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Paul Standbridge | Sea Dog

by Simone Balman

PAUL STANDBRIDGE, ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED AND EXPERIENCED SAILORS THE UK HAS EVER PRODUCED, REMAINS A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH IN THE INTERNATIONAL SAILING ARENA.
DEBBIE HATHWAY CAUGHT UP WITH HIM IN PALMA.

With five Whitbread Round the World (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race) campaigns, five America’s Cup campaigns, 18 trans-Atlantic crossings, 19 Rolex Fastnet races and five Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht races behind him, it’s safe to say Paul Standbridge has earned his sailing stripes campaigning on some of the best boats with some of the most experienced yachties on the planet. He’s unwilling to single out a favourite yacht, event or record that stands out in his 40-year career, because, as he explains, it’s ‘a bit unfair – everything depends on conditions, the vessel and the regatta’. When pressed, he concedes: ‘Those of us who were on Majan all agree she is the most spectacular boat we’ve ever sailed, the most rewarding, and good fun. She’s also one of the quickest, a 40-knotter.’

Arabian Flair

Oman Sail’s Majan

Majan was built to break records and that’s exactly what she did. The year was 2009 and Standbridge had moved from the UK to Oman    to manage Oman Sail’s Majan campaign and skipper the boat. Unfortunately, that ended after her untimely breaking up in the mid-Atlantic when she was on track to beat the trans-Atlantic record.

She was designed for Oman Sail to meet their objective of training and developing promising sailors for the international circuit, and Standbridge was one of three international crew (which included SA sailor Marc Lagesse) tasked with sharing their expertise with three Omani sailors.

Majan was the flagship of the sailing academy, and it served to give the country as well as the academy sailors exposure across the 30 000 miles they sailed from Dubai to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Maldives, Cape Town, Fremantle, Singapore, Oman, the Red Sea, Suez, the Mediterranean and the UK.

‘It gave the young adults who sailed on her some fantastic experiences, without question,’ says Standbridge.

Shosholoza in the America’s Cup

Born and bred in England, Standbridge has adopted SA as his second home and is regarded as one of our own. So it’s not surprising that his America’s Cup campaign with Shosholoza ranks among his best memories. He was tasked with taking SA to the event in 2007, with certainly the bravest and smallest entry of that year. It was one that caught the world’s imagination, not only for its David-like status against many more experienced Goliaths in the sailing world, but also for its optimistic representation of a country in the early stages of a new democracy. ‘When we heard there was talk about SA joining the America’s Cup, Geoff Meek and I were first in line to sign up. I joined as sailing manager, took over as skipper when Geoff left and handed over to Mark Sadler when I became general manager for the last year,’ says Standbridge.

‘We knew we were punching above our weight, of course we did, but it was about so much more. We were a truly representative team at an incredible time in SA’s history. It was so rewarding and we didn’t spend time worrying about the races we lost – you can imagine, we celebrated every win like we were world champions,’ he laughs.

‘I’ll never forget the two round-robin races we nearly took off the BMW Oracle Racing team. They were perceived to be the boat to beat. In the end that wasn’t the case (Alinghi won in the seventh race), but Oracle were the big dogs and we were the little dogs. I was onboard for one race, but it was just as exciting later on even when I was not on the boat.’

By then Standbridge had handed over to SA sailor Mark Sadler after three years to concentrate on team management obligations. ‘I have no regrets. It was very rewarding, sometimes frustrating (breaking our mast was disappointing yet very predictable), but I will never forget my time with Shosholoza. We achieved a great result to finish seventh overall!’

Breaking records

Mike Slade’s record-breaker, Leopard

During this time, British entrepreneur Mike Slade was building a 100ft monohull record breaker, the superfast supermaxi Leopard. He invited Standbridge to join the team as watch captain, a key position in the professional world of offshore yacht racing.

The team very quickly established themselves by breaking the record in 2007 of the famous Rolex Fastnet Race. Almost a year later they again made it into the record books by breaking the trans-Atlantic record in 2008 taking seven days, 19 hours and 21 minutes to complete the 2 925 nautical mile dash. Leopard shaved eight hours off the existing record, to claim her second world record in two years. She currently holds five World Sailing Speed records and seven course records.

It’s all in a day’s work for Standbridge. ‘Competitive sailing is like any sport. Every athlete wants to run a shorter time. Human beings always want to break records. We can’t help it.’

The man the media refers to as ‘the world’s best bowman’ and a ‘big-boat legend’ describes himself simply as a sailor. ‘That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve always done, that’s who I am.

‘Why do I do what I do? It’s just habit. I’ve done it since 1979, I enjoy it, I still make a living from it, and I have no intention of doing anything else for the next couple of years.’

The road to success

Standbridge, 59, was unaware that the sailing industry existed when he was a young boy so he hadn’t considered it as a career. After completing his school education, he entered an apprenticeship until he was 20. ‘I was a keen sailor, so after that I jumped on a yacht and went off to sea. In fact, I’m now looking at the dock I sailed to when I was 20 – Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua.

‘It was like backpacking. I could have backpacked and ended up as a forester in North America. I went backpacking on boats, with a degree of experience. In those days we sailed for no money and no air ticket. We just sailed from regatta to regatta and jumped on a different boat. It was only seven to 10 years later that we started making a little bit of money and now we earn enough to lead a modest life. The game’s changed since I’ve been in it.’

Black Pearl

At the time of writing, Standridge had been racing Black Pearl at Antigua Sailing Week. The German boat, with mainly SA crew, won last year’s Cape2Rio on handicap. Standbridge hopes to stay with Black Pearl for a two-year programme. ‘This is not a fulltime job for any of us. We might do five or six regattas, each one being 10 days long, which is why you have this jigsaw puzzle of putting enough gigs together to make a living.

‘When you’ve been in any profession for a long time, your name goes around, good bad or indifferent,’ he explains. ‘While I’ve been here in Antigua, I’ve picked up another race. There’s no search engine or crew agency or anything like that. You get work through word of mouth.’

Just keep sailing

Advice to prospective young sailors wanting to go professional? ‘The only way to go sailing is to go sailing. The more regattas you go to, and progress from dinghy to big boat to bigger boat, the more people you’re exposed to… that’s how you get work. You don’t get work by sitting at home wishing to sail around the world. You’ve got to get out there, which will require leaving home, taking some social risks and looking after yourself.’

There are physical risks, too, but it’s like crossing the road, Standbridge says. ‘If you don’t pay attention, you could die. When you go to sea and race around the world five times as I’ve done you expose yourself to extreme danger but you’ll probably be ok. We’ve all lost friends at sea but then again if you sail for 40 years across half a million miles, you’re likely to have encountered some casualties I’m afraid.’

Which qualities make him successful? It’s still the desire to do it. You’ve got to put up with some stuff, some hardship. Even this (Antigua Sailing Week) wasn’t a particularly hard regatta but each night you come home tired and bruised and you put up with it because it’s good fun.’

Standbridge spends the Cape summers with his sons Max, 19, and Kai, 10, and when the SA season is over he goes home to the UK and races the Mediterranean and Caribbean circuits. He’s also raced Cape Fling in Cape Town as well as Highland Fling and Oui Fling abroad.

Toshiba in the Volvo Ocean Race

Adventure and fun

Determined to continue sailing until he can’t anymore, Standbridge made an exception to the rule when he took on water operations looking after the fleet for the 2001 America’s Cup in San Francisco. ‘I was also driving Rescue 1 for AC45 racing and was course marshal for AC72 racing. I had a great time doing it but mainly because that Cup was so exciting (they’d gone to 72ft catamarans). I wasn’t young enough or good enough to race in it but I was happy to be part of it.’

In addition, Standbridge continues to do some commentating for the Volvo Ocean Race if he’s in a city on the race route. He has little opportunity for recreational sailing but did manage to join Skip Novak, a friend with whom he also climbs, on a journey from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia, a sub-Antarctic island, in 28 days.

‘That was an adventure. Skip goes down there often; it’s his boat, so I was as safe as I could have been. It’s easy to navigate anywhere until you get it wrong, and in that part of the world you don’t want to get it wrong. It’s unforgiving and there’s no one to look after you,’ says Standbridge. ‘The island is historic, because it’s where explorer Ernest Shackleton and some of his men made landfall after being marooned in the Atlantic in 1916. There is lots of wildlife, old whaling stations… it’s wild and it’s beautiful.’

In terms of staying fit and healthy, Standbridge follows a balanced diet and his lifestyle keeps him in good shape. ‘I keep active. Most of my leisure time in Cape Town is spent on Table Mountain. Let’s call it extreme walking. We go for fun but we keep fit.’ He’s already climbed Kilimanjaro with his brother, walked the UK coast to coast along Hadrian’s Wall, and walked up Ben Nevis and Skafell Pike, the highest mountains in Scotland and England respectively. ‘This year we’ll do Snowdon, the highest one in Wales.’

He says he didn’t prepare particularly for Kilimanjaro, but ‘you can’t train for altitude until you go to altitude…’

Adventure and fun. That’s what it’s all about. It’s that simple.

Picture credits: Tim Wright, Mark Lloyd, Getty Images, Peter Goldman

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