This was the fifth year that the Star Sailors League Finals has taken place out of Nassau Yacht Club in the Bahamas. There are many good and obvious reasons to keep on coming back here - not least the fantastic tropical climate and wonderful hospitality. But there’s something particularly special about these 25 legendary Star teams coming to race here in 2017, and it’s because Sir Durward Knowles celebrated his 100th birthday just a month ago on 2nd November.
Sir Durward won Olympic gold in the Star keelboat when competing for the Bahamas at the 1964 Games in Tokyo. Eight years earlier he had already become the first Bahamian to win an Olympic medal for his nation when he took bronze in the Star at Melbourne 1956. He is a former Star World Champion and he took part in eight Olympics. No wonder Sir Durward is considered one of the all-time greats to emerge from this small powerhouse of sporting excellence.
Now, at the age of 100, Sir Durward is the oldest living Olympic Champion in the world, and how things have changed since he was born in 1917, in the midst of World War One. During the Star Sailors League Finals' week Sir Durward was surrounded by his own kind, sailing heroes who have reached the very pinnacle of the sport, just as he did more than half a century ago.
Paul Hutton-Ashkenny, former commodore of Nassau Yacht Club and Regatta Chairman, says it’s thanks in part to Sir Durward that the island enjoys such a strong connection with the Star fleet. “The yacht club has a long history with the International Star Class, and we’ve been a regular host of the Western Hemisphere Championships. It was that event that led the founder of the SSL, Michel Niklaus to approach us about hosting the Finals, which of course we have been delighted to do for these past five years.”
Born in the UK, Hutton-Ashkenny came out to the Bahamas on a work assignment in 1990 and never looked back. It’s easy to fall in love with the island, especially for a sailor. “We think we’re very fortunate; other places have glorious scenery and great weather even in December, but we have all that along with the wonderful Bahamian hospitality. We are blessed with very good sailing breezes and, while the Stars will be racing in sheltered water, there is often still enough of a swell for them to get surfing downwind. The competitors absolutely love the conditions.”
While Hutton-Ashkenny was one of the prime movers in bringing the SSL Finals to Nassau Yacht Club, he acknowledges the team effort involved and the pride that the locals have in bringing such a prestigious gathering of sailing legends to their yacht club. Another key figure is Robert Dunkley, the race committee chairman for Nassau Yacht Club, who is tasked with making sure the event runs like clockwork not just for the sailors but for the media team, and the TV crew who bring their half-million-dollar Flir sideline camera to the event, the same kit used in the Olympic Regatta and the America’s Cup. “It’s great to have some of the world’s best media here broadcasting the regatta around the world,” says Dunkley, who takes a pretty mean photograph himself. “I’d love to be out there racing, but the next best thing is standing in the photo boat capturing all the action at the leeward mark.”
It turns out Dunkley is no slouch in a sailing boat either, having represented the Bahamas in the Laser class at Atlanta 1996, when Robert Scheidt closed out the 19-year-old Ben Ainslie for the gold medal. “I’ve known Robert for years and years, and it’s always good to catch up with him and some of the other guys I got to know on the circuit all those years ago.”
But what gives Dunkley, Hutton-Ashkenny and the other Bahamians the biggest buzz is to see the stars of the sailing world sharing their passion and enthusiasm with the local youngsters. “They’re so excited about the event,” says Dunkley. “It’s all they’d been talking about for some weeks prior the event. It’s great to watch the eyes of our juniors light up as they meet these great sailors. We’re delighted that the sailors took them out sailing, that will be a special moment. And they all gathered round the pool at the yacht club to watch the finals on TV, and some got to lead the winners out to the podium at the medal ceremony. These are moments our young sailors will never forget.”
The Star Sailors League Finals champions for 2017 were Paul Goodison (GBR) and Frithjof Kleen (GER).