James 5_redacted
Who will win? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The online experience is best when you forget you’re online.

Olympic sailor, James Espey, and his wife and Team USA sailor, Genny Tulloch, made that happen in their program – Sail the Virtual Seas with an Olympian.

Bantering with amateur sailors and sailor wannabes online, Espey provided an exciting blow-by-blow commentary of one of his own races at the 2012 London Olympics, using video and web conferencing annotation tools to demonstrate the excitement of Laser class sailing, drawing involuntary “woah’s” and “oohs” from the program participants.

We were all joining a new virtual learning course organized by Airbnb. The global lodging company has invested in guided experiences hosted by residents of popular travel spots called Airbnb Experiences. In the era of social distancing, Airbnb is moving experiences online, a growing number hosted by Olympians, current and retired. While other programs focused on the personal back stories of Olympians, like the Airbnb Experiences of Breeja Larson or Lauren Gibbs, Espey’s focus was on the tactics of race sailing, finding inventive ways to engage and teach.

James 4

Using household items like utensils, bag clips and tooth picks, Espey, a Northern Ireland native, and Tulloch, a contender for Tokyo2020, demonstrated the choices sailors make at the starting line depending on wind direction. They showed through items on their table how competitive sailors explain race conditions and tactics  to each other, a practice called “Bar Karate,” so called for the movement of arms made to show shifts in boat direction, usually executed with a favored drink in hand.

For the layperson, sailing is a mystery. For the competitive racer, sailing is a challenge. But the differentiating factor between a great sailor and an Olympic sailor, like the Olympic Alpine skier, is in the ability to read the course. Unlike skiers, sailors have to read their watery course as it changes on a moment-to-moment basis, because of the wind.

Catching the visual cues of wind, revealed in darker patches of water known as “puffs,” or “cat’s paws” is a critical differentiating factor, as Espey explained. “If you get a header, you tack. If you see a puff, you have to understand why it is happening, what its effect will be, and how your behavior in the boat should change. Is it going to lift me? Head me?”

James 3_redacted
Is that dark patch a “puff” of wind to leverage, the shadow of a cloud, or a forest of kelp?

In addition to dark patches in the water, clouds are clues to the location of wind. But you need to understand the differences in clouds. Tulloch said that “clouds that are building are sucking in air. They look like mushrooms, and you want to avoid them at all costs. The ones that are about to spit out rain, you sail to as fast as you can. The second that rain comes there is 10-15 knots more than anywhere else on the course.”  Added Espey, “You have to watch clouds out of the corner of your eye. As clouds move across the course, they can drag the winds, create a temporary false wind shift, and swing back again once that cloud leaves. They’re very helpful. You can play them. You just don’t know until it happens.”

On the particular London Olympic race day that Espey shared, it was “pretty hectic,” as the Nothe Course, one of five Laser courses in Weymouth Bay had considerable wind shifts in play. “It was hell,” said Espey. Like any race, reading the “puffs,” and understanding which ones will provide the greatest acceleration is vital. And he showed how many sailors may have misread a dark patch in the bay to the left of the starting line as a puff, when actually it was a shadow of a very high cloud, “which distracted a lot of these guys,” said Espey.

A smaller group headed right toward true wind, and got off to a great start. Tulloch explained that  people who qualify for the Olympics are the best at managing these things: reading the wind, starting well, and physically handling the demands of the boat while monitoring shifts in the wind. Espey said it’s like examining a puzzle and finding the easy way through it.

Espey still competes in professional competitions at the highest levels, and remodels boats in San Francisco, including the 100-foot super maxi CQS, the world’s fastest yacht, the first to exceed 50 knots. Tulloch does color commentary for televised sailing events like American’s Cup, and is expected to do so during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Together, they form a terrific tag-team teaching combo. Come and sail the virtual seas with them in this engrossing Airbnb Experience.

James 7
James Espey sailing in the Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team Ireland. (With permission from James Espey.)