applies online, application is completely open. We go through them on merit and invite the best candidates down here for a selection event.”

At present only one third of the sailors come to the BKA from the regional centres while two thirds apply directly, but McCarthy hopes to reverse this. “The regional program was only launched last year as a pilot, so we want to push people down the route and potentially have more centres from 2013.”

Selection to the BKA doesn’t sound quite a hardcore as it is for the Artemis Offshore Academy. Typically it takes place over 36 hours. The selectors obviously look at sailing ability, but as important is the attitude of candidates and their ability to learn quickly and the prospects of their personal development.

“There have been over the years a number of very accomplished sailors who have come to the selections who we have ended up turning away, because they didn’t have the ethos and the team and personals skills to fit into the activities we were doing,” says McCarthy. “So it is a test of sailing ability, a base level of fitness but also about the personal skills so people will gain the most from the program we are looking to put together for them.”

For in addition to sailing skills, the BKA also extensively covers life training; teaching and developing transferable skills to its pupils that are not only applicable to sailing. As McCarthy puts it: “The sailing is the easy bit. It is everything else...that goes with it from the things to do with the campaigns: organising the boat, organising the finances, dealing with the media and the more personal things – the teamwork, the decision making, the leadership – all the softer skills. Lots of the young sailors we deal with come with youth squad where its my personal feeling that they get mollycoddled by parents and coaches and they don’t come with the some of the background things like organising campaigns and the personal stuff.”

The campaigns

In 2011, the initial plan was to attempt to send three J/80s to the World Championship in Denmark. Part of this task for the BKA squad members involved with this was to raise the necessary sponsorship to fund this campaign. In the event only one boat went.

“It went pretty smoothly,” Jonty Cook who was part of this crew recalls. “There were 75 boats and we were aiming for the top 50, because it was our first event and none of the guys have been involved in an event like that before. We came 54th, so we missed out on our aim, which we found disappointing, but we really enjoyed the event and it was a massive learning curve for all of us involved. In terms of what we learned, on the water all of our boat handling improved. Off the water the main thing to learn was communication. We had to raise the sponsorship, so it was pleasing to see the boat get out to Denmark.”

The aim this year is to send at least one of their J/80s to the World Championship in Dartmouth, but in the process the development squad will again have to secure the funds and then handle all the logistics of getting boats there, arranging accommodation, communicating the campaign, etc.

Cook is now part of the campaign to get Yeoman of Wight first selected for and then to be part of Team GBR’s campaign for this year’s Brewin Dolphin Commodores’ Cup.

As part of their training they have worked with Ruari Chisholm from High Performance Development on team development, examining how individuals fit into a team, creating a team charter and who is responsible for what. “They are vitally important in terms for them pulling themselves together, communication, holding each other accountable,” says Cook.

For example this includes constructive feedback and how typically teams progress – the 'forming, storming, norming, performing' phases. “Being aware of it early on in the campaign was nice, because we could see our performance going down and realise what the problems were and then work towards the norming where we get used to those problems being there, start to find a way around them and then after that we get to our performing stage.”

Some of the J/80 sailors who didn’t get to the Worlds last year ended up sailing on the J/109 in the Rolex Fastnet Race. Again this required a certain amount of funding to be raised, which on this occasion they achieved.

As Alex Gardner who sails on board puts it: “One of the companies that decided to help us in that campaign had a charter day with us, which was good fun, but it did open our eyes a bit as to what we can do to get the business side of the sailing rolling, so that we could do our racing. That was really good – I think one of the reasons we wanted to work so hard for it was because the failure of our first campaign tasted so bad.”

While they successfully completed the Fastnet Race, the highlight of the J/109 campaign last year was winning the RORC Channel Race.

This year more Development Squad sailors are coming on board Yeoman of Wight in their campaign for the Brewin Dolphin Commodores’ Cup.

“David Aisher is very supportive of the whole program in terms of identifying the need to get some more youngsters in at the top level,” says Luke McCarthy. “His background is very much the top level amateur side of the sport but his attitude is if we get one or two really good guys out of the campaign who go on to sail at a really high level he’d be happy.”

Meanwhile the program for the Farr 45 this year includes this weekend’s RORC Easter Challenge followed by the Spring Championship and several events organised by the Royal Thames YC solely for the 45s, which for the BKA crew will culminate in a match racing event for the 45s.

The crew for the 45 is mostly new this year, but they have the advantage of running their campaign alongside that of Rán, that has regularly proved itself to be one of best owner-driver sailing teams in the world.

Neal Payne, who sails on the 45 and will run its organisation and maintenance this season, says that their campaign is not just about results on the water. “It is to prove to the other professionals and teams that we can manage and run a campaign in a professional manner, because the boat takes that bit more maintenance and organisation as it is a bit more fragile and high powered compared to your average cruiser racer.”

From time to time they get to go two boating with the Rán Farr 45. Occasionally when Niklas Zennström's crew have been short, they will take a BKA sailor on board with them. Rán sailors also from time to time come and sail with them, such as bowman Andy Oliver, pitman Will Beavis, and even the guru, Lou Varney.

“Being involved with Rán is massive, because they help us with the boat prep, but we can go to their maintenance guys if we have got something we don’t know how to fix or we are trying to improve the way we organise something and they are happy to share with us and improve,” says Payne. “They are always good to aspire to. If you can be as organised as they are, then you are doing quite well.”

Another campaign the BKA work closely with is Team Aqua, Chris Bake’s winning RC44 campaign. Team Aqua’s boat captain is former BKA sailor Chris Noble, who left the scheme a year and a half ago. This year Team Aqua is providing the opportunity for one BKA sailor to go out to each of the RC44 events.

Neal Payne was with the team in Lanzarote for three weeks for the opening event this season. “I was part of their team. I wasn’t given menial jobs - if I didn’t do my jobs I was going to make problems. It was a massive experience to see how a professional team is run from the inside and to be part of it and I am going to apply some of the skills I got from there back on to our Farr 45 program.”


While an Olympic medal is usually a sure fire ticket to progressing up the sailing ladder, the BKA recognise that to become a professional sailor it is also necessary to have at least one secondary skill in addition to sailing talent.

As Luke McCarthy puts it: “A lesson I learned from the five years I did sailing professionally, is that it is not good enough just to be a good sailor. You have to bring some other skills to the campaign, whether it is sailmaking, rules, meteorology, boat building, electronics, etc.”

As a result on the J/109 and Farr 45, they attempt to get everyone on board focussed on one particular area - usually depending on their position on board - to cover all these bases.The afterguard typically develop their skills in navigation, rules, electronics, etc.

For example Farr 45 sailor Alex Gardner says that he has been developing his rigging skills and has done some diesel engine maintenance. “That enabled me to get a job on a race boat in the yard and that was nice because it means that we can take our sailing more than just on the water and having fun and racing into something practical. I learned a lot on the job but I couldn’t have done that without the technical training that the squad offered.”


Over the last 10-11 years, including the Bear of Britain and RYA Keelboat programs, around 240 have gone through the schemes and according to Luke McCarthy of these around 15 are now sailing professionally and 35 are working in the marine industry. Seven of the nine latest recruits to the Artemis Offshore Academy were previously with the BKA.

Aside from Chris Noble, Freddie Shanks ended up as bowman on Ian Walker’s Green Dragon in the last Volvo Ocean Race having done the Bear of Britain program, while Scott Grey worked as a rigger for Alex Thompson and Dee Caffari’s Vendee Globe campaigns and is now with Groupama, while Rachel Howe worked on Team Sanya’s electronics. As an example on the amateur side is Tom Smedley – in his first year of training as a doctor - has gone on to sail with the Concise Class 40.

Luke McCarthy feels that what they teach at the BKA is now well developed and now is the time to focus on growth. They have good relationships with owners such as David Aisher, Niklas Zennstrom and Chris Bake, but the BKA needs to find some more high level teams and owners looking to regularly take on enthusiastic hard-working nippers.

This spring they have a deal with the Etchells class who are providing two boats and covering running cost for this season. Over a two week period McCarthy says they had 40 applicants for this from whom he had to choose eight. So they are willing to talk to classes too.

At present they receive funding both from the UKSA and the RYA, and also have a number of in-kind supporters within the marine industry. “It allows us to tick over and deliver the basic program, but to send more of the boats to World Championships and buy all of the kit we could do with for both fo the bigger boats does need more investment as well as making more coaching and sailing time available,” says McCarthy.

But really they could also do with some corporate funding or private donations, as Volvo once sponsored the RYA Keelboat Program.

Three BKA members:

On of two girls in the National Squad, Suzy Russell, is currently in her final year studying Mechanical Engineering at Exeter University and joined the BKA last year. Her background is in Toppers and Laser 4.7 (in which she went to the Worlds on Lake Garda), before graduating up to the Radial on leaving school. In the Radial she became part of the RYA Youth Squad and subsequently the senior, going to the Worlds in New Zealand prior to the Beijing Olympics.

She pulled out of the Radial due to funding reasons and to focus on university. At Exeter she's got involved in team racing and subsequently match racing where she got to the finals doing pit for Tim Saxton. She got into big boats after sailing the Laser SB3 and was inspired by Women’s Match Racing being chosen for London 2012.

She learned about the BKA on the internet and had met a few people who had been through it.

At present she is downwind trimmer on the Farr 45 and if she has a specific skill it is with sails. Studying mechanical engineering at Exeter she says she is interested in yacht design and boat building and composites.

“I’d like to work within the marine industry definitely and I would like to be a professional sailor. But I want to gain more of a specialist background.”

Neil Payne started out sailing a Fireball on Draycote Water in the Midlands before moving into 29ers. He is currently at university in Portsmouth studying civil engineering where he got introduced to big boat sailing out of the Hamble. Payne says he very much likes the technical side of big boat sailing compared to dinghies.

He has sailed for Portsmouth University at the BUSA Nationals and two year ago there learned about the BKA via Tom Smedley and his crew. “Half of their crew were from the Keelboat Program and they had this gear on and they seemed to know what they were doing. By the end of that week I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” He got selected for the BKA last year and moved from the J/80 up to the 45 after constantly nagging McCarthy whenever a crew space on the 45 came up. This materialised and he has been on board the 45 ever since.

His ambition is to become a professional sailor and is looking to specialise in boatbuilding or rigging. Last year he helped Team Sanya with their refit when they were in Hamble.

Currently in his first year at Southampton Solent University studying Yacht and Powercraft Design, Alex Gardner started sailing when he was five and after a stint at boarding resumed his life on the water working for Sunsail. He first applied to the BKA when he was 19 and got in the subsequent year after gaining more experience, which he managed on a TP52 and a 40.7.

At the BKA he was part of their J/109 campaign last year in the Fastnet and is now boat captain and crew boss of Yeoman of Wight.

His long term goals are to get into the shorthanded offshore circuit and says he will apply to the Artemis Offshore Academy later this year.
“I had an opportunity to go sailing on the Figaro 2 over last Cowes Week which was a real eye opener.”

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