August 2018

Brains and brawn

Few boats reward both brains and brawn in such equal measure as the Star. It was partly this that enabled a 64-year-old ‘amateur’ to claim this year’s Star European Championship in Flensburg, Germany. Admittedly Cuba-born American Agustín ‘Augie’ Díaz was sailing with one of the class’ top crew - in addition to his four Star World Championship titles, Brazilian Bruno Prada scored Star silver and bronze respectively at the Beijing and London Olympicswith his long term helm Robert Scheidt. But with more than 35 years’ experience and wisdom gained from competing against the world’s best in the class, Díaz is today one of the top helms as he proved when he and Prada became Star World Champions in 2016. The European Championship trophy is the latest silverware for this successful partnership’s trophy cabinet.

Díaz comes from a sailing dynasty. His grandfather sailed and in 1959 his father Gonzalo and uncle Saul claimed silvers for Cuba in the Snipe both at the Pan American Games and at the Snipe Worlds, on the latter occasion to none other than Paul Elvstrøm. 

After his parents emigrated to Florida, an eight-year-old Augie took up sailing in the Optimist. While studying mechanical engineering at Tulane University in New Orleans, in 1974 he led Tulane Green Wave sailing team to win the coveted Leonard M. Fowle Trophyfor the top scoring overall collegiate team. That same year he was voted ICSA College Sailor of the Year (other past winners include Gary Jobson (who won it the two years before him), Peter Isler, William Buchan, Steve Benjamin, Stuart Johnstone (of J-Boats), Ken Read, Morgan Reeser, Chris Larson, Terry Hutchinson, to name a few…)

Despite his success in the Star in recent years, for most of his life Augie has been known, likehis father, for racing Snipes. In this 1931 vintage doublehanded dinghy his record is exceptional. He twice won the class’ biennial World Championship (in 2003 and 2005), something that only a handful of sailors have achieved, among them Torben Grael and Santi Lange. He also won Snipe World Masters Championships in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2012, along with countless US and North American titles. 52 years on, he emulated his fatherwinning silver at the 2011 Pan American Games. 

So what is it about boats from the first half of the 20th century that he prefers? “Some of the classes that are popular are more about boat handling and speed, which arealso important,” explains Díaz. “But I prefer tactical sailing where you have to do both - be good tactically, good athletically and have good boat handling.”

Diaz' Olympic career was frustrating: He tried in 1976 and 1980 aboard the Flying Dutchman, and on the latter occasioni selected to sail with Star boat legend Mark Reynolds. However that year the USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest over Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984 he made it as far as the trials in the Star, but was up against Bill Buchan and Stevie Erickson who went on to claim the gold at Los Angeles.

His first Star World Championship was in 1983 in Los Angeles but he competed in them again two years later in Nassau, on the very same waters albeit some 30 years on that the Star Sailor’s League Finals are held annually. 

The partnership with Bruno Prada began in 2006-7, whenever there was an event that Robert Scheidt couldn’t make – usually the ones in Miami over the winter. “I was very fortunate that I was the same weight as Robert, so Bruno didn’t have to lose any weight,” recalls Díaz. “And for Bruno it was a safe: If we did well it was because of him. If we did bad it was because of me!”

Díaz says that his partner is much more than just a crew. “He is one of the guys in the class who has extensive helming experience in the Finn and in the Snipe when he was younger. He is really a skipper on the boat. Fortunately our tactical approaches are very similar, so there’s no great discussion.

“There are several classes that are ‘driven by the crew’ – there’s also the 505 and you even see it in the 49er. It is easy to feel the boat when you have the helm, much harder when it is just through your backside! The elite guys like Bruno, or Phil Trinter and Brad Nichols can do that.”

The Star boat being deselected from the Olympics has certainly helped ultra-keen amateurs like Díaz as the level across the fleet is marginally more attainable, despite the Class still being on the ascent. It has also led to sailors like Prada having greater availability. Personally for Díaz it also coincided with his pulling out of the medical supplies business he’d built up. Retiring into some “real estate and other investment stuff” he had more time on his hands for sailing, until he agreed to sell the MJM line of 35-53ft long motor yachts designed by Bob Johnstone of J/Boats fame, which has proved more successful (and time-consuming) than he had hoped…

As to the Europeans – this was the first time Díaz has added this trophy to his mantelpiece. 71 teams competed from 15 nations out of the Flensburger Segel-Club, close to the Germany-Denmark border. And it was close with Díaz winning on countback from Lars Grael[defending his brother Torben’s European championship title] and Samuel Gonçalves with Ireland’s Peter O’Leary, sailing with his brother Robert taking bronze.

“We were very fortunate to win,” admitted Díaz. “I think Lars was more deserving. Generally we had really good luck, except for the last day when we were over early in the first race.That was really stupid, because there was no need for that.”

Conditions were generally moderate to superhuman, with race four being held in a brisk 35 knots. Díaz doesn’t reckon this is the most wind in which he’s ever sailed a Star, but it made the runs interesting. “We and the two guys in front of us never went downwind - we reached across and gybed in a lull at the right time, but it was pretty hard. Most people tacked.”

Thanks to his Europeans result, Díaz is currently ninth in the Star Sailors League ranking, and if he remains in the top 10 following the Worlds (7-14th October), then he will be in good shape to get invited December’s Finals in Nassau. 

Having been based in Miami most of his life, he knows Nassau well and has been sailing there for decades: “It is one of the world’s premier venues. They say that when ‘God decides to go sailing’ he goes there - the combination of the breeze, which is usually quite strong, plus the waves and water colour and the warm climate. And the Nassau Yacht Club is very friendly. You couldn’t find better people.” 

Díaz is aware that at 64 his profile doesn’t entirely fit in with that of the Star Sailors League, which aims to recognise the world’s best sailors, but more typically professionals, especially those on the ascent in their careers, but he remains a big fan: “The reason the Star continues to grow is because the Star Sailors League started right after we were taken out of the Olympics. The way it is run, where all the elite sailors in the world can get together in one platform and have an incredible regatta - for me you can forget about the America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race and all those races, at the Star Sailors League Finals you are sailing against the best.”

He is especially in awe of the next generation such as Paul Goodison and even younger talent like Sime Fantela and Ben Saxton. “It was awesome that Paul could come in and be able to do what he did. That was huge for the Star Sailors League. It shows that people from the outside can come and be competitive in the Finals.”

But will they once again get the better of the old timers this December? We wait to find out…


By James Boyd - SailingIntelligence

Rachele Vitello

SSL Press Officer since 2015