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Kiwi grinding veteran on eighth America's Cup - this time for USA

by Suzanne McFadden/Newsroom 12 Jan 20:55 PST 21 October 2020
Sean Clarkson (No.9) looks up at the mainsail as American Magic's first AC75, Defiant, goes through its paces on the Hauraki Gulf. © Will Ricketson

As the challengers for the 36th America's Cup prepare to square off this week, Suzanne McFadden finds Kiwi sailor Sean Clarkson making an eighth bid for the silverware - but this time for the Americans

Sean Clarkson is a rarity in the America’s Cup sailing fraternity.

At 52, the Kiwi professional sailor is lining up in his eighth America’s Cup regatta. No other sailor in this edition of the Cup has been on the grinding handles for as long as he has.

It’s been 29 years since Clarkson made his Cup debut in San Diego on board NZL20 – the Red Sled – in New Zealand’s failed challenge for the Auld Mug in 1992.

Back then he was a marine biology student at the University of Auckland, and sailing in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s youth scheme. The New Zealand Challenge was looking for strong, young men to bolster their sailing squad, and the 22-year-old Clarkson ditched his degree, bulked up and joined the Kiwi crew.

Now seven campaigns – under five different national flags - later, Clarkson throws his considerable heft of experience into the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic sailing team, who launch their assault on the Prada Cup challengers series in Auckland later this week.

When I meet with him in American Magic's hospitality lounge - which, because of Covid-19, is empty apart from us - Clarkson asks: “Are you surprised I’m still alive?”

Not so much that’s he’s still breathing, but I'm definitely intrigued as to why he’s still sailing for the holy grail of yacht racing.

He explains that he’s just lucky he hasn’t fallen to bits yet. “I’ve never had an injury, never had an operation or broken a bone,” he says.

Sailing has always been the livelihood of this Kerikeri-raised New Zealand Olympic sailor, round-the-world race winner and multiple world champion, who’s also a husband and dad.

And the passion to finally win the America's Cup still burns bright.

Clarkson, his wife Shawn and their two teenage sons, Finn and Felix, arrived in Auckland in May, leaving their home in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, after a long pandemic lockdown.

Finn is driving a forklift around the American Magic base below us. He’s working as a labourer for the team while on holiday from Auckland Grammar School.

“He’s 16 and he’s already bigger than me,” Clarkson laughs. Finn is also an athlete - in water polo, mountain biking and rugby. Not sailing. “I told the guys, if I had just one of his lungs, I’d be a better athlete than I am now.”

Clarkson is also in awe of the burly, powerful grinders he sails alongside on American Magic’s AC75, Patriot. Even though some are just learning the art of sailing.

Swede Anders Gustafsson is a four-time Olympian and world champion canoe sprinter (as well as a former Royal Guard of Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden); and American Tim Hornsby also hails from an Olympic kayaking career.

“Having been a frontline athlete in previous America’s Cups, it’s somewhere between humbling and downright embarrassing how good some of these guys are,” Clarkson marvels. “They’re 25 years younger, but they’re also athletes who are the best in the world. They’re freaks of nature.”

As he works out twice a day in the team gym, spending six hours a week on the grinding machine alone, Clarkson is spellbound by his crewmates.

“You’re in the gym blowing yourself out, and you look across and they’re doing 30 percent more than you, and they’re just talking away,” he says.

“But these guys come from threshold sports where they just love the pain. And I can still hang in there.”

Knowing he needed to “find some magic from somewhere” to physically stay in the game for an eighth Cup campaign, Clarkson has done a lot of reading into the science of exercise. “It’s pretty impressive that I can look at the training programme now and understand why we’re doing it,” he says.

Fitness is one of the obvious evolutions Clarkson has witnessed in three decades of sailing at the apex of the sport.

“It’s a different world now. For a few of our guys, the Christmas Cup regatta [sailed in Auckland last month] was the first sailboat race they’d ever done,” he says.

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