George Szabo: King of Cash Competition
Published on March 28th, 2016
Winning any one design class world championship is a notable feat, but some are simply better than others. The Star World Championship title has been among the best. Amid the class’s long history and Olympic status, the winners list includes such notables as Tom Blackaller, Dennis Conner, Buddy Melges, and Lowell North.
When George Szabo won the Star World title in 2009, he probably thought little could top it. But when the Star got eliminated from the Olympics, the Star Sailors League was born. While winning an aging perpetual with tarnished plaques is historic, it’s hard to beat the league’s substantial prize money.
While 2009 might have been George’s coming of age, 2015 was his coming of cash. After earning $25,000 in September for his win at the first ever SSL Lake Grand Slam in Switzerland, in December George cashed a $40,000 check by winning the SSL Finals in Nassau, Bahamas.
With a qualifying series advancing the top teams to knock-out rounds, the SSL format is totally different from any other regatta. How do you approach it?
With the SSL qualifying format your initial goal is to be the top ten for every race, which is totally different from any other regatta. Once you have made that hurdle, your next goal is to sail well to be top seven, then top four, then win it.
Sailing windward leeward is all about picking sides and if you are not certain about which side pays, then with this format you probably won’t gamble for the race win but go up the middle, which would be good enough to make the next round. Even in the final, the prize money goes down per place, so you are protecting third just as much as you would protect second, so the same applies.
The SSL format creates a scenario where you have a different mind-set to traditional fleet racing.
You sailed with Swiss crew Patrick Ducommun at the SSL Lake Grand Slam. Tell us about that.
Patrick and I had only sailed a two hour practice session together on Lake Neuchâtel and that was two years before the Lake Grand Slam – that’s it, the only time we had sailed together before the event. You don’t always go out there and say let’s win a regatta. First off you work on the speed and look at what the wind shifts are doing and go over the basics over and over again.
We progressed as the event went on and Patrick is a hard working crew and really motivated. We did have a language barrier, I learnt some French in High School, so I have enough but telling a guy to turn around and lay on his stomach and move to weather is not easy for me. So I could only come out with “you’re a door not a window” and he didn’t understand but after a hand signal Patrick got the message and smiled.
You sailed with Italian crew Edoardo Natucci at the SSL Finals in Nassau. In that event the challenge wasn’t so much language as it was the sailing conditions. Explain.
I have always been a little faster in lighter air and Nassau, in that respect, paid to my personal advantage, as we had light winds for the whole regatta. The qualifying rounds had a little more wind and we were not the quickest but when it got down to the final day, we won the first race easily, going up the middle but in the second race we struggled and needed to get from sixth up to fourth.
It is difficult because you can’t just go and bang a corner; that strategy is not going to work. It came down to passing Jean-Baptiste Bernaz and Pascal Rambeau to make the final and I had to wait for them to make a mistake; they chose to round the right hand leeward gate and I knew the current was favoured left and I knew we had them. In the final the pressure was on and some people get bunched up (stressed out); out of the four teams, we were the only one not to do turns and ultimately that was a huge advantage.
Winning in Nassau with Dodo (Edoardo Natucci) was fantastic. He works super-hard and we get on really well. When I was younger I went sailing the Snipe in Italy with an Italian crew, so even though Dodo speaks English very well, we communicate well in crunch situations in Italian, which is kind of funny. Dodo is a ball of energy and a lot of fun to be with.
Will you be keeping your lucky charms in 2016?
I have been very fortunate to have excellent crews in the Star Sailors League – both of them are excellent personalities. I will be sailing with Patrick when we compete in the first SSL City Grand Slam May 3-7 in Hamburg, Germany and Dodo will be crew for the SSL Finals in Nassau if we get selected.