Vann Wilson: Doing the Double

Published on May 31st, 2016

The 2016 Laser World Championships took place from April 12 to May 28 on Banderas Bay in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. With four separate events for varying sail sizes, ages, and gender, each is a feat to attend and compete. But as Joe Berkeley reports, one person went for a bigger test…

For most competitors, one Worlds is more than enough, as the event is taxing. Then there’s 59-year-old Vann Wilson, who did it not once, but twice, first at the 14-race Laser Standard Men’s World Championship (May 12-18) against competitors who could be his grandchildren, then again with his age group at the 12-race Laser Standard Masters World Championship (May 22-28).

There is an expression for participating in both. Al Clark, the former Master’s World Champion and Royal Vancouver Yacht Club coach calls it “doing the double.”

Wilson is not one to seek attention, he prefers to fly under the radar, but that became impossible when he registered for the Laser Open Worlds at the age of 59. As soon as his name was on the entry list, he began to generate interest.

Vann Wilson is from Long Beach, California. He stands just shy of six feet tall and weighs 183 pounds. He is lean and fit as a result of ocean swimming and spin class. His training partners from Long Beach say that when it is blowing nuclear, Vann is the guy who is strongest.

He started sailing when he was a kid and won the Mallory Cup at the age of 18, the youngest person to ever do so. Life took him away from sailing for 20 years, and he got back into the sport when he was in his forties as a result of what he called a mid-life crisis. At 210 pounds with borderline high blood pressure he was out of shape and out of sorts. He bought a Laser and six months later, he was a very fit 190 pounds and his life was transformed.

So what motivated Vann at the age of almost 60 to put it on the line against the best Laser sailors in the world?

“Being able to compete in the Open Worlds gave me access that you can’t get any other way,” explained Vann. “If you’re a coach, you coach whoever you’re coaching right up to the gun, then you’re forced way off the course. When you’re a competitor, you have a front row seat. You’ve got the best ticket to see the best Laser sailors in the world, up close, in action. I always wanted to do an Open worlds, it’s the major leagues, it’s the chance to stand at the plate against Nolan Ryan throwing the fastball.”

The courses at the Open Worlds were twice as long as the courses at the Master’s Worlds. According to Vann, “I couldn’t even see the weather mark. They put a Catalina 30 up there just so we could find it.”

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Vann Wilson competing in the Masters Worlds.

Steve Kirkpatrick, an accomplished Master’s sailor from Newport, Rhode Island sailed the Open Worlds once and said, “I was so far behind, it looked like I was winning.”

Vann’s participation garnered respect at the Master’s Worlds’. Tim Law from Devon, England said, “First of all I think it’s brilliant that he’s allowed to participate. A lot of sports would not allow that to happen. It’s a bit like Eddie the Eagle and I mean that as a compliment. It’s great that he could do it. In my opinion, Vann’s the man. It’s not the winning, it’s the trying to win. And Vann epitomizes that spirit of sport.”

While Vann trained hard and is has excellent physical fitness, he was in for a surprise when he arrived at the Open Worlds. “I thought I was in the wrong place, I thought I was in an Iowa wrestling camp. These guys are specimens and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some tall, some short, I didn’t see anyone who didn’t show up incredibly fit for the regatta.”

Tracy Usher knows what Vann was up against. “I’ve heard it said by several great Laser sailors that the Senior Worlds is the greatest regatta in sailing in terms of all out competition,” noted Tracy. “Those guys are really, really good especially in an Olympic year when most are at or near peak form. For the more regular sailor it requires an all out effort just to keep up and can be an exhausting and very humbling event though, at the same time, exhilarating. In the end it is definitely worth every minute.”

Vann intended to use the Open Worlds as a tune-up for the Worlds. “I’ve always believed you’re as good as your practice group, and this would be the way to get ready for the Masters’ Worlds,” Vann said. “That was misguided because their level is so much higher than mine, it’s hard to learn from guys you’re only going to see for maybe a minute after the start because they’re long gone and up and away.”

Former Master’s World Champion Al Clark of Vancouver, Canada knows what Vann is talking about. “I did the Open Worlds once,” recalled Al. “I trained with some of the top guys and I could hang with them in practice. What I didn’t know was that in training, they’re in like seventh gear, then at the regatta they had three more gears that I didn’t have. Downwind they were swooping by me to windward and to leeward like birds of prey and they didn’t even care about my wind shadow, it didn’t matter.”

Despite the difficulty of sailing in the Open Worlds, Vann savored every second. “I think the moment that I hold onto was I was sailing around Ramon and Gerardo Benitez of the Mexican National team,” shared Vann. “I really enjoyed seeing these young, Mexican kids that had trained very hard, that are definitely going to be a force in Laser sailing in the next ten years. To see the future of the sport at the back of the pack, just how hard these kids had trained, they were racing me just as hard as I was racing them.”

Grand Master World Champion Mark Bethwaite from Sydney, Australia admired Vann for his undertaking.  “The notion of sailing the Standard Worlds then the Master’s Worlds right afterward, well, the idea of it just exhausts me.”

Multiple Masters’ world champion Brett Beyer of Sydney, Australia described the challenge. “The Open Worlds is seven days straight. I think it takes its toll. If you keep it in context, I want to learn about the venue, the tactics, that can help. In 2001 at CORK I did both events and it was quite good for me. I was in the 40’s in the gold fleet at the Open Worlds, at the age of 35.” When asked if he thought he could sail both at the age of 59, the World Champion Beyer replied with a chuckle, “not if I knew it was going to be windy, it would be physically tough.”

Vann doesn’t ask for respect, with his participation in back-to-back world championships, he inspires it. David Rosenthall of Australia who participated in the Masters’ Worlds may have summed it up best. “It’s not the people you beat, it’s the people you meet.”

According to the official score sheets, Vann finished the Open Worlds in 52nd in the Silver fleet out of 56 competitors. He finished the Grand Master Worlds in 6th out of 39 competitors. In the opinion of every sailor at the Master’s Worlds, Vann Wilson became a winner the second he dared to do the double.
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Photographer Peter Hurley is a former member of the US Sailing team who still carries the card in his wallet. He finished fifth at the Laser Masters’ World Championship. He is the number one headshot photographer in the world and his work is at peterhurley.com. Joe Berkeley is an amateur sailor and a professional writer who finished the Laser Masters’ Worlds in 24th. His work is at joeberkeley.com.

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