Lockdown Interviews - Ben Hall USA
For our next Lockdown chat, we now move over the pond to the USA and to the World Sailing legend and veteren 'A' cat ace Ben Hall.
- When and why did you start sailing for the first time?
I started sailing when I was seven in Huntington, NY. My dad was a test pilot and engineer at Grumman Aircraft and his hobby was sailing so he pointed my brothers and I in this direction. I learned to single hand and race Dyer Dhows (9 ft) and when I was nine we bought a Thistle ( popular 17 ft planing dinghy) and I crewed with my two older brothers. Lots of epic stories from this boat!
- When did you first learn about "A" class cats?
I first became aware of the A Cat when the container that brought back Steve Clark’s Little America’s Cup winner, Cogito, arrived in Bristol, RI (1996). Just before leaving McCray YC, the Cogito team noticed an A Cat mold (plug) in the trash dumpster. The mold was cut in two so it fit nicely in the container. When it arrived in Bristol, Lars Guck grabbed the bow section and put it in his van. He drove over to Hall Spars and opened the back and said “ hey Ben, check this out” ....I immediately said “wow that’s really cool, what is it? Lars said it’s an an A Cat, we should build some.
- Where and at what age did you first get a sail on one.
Then I said to Lars that instead of building some we should see if we can buy some and get sailing immediately. I told him I had a bunch of DN iceboat buddies down in Lake Hopatcong New Jersey who sailed A Cats in the summer. So I called Peter Block and asked if I could come down to sail one. When I arrived ( it was Memorial Day weekend) he had set up three different boats to sail ( and race). I was immediately hooked and ended up buying a plywood Catnip from Mike Gruber and took it home on the roof of my van. This was 1996 and I was 50. That summer 4 or 5 guys bought used A Cats and we had an instant fleet.
Since that time I have owned 34 A Cats. Build seven from scratch and have modified most of the others.
FITNESS AND TRAINING
- What is your current fitness routine, and do you have any special diet?
My current fitness routine is pretty varied. At age 74 I need to keep in good shape to keep up with the “youngsters” in the class. I bike ride (22 miles today), swim and sail as much as I can. Starting at the end of January I went on a plant based diet which has been really good. Not only have I lost a bunch of weight but cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure have come down enough to get off virtually all of my meds. Maybe be a bit of weight disadvantage going upwind in 12 knots plus but hopefully be really good for the 2021 Worlds in St Pete.
- How often do you sail each month?
I sail as much as weather permits. I am fortunate to have the boat rigged and ready to push off my beach in Bokeelia, FL. Since October I have tried to sail a minimum of twice a week. I also race a 15 ft catboat (gaff rigged monohull weighing 1100 lbs).Its a stark contrast to the A Cat but still a lot of fun. I also race radio controlled models (Dragon Flite 95) every Thursday...so its really nice being retired in a beautiful part of the world...to me every day is Saturday.
- Do you have any specific fixed training regime?
I do not have a specific training regime as it is always weather dependent. When the conditions are right I have worked at trapping downwind as Team America got schooled at the Worlds in Australia. Hopefully it will be a different story in St Pete and we can stay with Team Landenberger. I sail alone most of the time so I am very careful to carry the right safety equipment in case I have a problem. Probably the reason I gave up on foiling A Cats as they can put you in a bad position quickly.
Lately I have found that using a speedo is a very helpful tool when training alone.
- Where did you learn your race tactics?
I learned race tactics from sailing with really good sailors. Starting with my dad and older brother Ned. We raced with my dad from an early age on his big boats. He always had good crews including sailmakers, test pilots, navigators and seasoned ocean racers. I learned everything from marlin spike seamanship to navigation to steering a straight course to weather forecasting to learning how to maintain all parts of the boat. Along with all that came tactics...whether it was buoy racing or racing to Bermuda, tactics and strategy was soaked up in my brain.
Sailing in the Thistle with Ned and Eric, I learned a ton about racing one design in a 35 boat fleet.
- Do you practice race tactics in any way whilst training?
Not really as most of the time I am sailing alone
- Do you concentrate on specific areas when training?
Yes. As I highlighted earlier I have worked a bunch on trapping downwind. Also with the speedo I try a bunch of settings upwind to see if I can find a bit more speed. When I go out I try to maximize my time on the water by being in “race mode” 100% of the time. Time in the boat has always been high on my list.
- Was there a particular technique you found that unlocked something in your sailing?
I think mastering boat handling, mark roundings, tacking, jibing and shifting gears is really important to allow you to get your head “out of the boat” and concentrate on strategy and tactics...again time in the boat.
- Do you have a regular sailing partner and what do they do for your sailing?
Unfortunately I do not have a regular sailing partner here in Florida. We have done some great training sessions out of my house with OH Rodgers, Bob Webbon, Bruce Mahoney, Bob Orr and Bill Vining.
In the summer when I go up to RI I sail a lot with my son in law Pete Levesque. Also we are fortunate to have a great group of A Cat sailors at Bristol YC including Lars Guck, Phil Kinder and Andrew Gaynor.
- What do you most enjoy about sailing the ‘A’ Cat?
The boats whether foiling or Classic are simply awesome. When I get to the beach after a sail I always have a big smile on my face and the feeling I have done something exhilarating. The boats are easy to sail but always challenging to sail at a high level.
Every time I go out I learn something new...yes you can still teach an old dog new tricks.
- What was your best sailing moment? (and if you feel strong enough, your worst!?)
I have had a bunch of them but what I will always remember is winning the 2000 North American Championships in Key Largo FL...in 2nd was Pete Melvin, in 3rd was Matt Struble, in 4th was Lars Guck and in 5th was Gregg Goodall...I could have retired right then and there but no, I needed more A Cat sailing.
My worst was probably at the 2002 Worlds in Martha’s Vineyard. I had a top ten finish all but secured in the last race of the series. On the last leg of the race I was ready to jibe on the final Layline to the finish. I messed up the jibe trying to avoid a starboard tack boat and capsized...I was not able to hang onto the boat and watched it drift away downwind. I was in the water for 20 minutes before one of the safety boats found me. That put me down to 12th ...not a happy camper! Oh...just thought of two more...the Worlds in Punta Ala Italy when Italian customs would not release our container until the last day of the regatta...7 US sailors were shutout of this great regatta...and one more... My brother Eric and I campaigned our FD in Europe in the spring of 1972 training for the US Olympic trials. We had built our own boat and had won the US Nationals in 1971. When we got to the the trials our boat weighed in at 35 lbs (16kg) over minimum...game over...our bad for never having weighed the boat...from that day on we both vowed to have the best equipment we could afford regardless of the sport.
- If something goes wrong in a race, how do you start to deal with it mentally?
Actually I had two issues at the Aussie Worlds I needed to deal with. In one of the races I broke my tiller extension at the end of the first beat. Fortunately I had rigged a tag line inside the extension and had a spice sleeve I could make a repair between races. I sailed the last five legs with an “articulating” extension that could only pull and not push from the wire...had to be super careful on port tack. I repaired the extension between races with a sliding repair sleeve and some electrical tape.
In another race I leaned on the curved boom rounding the weather mark of the first lap and ripped it off the mast. I sailed the rest of the race with the mast end of the boom flailing around. I picked a couple of good shifts and had a good race trying not to be too distracted with the loss of boatspeed. I was able to fix this between races as I was fortunate enough to have installed a second gooseneck on the mast.
- What would you sail if ‘A’ Cats were suddenly banned?
Anything that floats... big boats, catboats, RC models, maybe even a Moth...can’t help it...just love to sail
- What improvements do you feel could be made to the boats currently and which direction do you think the two divisions should be heading?
The great thing about the class is the constant development. Innovation has kept the class vibrant even though it is not for every sailor. We always have talked about cost being a deterrent to potential sailors. Honestly I do not think we do enough to debunk that myth. Young sailors can get in to a used classic or second generation foiler less than a new Laser...try comparing to the latest Moth prices...yikes.
The class has seen significant growth here in the States with the two disciplines.
The key is distinguishing the disciplines....one is foiling and one is non foiling. We all know that classics can foil in the right conditions but at the end of the day if you want to foil get a foiler...it is is very easy to keep one hull in the water at all times on a classic...Landy proved it at the Worlds in Australia. This is an important point to almost every classic sailor..and will keep this disciple growing in the future
- Where is the best place you have ever sailed your ‘A’ Cat?
Top 3....Bokeelia, Florida...great conditions, best launching in the world and tons of sea life. Bristol, RI...Narragansett Bay offers a wide variety of conditions with its islands, bays, current and awesome sea breeze. Hervey Bay, AUS...one of the most memorable Worlds...huge breeze, great launching, awesome competition....not to mention the shoreside festivities led by our new best friend and politician Darren.
Oh and one more on the big boat side...hands down Key West!
- Who are your sailing heroes and influences?
Paul Elvstrom , Buddy Melges and Glenn Ashby. Growing up in high performance dinghys we read Elvstoms books, bought his sails, life jackets and bailers...he instilled the idea of practice and hard work. I only got to sail against him once in Solings on Long Island Sound...and I think we beat him.
I bought our first FD from Buddy in 1964 when I was freshman at the University of Wisconsin. From the first first time I shook his hand I knew he was the real deal.
We raced against him in the FD Pan Am trials in 1967 at Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota. He totally dominated the regatta but after each day of racing he would share his tuning and tactical expertise with the fleet. I was lucky enough to sail with Buddy on the IOR 50 footer “Fujimo” on the Chicago Mackinac race in the mid 80’s. He announced to the crew before the race that he did not sail at night so he would see us in the mooring...classic Buddy...and he had some of the best jokes ever!
And then there is Glenn...have sailed against him many times and in the very few races I beat him I felt like I had just won the jack pot in Las Vegas. He is the most humble winner I have ever known...and a sailor that shares his knowledge with anyone who asks. He has been an incredible asset to the class and of course to the Americas Cup.
After a zillion World titles and the epic AC win, Glenny is still Glenny. Good on ya mate.
Oh and a few more from the big boat world...my dad for pushing me to sailing and not flying...and the many opportunities he gave me.
And last but not least...Rod Stephens...of Sparkman and Stephens. He was the rigging expert of the firm and an incredible offshore sailor. I sailed with once on his 45 ft “Mustang” in a day race in Long Island Sound...it was light and flukey and we on the first leg we were dead last when he calmly said to the crew...we have a great boat and a great crew and we need to be patient and dig our way back...and that we did, going on to win the race...I never forgot that.
- What single piece of advice could you give to the average ‘A’ Cat sailor?
The advice I continue to give to any new A Cat sailor is to just go sailing. There is plenty of time to work on your boat. Time in the boat is key to long term success on the race course. And you will always get great enjoyment when you are out on the water.
AND SEE YOU ALL IN ST PETE FOR THE 2021 WORLDS...with all the prep in place we can virtually guarantee that this will be the best Worlds you ever attended!!