Brad brings the Funk in Madeira
He is a veteran Olympic campaigner and a past 49er and Moth national champion but US sailor Brad Funk is well aware that he and his fledgling Vega Racing crew are very much the new kids on the block when it comes to the Extreme Sailing Series.
We caught up with the enigmatic American skipper after racing on the final day of his team’s first ever ESS regatta on the Portuguese island of Madeira to find out how the transition from Olympic campaigner to ESS skipper was working out.
After missing out on Rio 2016 selection for the US Olympic sailing team in the 49er class Funk has been on the hunt ever since for backers to help him mount an Extreme Sailing Series campaign.
Famous for his affability and often quirky approach to life, Funk loves helping to promote sailing and says the grandstand racing aspect of the Extreme Sailing Series was simply too hard to resist.
“I like to foil and if I had my Moth here right now I'd be ripping up and down right in front of the crowd just showing how cool sailing is,” he enthuses. “The Extreme Sailing Series is different, it's really short course racing and it's about putting on a show. I think I fit this mould perfectly.”
After convincing the ESS organisers he was serious about competing Funk hired a marketing agent from the world of car racing to help him attract sponsors. This season as well as the Madeira regatta Vega Racing will also compete in Lisbon and – if all goes according to plan – at the season finale in Australia.
“Finding partners for something like is all about matching the team and the concept with the right brands,” Funk explains. “You need a specialist company with a track record of doing that and who has the right business connections.
“It is pretty expensive to ship these amazing machines all the way around the world. It's probably around 10 times the budget for campaigning most of the Olympic classes. Since I started putting all this together I've learned a lot about business and connections you need to make to get some help – and everyone needs help when they are starting out on something new.”
Frustratingly Madeira only delivered light airs racing for the six-strong fleet but Funk says it was immediately clear how high the level was among the more experienced ESS squads.
“It's a very different niche than the Olympic scene, probably one step down from the America's Cup. It’s attracted some big corporations with some serious money who appreciate the appeal of sailing and they make the most of what has become a great series.”
Despite Funk’s own extensive sailing experience, he admits the switch to the Extreme sailing Series has been a complex challenge. All but one of the Vega Racing crew had never set foot on a foiling GC32 before they arrived in Madeira, but Funk says they received a warm welcome from the existing crews, albeit with varying degrees of knowledge sharing.
“It's a fun group of guys. Some of them are open with what they know and others understandably want to hold on to all the hard work they've done.”
How then had Funk’s men approached the challenge of learning to sail and then to race a GC32 all in the few days of training available prior to racing in Madeira?
“For sure it's a new thing, a new type of sailing, for me,” Funk says. “But I've sailed many different types of classes and the first thing is not to have any expectations. You just have to enjoy the process and if your mind is engaged and focused the answers to the problems will come.”
Aside from this Zen-like answer, Funk also admits to pouring over You Tube videos of past GC32 regattas to try to study the other teams’ crew choreography during hoists, drops, tacks and gybes. Their online learning, he says, paid dividends at their first event.
“Anybody can mimic somebody else and all these other teams have done their time to refine their technique. If you copy somebody, that you can save hours and hours and that's what I believe that we've done. I think we're already further along than most people would expect us to be.”
All that said, Funk admits to a tense atmosphere on board during the opening couple of days in Madeira.
“We were a bit too focused inside the boat and it was all quite disorganised with me barking out orders as we tried to get the manoeuvres right. We've shifted gears since then and over the last couple of days of the regatta I feel like we have been able to race properly.
“I always believe the quieter it is, the better. The more time you sail together the less chatter there is because then the synergy starts to happen as each of you understands what's going to happen next. Everyone's just listening for the call and you know exactly what the operation is for every person on every move.”
If the right sponsor can be found, Funk plans for an all-American Vega Racing crew – including his 49er crew Trevor Burd - to compete in the full 2017 Extreme Sailing Series, as well as a recently mooted pre-season GC32 world championship.
“The plan would be to base a boat in Europe so we could do a couple of weeks of intensive training before the worlds and then roll straight into the Extreme Sailing Series,” he says.
Despite turning 38 this coming December Funk has not ruled out another Olympic run if the stars aligned correctly. He’s been a member of the US sailing team since he was 17 but has missed out on selection at three consecutive Games. Not making the cut for Rio after he and his crew Trevor Burd had long been the 49er favourites clearly still rankles.
“I still have the desire to go to the Olympics and if I had an opportunity I would sail again with Trevor again in the 49er. Or, if they have the foiling Nacra 20 then I'll probably sail that with him as well. Sailing together on the Extreme Sailing Series would set us up nicely to sail that boat.”
[Main Image: Mark Lloyd]