Eric Arndt figured he’d probably been on watch too long when one very stormy night off the coast of Cuba he looked over the side of Samba Pa Ti, the Transpac 52 he was racing on, and saw his two dogs swimming beside the boat - his black lab Izzy and yellow lab Sarah.
It was a full moon with heavy cloud cover but every now and then, the moonlight would shine through and spotlight his furry mates. It was windy and blowing about thirty, nonetheless, there they were.
“It was surreal, it freaked me out as they were so real,” Arndt said. “But, when you’re tired, you start seeing things out there.”
He was racing in the 2008 Pineapple Cup with Stu Bannatyne driving, and Mike Howard and a couple of the other guys on deck.
“We had minimal crew - perhaps 8 - although we did have the top guys - Nick White navigating, Dee Smith, Frankie Howard - but we were doing a weird rotation, like 4 hours on and 3 off. It was a situation where all hands were required on deck. I was trimming main and had been on watch for perhaps 7 hours - we did cover 221 miles in 11 hours,” Arndt recalled. “I must have been hallucinating but seeing my dogs swimming was just so vivid.”
Arndt could have chosen any one of the many memorable and spectacular moments in his long career as a high point, like winning two world championships back to back when he was 22, or winning the Mumm 36 Worlds with John Kostecki on Thomas I Punk in 1996, but "seeing" his dogs was an experience he’ll never forget - the kind that comes from the exhilaration of racing with the best, and that all-out exhaustion that’s a part of racing at the highest levels.
I met Arndt at the BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival this year. He was working with Dee Smith running a Farr 400 program for a team from Los Angeles. We got chatting about the work that boat captains do and before long I was pretty captivated by Arndt’s story and how he became one of the most sought after boat captains.
Arndt grew up in Santa Barbara, the youngest of four boys. His dad loved to golf but when the boys came along, Arndt’s mother told him he needed to find a sport they could all do. His dad picked up sailing and ended up buying a 52-foot ketch, which became the family home for more than ten years.
As a kid Arndt used to sail in Morro Bay, Calif, with Robin Lee Graham - the hero in the iconic sailing movie, “The Dove.” Said Arndt, “All we’d do is sail around Morro Bay, then Robin got this hair up his ass and said he was going to sail around the world - LOL - and off he went.”
The Arndt family also went cruising: to Baja and the Sea of Cortez, and spent three years sailing the Pacific Rim, covering some 22,000 miles.
A passage from Yokohama, Japan finally put Arndt, then 16, over the edge. Bombarded by strong winds, which made the trip hell, the family diverted into Hawaii. Arndt immediately split. He was sick of being on a boat and equally as tired of the ocean, or at least he thought he was, and instead ran track for three years.
He eventually returned to Santa Barbara and the sailing life a few years later, and at 22, won two World Championships back to back - the J-24 World Match Racing in Dublin, Ireland and the MORC International Worlds in Newport Beach, Calif.
With these victories, doors began to open and soon Arndt was on the Soling Olympic circuit - in the late 80s - early 90s making $1000 a month. He also worked as a sail trimmer and driver on bigger race boats.
One rainy day in 1998 he was sitting in Santa Barbara mulling over his next move when he got a call from John Kilroy’s girlfriend that changed his life. “I’ve got you a project,” she said, “Drive down right now and you can run a Farr 40”.
It didn’t take much to be convinced that working with Kilroy, an offshore sailing guru and real estate magnate could only lead to good things. Arndt jumped in his car and drove down to Los Angeles where the two sailors talked for hours.
“I didn’t leave Kilroy’s house until midnight, and ended up building his first Farr 40 in three months,” Arndt, from Fairfax, said. “But it took six months to do the graphics…they’re the same graphics as he uses today so obviously all that planning paid off - LOL, we had so many different design!”
It was the beginning of a 13-year working relationship that firmly positioned Arndt as one of the most sought after boat captains anywhere.
The program was none other than the infamous Samba Pa Ti. Many of the original crew came from San Francisco, including Chris Perkins, Howie Scheibler, Hogan Beattie and Jennifer Dunbar. Their first race was the Gold Cup in Newport.
“When we won, I knew that this was the ticket,” Arndt said. “We went onto win regattas and world championships. It all went really well.”
So began his boat captain career. He did everything from build the boat to organize crew flights, accommodation and practice. “LOL - it was a big deal!” Arndt laughs now at how chaotic the job was.
Mainsheet trimming and speed control has always been his “thing”. “Typically you want the guy responsible for rig set up and tune in the most important position - the main sail,” Arndt explained. “I trimmed main on all the Sambas for about eleven years.”
And, it probably wasn’t just skill that won them the1999 Farr 40 Worlds in San Francisco, but also well-honed local knowledge with Kostecki as tactician, Arndt was main trimmer, and Hogan Beattie on the bow.
Arndt recalls that a lot of changes occurred quickly in the Farr 40 fleet, and then Kilroy took a break, “He was burned out,” Arndt said, “He put me on a retainer and told me I could go work for whoever I wanted.”
He went to work for Philippe Kahn for two years, and did a stint with Cayard on the Pirates of the Caribbean with Kimo Worthington. “That was fun because Johnny Depp was involved. We hung out together and he was the most down to earth guy I’ve ever met - a good dude.”
Arndt worked on the Pegasus TP 52, won Transpac and won the TP 52 Worlds with Ken Read as tactician. Kilroy decided to buy the Samba TP 52 in 2006, and that just started another roll, Arndt recalled. “As boat captain, I was juggling a lot of different hats.”
If you ask Arndt what his favorite boat to race on is, he’ll tell you it was probably the Farr 40 in its hey day. “It was a very good windward leeward boat but not really good off-shore and reaching. But, the competition back in 2000 to 2008 was fantastic - you’d get 40 boats on the line and everybody had a chance to win.”
But he’s also very hot on the TP 52, especially for Transpac, for good reason. “ It’s one of the best boats you can do. In 2010 we won the barn door - it’s a small boat to ever win the barn door but we won everything - overall, class. It was a fast trip and very exciting,”
A career highlight was working Roy Disney’s Morning Light project. Arndt was boat captain of the Samba 52 but having built Philippe’s boat - the Morning Light boat - he knew exactly the high points and low points.
“I knew it would be faster than us in light air and soon as it got over 15, Samba was going to be better. It was an interesting race. I was surprised at how well they (Morning Light) did but they had top class training with Disney. 48 miles into the race we were 60 miles ahead of them. Then the highs set in and the new front came from the north so everybody just turned hard right - the front swept over us so quickly that the boats were basically back on the starting line - it was unbelievable. When the sun set on the third day, I saw this little glimmer on the horizon, and said, “Hey guys, there’s a boat out there.
They were all like, “No man, there’s not a boat within 100 miles of us.” The next morning we woke up and saw that it was Cheyenne - the 100-foot photo boot and they were 200 yards away from us. They had turned their lights off and kept us on radar and wanted to get the morning shot of Morning Light - and sure enough, there was Morning Light. I regret that Kilroy didn’t allow a camera on Samba because the footage would have been fantastic, and the commentary from our boat would have been hilarious. We had some characters - Steve Bannatyne, Justin Ferris, Robbie Naismith - their commentary is just endless. We all rotated driving - 6 hours on, 3 hours off with a stand-by. It was light air so we were getting too much sleep - looking for things to do. Transpac is awesome - it’s one of the best races. Especially with boats like the 52.”
Arndt thinks it’s no coincidence that there’re not a lot of young guys in boat captain positions. Transitioning from pro sailor to boat captain takes a lot of hard work, and it’s very different today than when he first got started.
“We were doing deals using fax machines, long distance phone calls and things time took a long time to develop. What we do now in a matter of a week would take a month - trying to organize the deck layout, the composite schedule for building the hull - it all just took a long time.”
Typically, top boat captains all have a couple of world championships under their belt, says Arndt.
“They have the basis of understanding what a boat needs to win a race. That’s the most important thing. I say that from experience spending night and day offshore figuring things out. You have to have a reputation and that comes from having a successful sailing career.”
And, traveling is a huge part of the job, which doesn’t work for many younger guys. “If you look at 90% of boat captains, we’re all divorced and single - you have to have your duffle ready to go anytime.”
But that’s one of the best parts of the job for Ardnt. “ I love traveling … but unfortunately when I start filling up the duffle, my dogs know I’m leaving! I’ve been to places you wouldn’t believe and building boats in places just not meant for building boats! Like Gdansk, Poland…”
These days, Arndt is more involved in the boat building side of his job, and thinks there’s an opportunity for boat captains to get more involved with this aspect.
“Building the Pegasus and Samba 52s really opened my eyes and said, “Wow, this is really a different world. Like with the Farr 400s I’ve been working with, there are a lot of areas that can be improved. Just talking with the builder and adding things like weed knives, keeping the water out of the boat - just small subtle things that sometimes designers and owners don’t see - you have to be a sailor to know how something should be - the 400 has been a super fun project, I mean, REALLY fun!”
Like any job there are challenges, and Arndt cites dealing with owners - sometimes tacticians - and the egos off the type A personalities that come with high-powered programs, as oftentimes a hurdle.
“I’ve worked with some owners who over analyze the whole project and you end up spending 3x as much time and money to get the same result. I’m not pinpointing one specific owner - I’ve worked with quite a few.”
His advice? “The first time you meet someone who you may like to work for, just listen and feel out the situation. See what the goal is and go from there - the goal is always to win but some people have different ways of getting there.”
Arndt has sailed worked alongside other talented boat captains, many from the San Francisco Bay Area, like Bill Erkelens, who grew up sailing on the Bay and spent every summer delivering boats to and from Hawaii, “growing” into the boat captain role after prepping and delivering yachts some 8-10 times. He joined Larry Ellison’s Sayonara program in 1994 when that boat was being designed, and worked with Ellison through 2003. Erkelens concurs with Arndt when it comes to dealing with owners, “It’s a big part of the job and an equal challenge.”
Ashley Perrin, another Bay Area pro sailor who recently returned to boat captain work after a 2-year stint in Antarctica and is an associate of Arndt’s says that it helps to understand that the job is really like being in the entertainment industry.
“The owner wants to win and have a good time doing it. If they aren’t enjoying it they won’t continue to do it. It requires lots of enthusiasm, attention to and tons of energy.”
But for pro sailors, it’s also a great opportunity to do something that they love to do - race hard on nice boats. “It’s the benefit of the job,” says Hogan Beattie, who worked with Arndt on the Samba program and for 10 years with Roy Disney on Pyewacket. “I love offshore racing and now get to work on top programs.”
This week Arndt’s been putting Tom Aikens TP 52 ‘Meanie’ together for the Newport to Bermuda Race. It’s been a ton of organizing: getting the containers shipped around, hotels, crew logistics, but being in the trenches is what Arndt likes most.
“I don’t mind being in the boat yard,” Arndt says, “The racing is the luxury part - it’s almost the easy part. Now, with all the safety requirements - for a 700 mile race you have to be at the same level of safety as the Volvo boats, although I have to say that the safety aspects of the Newport to Bermuda race are well ahead of other races - with the exception of the Fastnet and Sydney to Hobart but they’ve had their tragedies too.”
When he’s not sailing big boats in big water, he’s at the local pond racing International One Meter (IOM) model boats. The boats cost between $3 and $5K and sail just like big boats, says Arndt.
“The caliber is unbelievable - here in San Francisco last weekend we had a bunch of guys from Oracle race with us. I take a boat with me everywhere I go - I’ll ship one if necessary just to have it there.”
Ranked number one in the US last year, he says everything from big boat racing simply transfers down to model boats, but mostly it’s fun. “It’s a release, I don’t care win or lose it’s just a matter of being out there with a bunch of friends.”
Arndt’s non-committal about what’s next. He’s enjoying doing different stuff, like St Thomas, the BVI Spring Regatta and now Newport Bermuda, which he’s never done before.
“For 13 years I had all my eggs in one basket, which was fine but once I quit that I realized that I wanted to do something different. Working for one person for 13 years has given me the luxury to pick and choose the races I want to do now. I’m still lucky enough to go to sail offshore or one design - and sail my model boat on Tuesdays!