Monday, July 23, 2012

Al Clark from Vancouver B.C., is an icon on the Laser racing scene, from simply having been around it for many years to his laid-back style of sailing his boat - kinda kick-back casual. But don't mistake that for a lack of seriousness come race day - he would not entertain a casual chat prior to racing as he was "too focused on the day’s work ahead". At 52, Al takes the racing game very seriously, and it shows.

Racing at Cascade Locks this past week in the Laser North American Championships, Clark placed second overall in the 100-strong Radial fleet, losing out to winner Isabella Bertold (CAN) by just three points, and seven points ahead of third place, to kids less than half his age. Bertold is a former Clark protegee now racing at Olympic level.

Clark had a great regatta this past weekend, “It’s good sailing here. The current where we were sailing brings in a whole different aspect to it because there’s an area where there’s a lot of current over on the WA side. That makes it very tricky. Plus, you had a very big starting line with the current bringing everyone up so it’s very tough racing. It’s very hard to be consistent - no one was winning all these races, that’s for sure. I was just happy to get anywhere near the front because there was so many possible pitfalls at the start - missing the current etc. The first two races today were in quite light air though and the second two were better."

He also spent some time - after sailing - to chat about what’s happening on the Canadian Laser scene, especially from where he stands in BC. He’s worked for the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club for ten years coaching sailing in the summers since 1985. He grew up racing Lasers in his teens and 20s, stopped to have a family and raise kids and is now racing again.

How’s the racing scene in Canada these days?

AC: I think it’s kind of like the Canadian National Downhill Ski Team years ago. I remember when I first started this job I thought how great it was that they used to share all their information. They all became good and they all bought into the concept that if everyone shares information the whole group benefits. I like to think our sailing has grown that way.

What changes have you seen in your time in this class and at these regattas?

AC: Regattas were big when I was a kid. I remember going to a regatta in 1980 that 250 people so the Laser class has been healthy. It has its waves of up and down. We didn’t have an Opti fleet back then. A lot of the kids who are racing in the Radials now are out of Optis so maybe that’s I think is different - it was probably an older crowd racing Lasers back then. And, it was only just Lasers - now you have Lasers, Radials, 4.7s - so three fleets here with 170 people. But we’d have one fleet and 170 people show up back in the early days. It’s been popular. There’s more coaching, more motor boats, more people being attentive - we didn’t have any of that when I was a kid.

What do you see when you come to the US versus the state of competitive sailing in Canada?

AC: The American system is different because they have the high-school sailing and college sailing, which we don’t have. It seems like, somehow, the sailing is attached to education. It’s not so in Canada. It’s like church and state. If you want to go to university, which most kids do, you just go. Tuition is not super expensive whereas down here, I think a lot of kids want to do well and they take college sailing and that’s the debate, whether college sailing is ultimately a great solution for high level sailing like the US Sailing Team.

Instead, our guys come to the Club (Royal Vancouver Yacht Club). It’s all yacht club sailing. For under 18s at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club its just $125 a year. To be part of the race team is a $100/month and for that you can keep your boat on the dock. The club buys big trucks and trailers and hires coaches - we have got five coaches. The money comes from the membership - 5500 members at Royal Van. They get behind it because you’re getting new members. You’re teaching them to sail and they’re going to stay.

How about your own sailing?

AC: I keep doing Masters sailing. The Masters fleet in North America is not super tough but the Worlds are tough. This year I came 6th, the year before I won. I’ve had anywhere from first to sixth depending over the last 6-7 years. It’s good racing and it’s fun.

Do you attribute hanging out with the kids you’re coaching as keeping you up-to-speed so as to speak?

AD: Oh yeah, they keep me young. The job keeps me young. I go biking all the time and they like to go biking. I don’t really take holidays - I take busman’s holidays - I’m going to do a masters regatta at the Richmond Yacht Club in the Bay Area next weekend after this. I really like sailing.

There’re quite a few kids doing well from your yacht club doing well in this regatta?

AC: Yeah - we have a new group that has just come on. We’ve had 13 members win youth world championships and go to the Olympics. 3 or 4 people are at the Olympics now who used to be on our team from our club. They’re obviously still sailing for our club although not on the race team per se. Isabella Bertold came very close to going to the Olympics this year (she trains with Paige Railey). We’ve had a lot of success and again, its supported by the club, which is great. If you didn’t have that there probably wouldn’t be a ton going on. Other than the race team, at the RVYC there’re probably only 10 people sailing Lasers in our area.

Does your physical location create any obstacles when it comes to getting to regattas?
AC: I’ve driven through 46 of 48 states with the truck and trailer. So we do get around. We have a trailer that is six years old and I believe it has about 300,000 kms on it right now. In Vancouver we know we’re isolated so we’ll drive to LA just for a weekend regatta - whatever that is - 5000 kms round trip!

Pic: A partially wetsuit-clad Al Clark with his youth team including Isabella Bertold on his left, taken at Cascade Locks, Laser North Americans 2012.

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