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First person: For professional sailor Ben Bardwell, Vermont is perfect home between oceans

  • Ben Bardwell, at his home in Brownsville, Vt., is a grinder, a crew member who trims sails, on the US SailGP team. Bardwell was painting walls in his home Thursday, March 20, 2020, while waiting to learn if the team’s next event scheduled for June in New York City will go on after a race in May, the second of the five race series, was canceled due to COVID-19. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ben Bardwell, at his home in Brownsville, Vt., is a grinder, a crew member who trims sails, on the US SailGP team. Bardwell was painting walls in his home Thursday, March 20, 2020, while waiting to learn if the team’s next event scheduled for June in New York City will go on after a race in May, the second of the five race series, was canceled due to COVID-19. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ben Bardwell, grinder, in action as Helmsman Rome Kirby pilots the United States SailGP Team F50 during official practice racing ahead of Sydney SailGP, Event 1 Season 2 in Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia. 27 February 2020.

  • Ben Bardwell, of Brownsville, Vt., grinder for United States SailGP Team, poses for a portrait shoot in the lead up to Sydney SailGP Event 1 Season 2. 17 February 2020.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 3/23/2020 9:24:23 PM
Modified: 3/23/2020 9:24:19 PM

Ben Bardwell can look out of his Brownsville home any morning and see Mount Ascutney from “my very modest little house that has a view that punches above its level.”

He likes to ride his mountain bike on Vermont’s dirt roads. He enjoys endurance activities. He’s skied all his life, whether it’s downhill or, when the inspiration hits, to “go skate skiing very badly,” he recently joked.

The one thing he can’t easily do, however, is get out on ocean water.

The Connecticut River valley seems a strange place to house a professional sailor, but that’s what Bardwell is. His current assignment is on a United States team in SailGP, a 2-year-old international circuit of races featuring high-speed catamarans (called F50s) in a series geared toward raising the sport’s profile in advance next March’s America’s Cup regatta in New Zealand.

Endurance work suits Bardwell’s role on the U.S. team to a T. He’s the grinder, the guy who rapidly hand-cranks the winch that sets the boat’s sail — the F50 cat uses something more akin to a wing, he said — to catch the wind for maximum effect. Sailing is a sport built on connections, which is what gave Bardwell this opportunity and which keeps the 41-year-old’s hopes to win a spot on an America’s Cup roster alive.

“There’s a real strong theme of getting younger people involved and getting some experience,” Bardwell said in a phone interview last week. “If you can sail an F50, you are uniquely suited to compete in an America’s Cup. I can’t lie; it’s under my skin, it’s my white whale. It’s for sure something that I aspire to.”

Bardwell, like most professional athletes, is on the sidelines for the time being; the coronovirus pandemic has put the five-race SailGP season on hold, its next event in San Francisco on May 2-3 called off. The U.S. was fifth of seven teams at last month’s season opener in Sydney. The next scheduled race is in New York on June 12-13.

Bardwell talked about all things sailing last week, from what got first got him on a boat to what keeps him there, as well as the reason why Brownsville makes for the ideal home base. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and content.

Valley News: How did Brownsville end up becoming home?

Ben Bardwell: I’ve practically lived my life on the East Coast. I grew up in Connecticut (Stonington); I still have a chunk of family here. It’s going to sound crazy, but the East Coast is halfway between Europe and California. It’s not exact, but Europe isn’t a bad flight, and the West Coast isn’t a terrible flight. Globally, it’s not a bad place to be. I have co-workers in New Zealand who’ve thought of that flight (here), and it’s like, ‘Holy moly.’

I grew up skiing all over New England with my dad. It was him early on and with my brother, and I shared a love for the ocean and mountains, and that stuck. … Vermont is a pretty amazing place to do all of those things. I’d trade a rougher commute to be able to walk out my door, and depending on the time of year and the weather, do it.

VN: What were your first sailing opportunities?

BB: I came into the sport in a slightly different way than most Americans of my generation. Most especially come into a yacht club or a junior program sailing Lasers or 420s. My mom grew up in that world, but my dad was a commercial fisherman. Like so many of the Portuguese guys he worked with, he loved the ocean. I started sailing in a pond behind my house in a Sunfish, which promptly tipped over; I was tiny and a lot younger than I should have been. But my mom gave us huge freedom to explore. I survived it all and was better for it, but my mom had some gray hairs coming from it.

VN: But you didn’t really start to care for it until you were older.

BB: I did it in high school at age 15, and it kind of grew from there. In college (Hamilton), I rowed; I didn’t sail. … In terms of learning to be athletic and hard work and training, by what’s possible by wanting to say no, rowing is a great way to learn how to suffer and learn what you can do through suffering and focus. … I’ve done sailmaker work, managed racing boats for a chunk of years, but since 2008 I’ve been a full-time professional sailor.

VN: What’s involved with the job of being a grinder?

BB: The majority of my career I’ve sailed as a bowman, on the front of the boat, up the mast and pretty involved with every imminent change of sail, upwind or downwind, changing the shape and material of the sail to better fit the angle into the wind. I’ve spent a long time up a mast on calm days and rough days as well as sailing with the boat when it’s foiling (catamaran hulls can leave the water, secured to it by foils under the boat). …

On the boat there is, in the front of the cockpit, a pedestal with a set of cranks which wouldn’t look too different from the gears on a bike. You have handles and you’re pedaling with your arms, and it links to a drive shaft to a winch that trims the wing sail; that’s instead of a mast with a boom and a soft-sail hoist. It’s like an airplane wing, but you have a lot more control over the shape of the wing.

VN: How did the adjustment in America’s Cup sailing toward catamarans in recent years affect your career?

BB: Two things happened — the position that I’d traditionally done on those (older) boats doesn’t exist, and the boats and sailing became extremely and truly athletic. Fitness and endurance are always a factor, but you weren’t putting out athletic performances that could be on par with a cyclist or paddler or triathlete. I’m blessed with good genes; I like endurance sports; I have good lungs. When the boats were changing at the highest levels and the specializes positions didn’t exist, it was uniquely suited to me as an athlete. I made pretty big body changes, put on a lot of weight (about 25 pounds), to optimize myself for the role I’ve taken on. But I love it. I love endurance, I love pushing my body and I love the new challenge.

VN: How did you get on your current SailGP team?

BB: The sailing world is a very small world; for the most part, if you don’t know all of the people personally, you know of them. I’ve known (U.S. SailGP helmsman and 2013 America’s Cup winner) Rome Kirby since I started my career in racing with his dad (Jerry, who) broke ground for guys like me. … I know SailGP was in the works but I didn’t know the details.

The first year (2019) didn’t work out for me to be on the first-string team, although I was lucky to be an alternate for two events. Part way through the season, I had a talk (with Rome) and he said there were going to be changes for the second season. He told me to keep working hard in the gym, keep gaining strength, and if I put on a little more weight, I would stay for the second season. That’s basically what it is: I gained more muscle mass, I got my grinding scores better, I spent as much time as I could scattered around the team, put my head down. The opportunity came, and off we went to Sydney.

VN: With the pandemic putting everything on hold, what’s in your immediate future?

BB: Honestly, from a training point of view, it isn’t (different). I have the tools. We need to be more aware of going to the gym, but the most important tool is the grinding machine, and I have it at home. I will come out of it better prepared because I have a focused block of time to train. …

I hope that we can get the planet happy and healthy and get people traveling again. My vision is to do what we’re doing now. Hopefully, the series will add a team or two, add an event or two. We’ll travel the world and put on an amazing show for our spectators and fans.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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