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A Q&A with Helena Scutt about her Nacra 17 campaign for the 2020 Games

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 1 May 2017
Bora Gulari and Helena Scutt getting acquainted with the foiling Nacra 17 MK2 Keith Brash
When it comes to high-performance, technically challenging boats, the 49er and its women-specific sister ship, the 49erFX, rank as some of the absolute hardest Olympic class boats to race, rivaled only for this crown by the Nacra 17 catamaran and its foiling sister ship, the Nacra 17 MK2, the later of which will be making its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Mastering boathandling in any of these boats requires a significant effort, but to master sailing strategy on an Olympic level while also involving closing speeds that can-at times-resemble the numbers seen on vehicle speedometers at highway pace, requires world-class athleticism and a mind to match.

At just 24 years old (almost 25) and already a veteran of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Helena Scutt (USA) is no stranger to world-class competition, both on the racecourse and in the classroom. Scutt joined forces for this past quadrennial with skipper Paris Henken, and the two earned the right to represent the USA on the Olympic racecourse in the 49erFX class, where they finished in tenth place overall. Impressively, the two first-time Olympians earned a first-place finish in race five, as well as five other Top Ten finishes (including a fourth-place finish in race six and a fifth-place finish in race four) out of a total of 12 scored races, proving to the world that they were competitive by any measure.

Henken decided to finish her undergraduate work at the College of Charleston following the Rio Games, while Scutt opted to continue following her Olympic dreams in the mixed-sex Nacra 17 with skipper Bora Gulari while simultaneously pursuing her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, which she will complete this June. Scutt, it should be noted, holds a bachelor's degree in biomechanical engineering from Stanford (2014), and Gulari (a two-time Moth class World Champion who represented the USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the Nacra 17 with crew Louisa Chafee and was named US Sailing’s 2009 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year) holds a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan.

Combined, the team has the athleticism, the Olympic and high-performance experience, and the mental skills required to compete for a podium finish in 2020, and while these are still early days for the 2020 quadrennial, Gulari and Scutt are wasting no time learning to sail the Nacra 17 and to foil the Nacra 17 MK2 while also building and developing a strong sailing partnership. This often involves transcontinental red-eye flights for Scutt, but with the finishing line hoving into view for her graduate work, the horizon is rapidly approaching where she and Gulari can front-burner their Olympic efforts.

I caught up with Scutt via email to learn more about her migration to foiling multi-hulls, and also to learn a bit more about what this talented sailor does when she’s not hanging off the wire of a high-performance skiff or cat.

Can you tell me about your recent matriculation from 49erFX to the Nacra 17? What precipitated this change?
Before the Olympics, I had no post-Rio plans except to finish my Master's degree starting a month after the Games. I really hadn't given another campaign much thought because I was so focused on performing with Paris Henken in Rio.

Over the 2016 quad, which was my first Olympic campaign, I really fell in love with the process, so that was a sign to me that I wanted to go for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Paris decided to continue her college education-plus college sailing-for the time being, which I totally support, so I began to consider other options.

Fortunately, my skillset can valuably translate into the 470 or Nacra 17, and of course the 49erFX, too, and the fact is there are just not enough women in the U.S. with trapeze crewing experience. So I definitely had multiple options if I wanted to pursue more Olympic sailing.

How and when did you and Bora Gulari link up on the Nacra 17? Also, how is this partnership going so far? Can you describe the onboard level of communication that you guys have achieved so far?
Well, the funny thing is I remember when Bora contacted me, and I was in the middle of this grueling four-day take-home exam that I was trying really hard to focus on... needless to say the new possibility got my head spinning.

We first sailed together early in the winter but I have been traveling cross-country to train on a lot of weekends, so we've racked up a fair number of days already. We're having a blast and we're both really excited to master the boat together. Our two engineering minds are always thinking of ways to optimize performance, so it's fun to have these nerdy conversations and keep pushing forward.

We have well-defined roles onboard, which helps communication, but we haven't raced together yet, so I'm sure we'll have more strategical and tactical comms to iron out. Each having 'fast boat' experience means we both know what's important to focus on in each moment, so everything onboard is smooth so far, despite not having sailed together very long.

Has it been a huge transition going from a high-performance monohull to a foiling multi-hull? Can you tell us about this transition/evolution in your sailing?
It has actually been a much smaller transition than I thought, on foils the boat balance feels much more like a skiff. I sailed the Nacra 17 for a total of about two weeks before we sailed the foiling one for a week.

The foiling is a big change and I'm fortunate that Bora has so much foiling experience. I'm actually glad I sailed the 49erFX last quad over the Nacra, as I feel it's an advantage to have those skills now that the boat is foiling. By the end of one week of foiling it was already feeling like second nature, like I had been doing it for a long time. I’m definitely excited to be going in the direction of the future of high-performance sailing.

Do you find that the level of onboard intensity is higher on the 49erFX or the Nacra 17? Can you explain?
On the Nacra 17 MK2, the top speeds will be higher than in the 49erFX, so that adds intensity due to higher closing speeds in boat-on-boat situations.

Physically, it's pretty much the same. I trim mainsheet and spinsheet in both boats. Getting the kite up in the FX is a little harder than in the Nacra, and in the Nacra I move the kitesheet less because we have so much apparent wind, but the Nacra mainsheet load is significantly higher.

In both boats, the crew is so vital, and the teamwork and coordination to keep the boat moving as fast as possible at all times-so as not drop off the foils, for instance-while anticipating tactical situations means the intensity will always be high.

Are you sailing full-time at this point or are you still pursuing your master’s degree at Stanford? If it’s the later, can you explain your school-sailing balance?
I am still pursuing my Master's Degree at Stanford, it is in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Mechatronics. Mechatronics is interdisciplinary; it is where mechanical design, electronics, programming, and control systems intersect. I really like that mix and there's so much possibility there.

So I've spent the last six months going to Crossfit first thing in the morning and then spending all day-and night-building robots.

As far as school-sailing balance, let's say my dedication to getting through my classes while getting this campaign off to a strong start means I haven't got to sleep or hang out with my friends as much as I'd like, and I'm only home about one weekend per month.

It can be overwhelming but then I focus on being grateful to have two incredible opportunities to seize. College sailing taught me a lot about time-management and red-eye flights. The harder I work, the luckier I get. I'll graduate in June and then I’ll be full-time sailing. I'm sure Bora and I will have some engineering side-projects to stay occupied!

Are you guys at the stage of your training where you are thinking about the 2020 venue, or are you still working on mastering the boat?
With the Nacra 17 MK2 being a new boat to me—and everyone else, for that matter—the main focus is mastering the boat for boathandling and boatspeed. Those aspects will outweigh any others for at least the first 18 months, probably longer. At this point in the quad, there is plenty of time to learn about the 2020 venue once we get more hours in the boat.

Have you guys mastered foiling tacks and gybes yet?
We were able to pull off multiple foiling gybes during our first week of foiling on the prototype Nacra 17 MK2 in late March. It's a really cool feeling. A lot of details have to be done well to make it happen.

Foiling tacks will take a lot longer but it's just a matter of time.

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