Ivy League Sailors Go From Scratch to Race BillionairesAaron Kuriloff
Before Charlie Enright and Mark Towill could sail through the Southern Ocean’s gales in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, they needed help from a Disney movie, a Turkish medical devices company and a business plan.
Enright and Towill are accomplished sailors, alumni of Brown University’s nationally ranked team. Yet it’s their business and economics degrees and not their sailing skills that will put them at the helm of Team Alvimedica’s 65-foot ocean racing yacht when it launches next month to compete against the world’s best -- and best-funded -- sailors.
“There’s no handbook for this,” said Towill, the 25-year-old team general manager. “Nobody says ‘this is how you get a sponsor.’ We took every meeting we could and talked to anyone and everyone who would listen.”
Thousands of sailors worldwide dream of earning a spot on a professional team in the Volvo, which competes with the America’s Cup for sailing prestige. The nine-month, 38,739-mile course around the globe from Alicante, Spain, to Gothenburg, Sweden, allows only the toughest and most-skilled competitors, winnowing out even Olympic and world champions, said Knut Frostad, the race’s chief executive officer.
What makes Enright, 29, and Towill different is they didn’t try out for a team, they built their own, Frostad said. The pair’s sailing abilities are matched by equally strong organizational skills and the persistence to assemble a $21 million professional sports franchise from scratch -- a squad that must be rich enough to compete against teams backed by China’s Dongfeng Commercial Vehicle Co. and billionaire Jan Brand’s Brunel International NV, and strong enough to survive through hurricane-force winds and 30-foot waves.
“This race isn’t only about sailing -- it’s about managing yourself, your teammates, the sponsors and getting the whole project from A to Z,” Frostad said in a telephone interview. “You need to be good at a lot of different things. There’s been plenty of good examples of fantastic sailors that have totally failed in the round-the-world race because they think it’s all about getting off the starting line and as quickly as possible to the finish.”
It’s a journey that took Enright and Towill from dinghies to the world’s biggest, fastest yachts in less time than it takes most college students to choose a major.
Enright grew up in the heartland of U.S. sailing. A native of Bristol, Rhode Island -- birthplace of Nathanael Herreshoff, who designed America’s Cup defenders including Vigilant, Columbia and Reliance -- he’s the grandson of Clint Pearson, co-founder of Pearson Yachts, which helped launch the modern era of fiberglass boat construction. He raced 8- and 14-foot dinghies on windy Narragansett Bay there and matriculated at nearby Brown, earning All-American honors all four years on the Ivy League school’s sailing team.
Roy E. Disney
That’s how he met Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew and the former chairman emeritus of Walt Disney Co. He was a passionate sailor, who in 1999 set a speed record from Los Angeles to Honolulu. In 2006, Disney hatched a plan to buy a 52-foot ocean racer from software executive Philippe Kahn, loan it to a group of talented college and high school sailors and film their training and racing for a movie.
“I actually sent my application in on the last day,” Enright said from Rhode Island. “I almost wasn’t going to apply. It seemed really weird. And then I thought, how could I not want to go live and sail in Hawaii?”
That’s where he befriended Towill, a high school sailor from Kaneohe, who says he was recruited because producers wanted a local kid in the movie. The two survived cutdowns to join the 15-member crew of the Morning Light campaign, training with sailing luminaries including Stan Honey, Volvo-winning navigator in 2005-06, co-founder of Sportvision Inc., which pioneered sports television graphics, and director of technology for the last America’s Cup.
Disney eventually released their adventures in a 2008 film called “Morning Light” and Towill joined Enright at Brown, where they enjoyed the low-grade celebrity that comes with appearing in a movie that grossed about $275,000, according to IMDB.
They were key players at Brown, according to coach John Mollicone. Enright was an aggressive, hard-working competitor in quick, 14-foot dinghies and Towill took on the nation’s best in larger, slower yachts.
Now, however, the two had a shared dream of continuing offshore and winning the Volvo race. While the competition is an extreme endurance test with week-long storms, massive waves, icebergs and sleepless nights, getting to the starting line might be an even bigger challenge, Mollicone said.
“Man, you’ve got to be a go-getter -- it’s running a business,” he said. “These guys are on the boat 30 days straight, sleep-deprived. Sailors have heard all the stories. It takes a certain type of personality to want to do a race like that, and Mark and Charlie, since they did the Morning Light thing, it’s all they talked about.”
Not that the dream seemed particularly close. Enright graduated and went to work for North Sails, and participated in other big boat campaigns, including a win in the Newport-Bermuda Race. Towill divided his time between college sailing and crewing for professional teams, winning the world championships in the Melges 32 class and competing on the RC44 circuit with the Artemis team owned by oil trading billionaire Torbjorn Tornqvist.
A January day in Florida changed that. At a coffee shop in Key West, near where the fleets were docked for the island’s midwinter regatta in 2011, Enright and Towill met with Ralf Steitz, a former adviser to the Morning Light team, who wanted to send them back to sea. Steitz is a veteran offshore and America’s Cup sailor, now president of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Sailing Foundation, which receives donated ocean racing yachts, rents them and then sells them to raise money for the New York school.
Steitz wanted to put together a youth team for the Transatlantic Race from Newport, Rhode Island, to Cornwall, England, to compete with a young German entrant. Steitz told them he had the boat -- a 65-foot grand prix yacht originally built for Jim Swartz, co-founder of Accel Partners, an investor in Facebook Inc. and Dropbox Inc. But they’d still need to raise money; quite a lot of it, and do it in six months.
“It was, like, more than $400,000,” Steitz said. “New sails alone were $56,000. We tried to get them to go to all their sources. It was very difficult for them. The sailing is really the easy part.”
Towill asked some friends from the Rhode Island School of Design to make some fundraising materials for them and the pair lived on sofas or borrowed boats while they assembled a sailing team and raised money, mostly from private individuals interested in the project and the non-profit Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay, New York, which trains young sailors.
Enright found it was hard, thankless work. “If you build it, it doesn’t necessarily come,” he said from Hawaii. They were still fundraising through their training races, taking in donations even as they hit the starting line.
They won the youth division in the transatlantic race -- the first finisher was former United Technologies Corp. CEO George David at the helm of the 100-footRambler 100 --and finished third of 300 in the U.K.’s Fastnet race, after Rambler flipped and left David drifting for hours in the Celtic Sea.
Then the money ran out. Steitz sold the boat before they had to figure out how to pay for the trip back home.
By then, they’d attracted Volvo race chief Frostad’s attention, largely thanks to onboard video of their adventures. On the lookout for new blood, Frostad met with the pair and told them he’d provide coaching from the race’s business development staff if they wanted to pursue their dream of entering. The timing was perfect, because standardizing the boats for the 2014-15 race had lowered the cost of a campaign to about $21 million from a high-end of about $70 million in 2011-12.
So Enright and Towill cultivated leads with U.S. companies and held dozens of meetings, taking time out to visit the Volvo teams as the race reached various ports. They produced a high-quality sales presentation and tailored it to each company they visited.
In November, they heard from Istanbul-based Alvimedica, which makes stents and catheters. Unlike most of the companies they’d approached, Alvimedica was already interested in sponsoring a Volvo team. And as a relatively young company, founded in 2007, they wanted a young team. Enright and Towill flew to the company’s marketing headquarters in Amsterdam and met with CEO Cem Bozkurt, along with the chief marketing officer and several others.
“We got to skip the part where we told them about the race, instead it was timelines, infrastructure, budget, all that stuff,” Enright said. “More than anything else, it was just getting to know these guys.”
The meeting started at 1 p.m. and eventually stretched to 8:30 p.m. It continued into dinner and then a bar or two. By the end, they had a handshake deal. Enright and Towill said goodnight to their new sponsors around 1 a.m.
“Then we went back out,” Enright said.
To Towill, it still doesn’t feel real. They’re both spending days training, then attending to business details. The boat is already finished, off the production line and in the paint shed, getting emblazoned with Alvimedica logos from bow to stern. To run the team, they recruited Bill Erkelens, who led Larry Ellison’s ocean racing campaigns aboard the 80-foot Sayonara.
In April, after they take delivery of the boat in the U.K., they will sail it to Lisbon to begin crew tryouts. Then they’ll sail from Lisbon to Newport, and do another transatlantic back to the U.K., where they’ll enter Aberdeen Investment Management Cowes Race Week.
By then, their difficulties will be building their eight-member crew instead of finance, Towill says. The Volvo starts in Spain in October.
“We want to get offshore -- that’s the goal as it pertains to the selection process,” he said. “You need to get out on the water when it’s dark and cold. That’s when the team dynamics matter.”