People and Boats: A Conversation with Peter Isler

Published on May 26th, 2015

When it comes to professional sailing, Peter Isler, 59, of San Diego, California, literally and metaphorically helped write the book.

Isler’s sailing resume is pure pedigree: two America’s Cup wins as navigator (1987, 1988); Intercollegiate Sailor of the Year while at Yale University (1976); world championship titles; and line honors/course records in the Newport-Bermuda Race, the Transpac and the Transatlantic Race.

Additionally, Isler is the author of several books, including Little Blue Book of Sailing Secrets and At The Helm: Business Lessons for Navigating Rough Waters.

Isler earns his keep sailing and as a motivational speaker. His free time is spent windsurfing, riding horses with his daughter, and playing rhythm guitar in his band. SAIL magazine’s David Schmidt talked to Isler about the evolution of pro sailing and the changes he’s seen in navigation and apparent-wind sailing.

SAIL: How did you get into navigation?
Peter Isler: I took a year off in between high school and college and did a lot of big-boat deliveries where I was exposed to early electronic navigation. I have a head for mathematics and at college taught a traditional piloting class, which I loved. I [sailed] as a tactician, trimmer and bowman back in the day, but in my first Cup I got slotted in as navigator.

SAIL: Can you describe the evolution of grand prix sailing?
PI: Back in the ‘70s, there really wasn’t such a thing as professional sailors. There were some “superstars,” but they were all industry people, mostly boatbuilders, sailmakers or delivery captains. Take, for example, the Admiral’s Cup, a preeminent event in the day. The owner might cover expenses, but no one got paid, and some of us slept on the boat.

Today 95 percent of grand prix sailing is done by professionals. There are still some industry people involved, but a large percentage are pure pros. And nobody sleeps on the boat anymore, except maybe for naps in between races!

SAIL: What was navigation like when you got started? Read on…

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