Sail-World: An interview with 2016 Melges 24 World Champion Conor Clarke

December 19, 2016 - by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor - When it comes to One Design sailing, the venerable Melges 24 class (established 1993) offers big-grin excitement for sailors of all skill levels, while delivering world-class competition at its international-level regattas for sailors who are willing to make the investment of time and monies that a campaign of this nature represents. Even better for sailors with smaller war chests is that many of these boats are now on their second, third or even fourth owners, meaning that they are becoming more affordable for mere mortals. 

Added all up, the Melges 24 class is now enjoying a surge of new(er) blood that’s mixing nicely with the social and sailing DNA that has made this boat and class such a popular choice for so many years. 

Take this year’s Melges 24 Worlds, which were held off of Miami, Florida (November 29-December 3). By all accounts, this high-octane event offered fantastic racing for all comers, from teams that have been working hard to get fast for years, to teams that were powered with more psyche than previous Melges 24 Worlds experience. 

While teams “enjoyed” the typical snakes and ladders that high-level regattas usually present, Conor Clarke (IRL) and his Embarr crew (Stuart Mc Nay, David Hughes, Maurice O’Connell and Aoife English) sailed a smart and fast regatta, winning three bullets, four second-place finishes, a third, a fourth and a fifth, as well as a 15th and a DNS (75th). 

According to Clarke, his first Melges 24 event was in Marseilles, France in 2002. The hook was properly set, and he bought his own Melges 24 in 2008, which he campaigned in Europe before switching sides of the Pond when he moved to Jamaica some years later. Clarke competed in the 2011 Melges 24 Worlds, which were held off of Corpus Christi, Texas, as well as the 2013 Melges 24 Worlds, which were held off of San Francisco, California, before setting his sights on the 2016 title.

I caught up with Clarke via an email interview to learn more about his proud win at this high-level event.  

How long did you guys train and prepare as a team for the Melges 24 Worlds?
Well, you could say we have been training for the Worlds for six years but really this Worlds has been our target since we got together in Key West in Jan 2015. The boat hadn’t been in the water since the San Francisco Worlds in 2013, where we placed fifth. We needed a break from it, we worked hard for the SF Worlds and spent a lot of time there practicing and doing events in the lead up [to the main event]. The atmosphere on board Embarr is pretty intense and we place a lot of pressure on ourselves and each other, so 2014 was a good break year for us.

We arrived in Key West with a new helm, [as our regular driver] Nathan Wilmot couldn’t make it and [American] Stu McNay was helming the 470 that Dave Hughes was crewing on in their Olympic campaign so he was brought on. We also needed a new bow person because Shona (Sho-Sho) was also not available. We got a recommendation for a match-racing girl from Holland who was eager to join and Mirthe Kramer joined the team for Key West, too.

Key West 2015 was really great for us and we were re-energized. Mirthe fitted into the team beautifully and got the work ethic and intensity immediately. Stu was a very different [than] Nathan, calm and even-tempered but super fast and had great boat-handling skills. Work, Olympic campaigns and budget intervened along the way and we had to choose our events very carefully after that. We looked at the Worlds in Denmark in 2015, but they clashed with the 470 Europeans (which Stu and Huzie won) so we opted to go for Miami, which was as much a “home venue” as we could get. 

We decided to do the November event in Miami and also the March Madness event earlier this year very deliberately to get time on the water in competition at the venue. We had to get a competition in together before the Worlds and after the [Rio 2016] Olympics, so we went to the Nationals in Wisconsin in October. We had sailed there before and were keen for various reasons to go back.

That was our run up… we did not see each other or sail together aside from these events. Oh, Mirthe announced just before the November 2015 event that she was pregnant and had to pull out of the event so we went in panic looking for a new bow and came up with Aoife English from Ireland. She was amazing, well able for the pressure on board, a skilled sailor and well able to hold her own in the testosterone pit. We then spent a week in Miami before the Worlds training and familiarizing ourselves with the race area.

Have you raced in Miami before and spent time on the Melges 24 regatta scene, or are you new to this venue and class?
Yes, sailing in Miami before the Worlds was essential. We did the November invitational in 2015 and also the March Madness event as well as few days training before each. We also did a week of training before the Worlds in Miami. Stu and Huzie have sailed the 470 there a lot as well, so in fact, strangely enough, Miami is as close to a home venue as we could imagine as a team…unless they ever do a Melges 24 Worlds in Dublin of course! 

What was your team’s overall strategy going into the Worlds? Did you stick with it, or did it evolve in real time?
Our mantra was to stay in touch with the leaders and do nothing dramatic and hopefully we will still be in with a chance on the last day. We felt we had boatspeed and the ability to keep up with regatta leaders through the regatta. If we could manage this then we would give ourselves a chance to clinch it. We worked on boatspeed a lot, movement around the boat, constantly tweaking the rig, hiking harder than anyone else (if anyone else hikes harder, then we have left speed on the table and that is unacceptable) and making sure that the boat was just perfect, meaning every control is easy to use properly and well, nothing breaks, only sail with things that are useful and necessary. We had to make sure there was absolutely nothing to trip us up. We agonized over kite selection but had a set of new kites so we had every option available. We were probably the last boat to “measure in” our sails.

On the water, we then found ourselves in the lead after day one but [we were] very wary of some of the boats behind. We know what they are capable of so the strategy remained the same, do nothing dramatic, top Five’s can win the event, no need to go mad and lose sight of the overall objective by taking unnecessary risks. Our confidence grew in our ability to execute our plan though and we could see we were able to claw back from deep positions with good boatspeed and some canny tactical calls. On day two we were called over twice but clawed back each one to a decent countable result. So, yes we stuck to our plan and fought hard all the time knowing that one slip and this fleet will punish hard.

What were the highlights of the 2016 Worlds for you?
Stu McNay climbing under the table in Red on South Beach at our celebration dinner was a good moment. Hearing comments online from home, including one Dublin sailor doing an online commentary for others watching the tracker was really brilliant to see. Day one planing and surfing down waves and all of us actually enjoying sailing while racing a Worlds was special too. 

I love seeing [our] green kites in pictures and [I] am delighted that North Sails San Diego went to such lengths to find the right fabric in green specially for us. Other teams congratulating us is a lovely feeling, too, especially when they are teams we have been battling with and are in admiration of. It’s a nice feeling back at the dock and should be enjoyed for the short time it lasts.

However, going through the finish line on race 11 knowing that was it and looking around at the rest of the team with the joy of knowing that we had finally done it, was, without any doubt, the highlight of the event and of my sailing career so far. 

I saw that you had a couple of Yankees on board—how did you connect with David and Stu, and what kind of onboard contributions did they make to your team's win?
Embarr is Dave, Stu, Prof, Bearla and me. Without any one of us another team would have won. Dave and Stu fitted into, [and] helped create, the Embarr team. Their contribution was immense without which the Embarr team would not have existed, never mind [winning the Worlds], but the same can be said of Prof and Bearla.

What’s your next big sailing objective? Defend your title, or are you eyeing other classes?
I haven’t fully decided yet. I have a new business and I have some bucket-list items in sailing. [Winning the] Melges Worlds was one of them. I love the boat and I genuinely believe there is no better sportboat in the world, which means it attracts the highest level of talent. Aside from my old beloved pet 1720 sportboat in Lake Garda, which I sail for fun, I can’t see myself in another class of sportboat as it would represent a step down [in performance and competition]. There are other very exciting types of sailing though and we are all lucky to live in such rich times in sailing development and options to be enjoyed. 

Anything else that you’d like to add about your proud win, for the record?
The Melges 24 attracts a lot of sailing talent, and we are all in awe of sailing rockstars and Gods walking the docks at regattas. Elitism is good in my view and for people to have high standards to aspire to is a great motivator. To the teams in any class at the back or in the middle of the fleet, do not be afraid to approach the rock stars and heroes and ask questions, [as] your asking is a compliment to them. 

To the Gods and the rockstars, remember the days when you were at the back of the fleet, engage with the fleet and the guys battling to get into the 50’s at a Worlds. That win is less public but not less important to that team, and [since] you were there once too, make time and enjoy the adulation while it lasts.