North American Ranking Champion Alan Field Tells Justin Chisholm All

Over the last few years, Californian sailor Alan Field and his team aboard the rather enigmatically named WTF? have established an enviable reputation for themselves within the Melges 24 Class. In 2009 they were one of the most travelled boats on the US circuit, clocking up an impressive series of regatta results, including wins at the Gold Cup, Annapolis Race Week and the Detroit NOOD as well as overall victory in the 2009 Melges 24 North American Ranking Series.

For the IM24CA, Justin Chisholm caught up with Alan recently, to find out more about the WTF? programme and kicked off by asking Alan to describe his earliest sailing memories.

AF: It all started at age six, when with no instructions beforehand, my stepfather let me off the dock by myself in a Sabot dinghy. In essence, that was my first lesson. After a big push he yelled, “Pull the tiller towards you” and all I remember replying was “What’s a tiller?” Well somehow I survived that experience and eventually grew proficient enough to start racing a few years later.  Racing is absolutely what has kept me hooked on messing about in boats.  Truth be told, I don’t really enjoy sailing that much; but I really do enjoy sailboat racing! My early youth revolved around racing. If there was a race that weekend, I’d somehow find a boat to compete in. In my teens I split my time between keelboats and dinghies, until eventually deciding that long distance racing was not as much fun as short course racing and that One Design was really the place to be. 

IM24CA: You originally campaigned a Farr 40 before making the leap to the Melges 24. What prompted you to make the change?

AF: I woke up one day and asked myself “is this really all worth it?”  I’m not necessarily referring to the costs (although those forty-foot puppy’s aren’t cheap), but more to the logistics of running a program/campaign of that size.  It was hard enough just getting nine or ten people and the boat around the racecourse in one piece, but moving the entourage, the boat and all the attendant gear from regatta to regatta was actually very draining.  The litany of spreadsheets that I maintained with matrixes covering the likes of sails (practice, buttoned, use, location, maker, etc), crew (cat 1’s, cat 3’s, weights, availability, skill set, etc) housing, travel, regatta schedules and so on and so on was pretty daunting.   Don’t get me wrong, I loved the racing, great boat, people and competition, it was just the rest of the baggage that made me look for an alternative.

Switching to the Melges 24 was an easy choice as it is one of the most fun boats I have sailed.  But what really attracted me to the class was the level and depth of competition.   Because of its international status, I knew this class would afford me the opportunity to go head to head with some of the best sailors on the planet. Just look at the list of contenders that show up at the ranked regattas and you can see why I continue to look forward to each and every event. From World Champions through Gold Medallists to America’s Cup sailors; knocking heads with the best of the best is what The Melges 24 Class is all about for me and my team. 

I’ve been racing in the Melges 24 class for approximately three years now and each year it seems that the bar gets raised. This really helps keep my level of interest strong, as every season there’s always another hill to climb. The Melges 24 is my main focus when it comes to racing.  I do race other boats from time to time, but always with the thought “how is this going to improve my Melges 24 sailing.”  Case in point was this past year’s involvement in match racing.  My team and I spent five days at the Chicago Match Racing Centre racing Tom 28’s right before the 24 Worlds. I saw it as great cross-training as that skill set is vital to be able to play at the top of the Melges 24 fleet.

IM24CA: Introduce us to your WTF? Melges 24 crew?

AF: Crew…  Well they’re more than crew to me. These are my pals. These are my team members. These are the greatest group of friends and sailors that have each other’s back at all times. In my opinion, from stem to stern, you won’t find a greater team.

Our tactician and jib trimmer Steve Hunt is a pro-sailor from San Diego, California. Erik Shampain runs the bow and is also responsible for our boat preparation and logistics. He is also a pro-sailor who somehow manages to fit in a real job as production manager for Ullman Sails in Newport Beach, California. Our kite trimmer and chef-extraordinaire Jeff Reynolds is another San Diego pro-sailor. Sarah Curran, our traveller/mainsheet trimmer, is a Cat 1. She is out of Manhattan Beach, California and is a civil engineer in her spare time. 

IM24CA: What goals did you set yourself when you began to race Melges 24’s? How are you doing against them so far?

AF: The first goal was very simple. Not embarrass myself. Translated, this meant to get my team up to speed quickly so we could play within the ‘A’ fleet.  From there as a team, we set short-term goals based on where we felt we were on the learning curve, but most simply revolved around achieving goal #1. Beyond that we worked on boat speed and learning how to change gears faster and more smoothly, working out how to start better and how to climb higher on the scoreboard at the next regatta. You name any of the basics and at one point or another it most likely ended up on our short-term goal list.  We have executed pretty well against most of those goals and this has allowed us to mix it at the top of the fleet.  However as I said earlier, that somewhat elusive bar just keeps on being raised. 

IM24CA: Describe your campaign this year for us?

AF: My wife would kill me if she knew the total number of days we spent on the water, so I’m going to remain mum on that one! Suffice it to say it was a lot. We tried to do at least one regatta a month and each regatta we generally had a minimum of one practice day and mostly two, prior to racing. In addition, for the Worlds in Annapolis, we actually scheduled some extra days with a coach before the regatta started.

IM24CA: The coach you refer to is no less than Dave Ullman. Can you describe how important his input was and share one really important thing you learned from him?

AF: Yes Dave got formally involved with my program this year. He’s actually been there since day one, helping me “get in the game.” However, my team felt that getting his full attention in a concentrated time frame would be the way to go. So we engaged Dave to help us with a very specific list of things we wanted to work on. Two of the biggies at the top of our list were our need to ramp-up our sub-twelve knot boat speed, as well as finding a way of improving our technique in marginal planning conditions. We also wanted a fresh pair of eyes on everything else we were doing to see if there was perhaps a better way. At the end of the day we all felt that the time and dollars invested were very well spent. The one important thing we all learned? That would be that you definitely don’t want Dave to make the coffee in the morning!

IM24CA: So with your victories this year in the Gold Cup, Annapolis Race Week and the Detroit NOOD, has this been your best season in the class so far? What plans do you have for next year and which do you regard as the must-do Melges 24 events?

AF: In addition to the victories you mentioned, we did win on other important thing: the respect of our fellow competitors.  That, in and of itself, is our biggest victory to date and really has made our year, much more than any silverware we collected.  As far as what’s in the pipeline for 2010, we are just firming that up. Key West Race Week is a given, along with the North Americans in Rochester, NY. We also plan on trucking the boat to Texas to get familiar with 2011 Worlds venue. You’ll most likely see us in Chicago at some point too, either in Tom 28’s or the Melges 24.

IM24CA: What advice do you have for a potential owner looking to join the Melges 24 class? What should they prioritise in their first season?

AF: Stop thinking about it and just jump in!  You can’t go wrong.  The boat, class, people and most venues can’t be beat!  Call your ‘Dave Ullman’ or call the man himself, to help you get started.  Go either Corinthian or pro as the opportunities and options are simply endless. I’m all about team, so my suggestion for your first season priority would be to work on building a solid team around you.

IM24CA: Finally, just to clarify the name of your boat? ‘WTF?’ stands for ‘Why The Fuss?’ – correct?

AF: If you say so!