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Meet Rolex Yachtsmen of the Year Martin and Lowry

Mike Martin and Adam Lowry log another day training in Northern California in preparation for the 2021 International 505 Worlds in Bermuda in October.
Mike Martin and Adam Lowry log another day training in Northern California in preparation for the 2021 International 505 Worlds in Bermuda in October. (Abner Kingman/)

Entering the penultimate day of the 2019 International 505 World Championship in Fremantle, Australia, Mike Martin and Adam Lowry were leading the regatta comfortably, but while warming up for the first race, the hole that holds the centerboard pivot pin ripped open, leaving the ­centerboard free-floating inside its trunk. With some quick thinking, Lowry says, they wedged a paddle—required equipment on a 505—into the trunk to minimize the board’s movement. Not ideal, but good enough to continue racing. “It moved all the way back in the trunk, and then it tilted backward, so the center of lateral resistance was all over the place,” Lowry recalls. “That was challenging, and we were trying to do a lot with our trim to compensate.”

With Lowry steering from the trapeze, Martin was able to ­occasionally reset it during the race, and they managed to finish fourth. But with the wind increasing, they’d surely have a difficult time ­managing the boat in the following race.

What now?

Their training partners from back home in California—Parker Shin, Eric Anderson, Mike Holt and Carl Smit—all of whom were battling for the world title, came to their rescue. “They had an extra centerboard onshore and a coach with a boat, and they said, ‘Go get our centerboard, and use our coach,’” Lowry says. “We went through all the procedures you have to with the jury afterward, but we used their centerboard for the last race that we sailed (another fourth). And that was enough to seal the regatta win.”

Lowry adds that he also had an issue with his trapeze harness the day before—a three-race day—and when it seemed his harness wasn’t going to last through the day, he borrowed Smit’s backup. Incredible sportsmanship, you might say, but Lowry and Martin would say it’s just the 505 way. Holt and Smit, by the way, finished second overall, and Shin and Anderson were third.

Nearly a year later, in early 2020, Martin and Lowry are standing astride in blue blazers on the deck of ­the ­aircraft carrier USS Midway in San Diego. They’re not there to tour the winged relics of military aviation history, but they are there for a different sort of historical moment. Finally, after being shortlisted for sailing’s Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award an incredible five times, Martin is getting his due. And just as he was on the wire when they won the world championship title, Lowry is right by his side, towering over his skipper as they both open their boxes to flash their shiny new golden timepieces.

Rarely does the crew get a Rolex too, but this time, the selection panel felt that it was impossible to recognize the accomplishments of one without the other. It’s another victory of sorts, for ­non-Olympic dinghy sailors and forgotten crews alike.

“After we won, I took a look at the list of everyone who had won the award—men and women—over the decades, and that was a really humbling experience,” Lowry tells me over the phone a few weeks afterward. “It’s a lot of people who I know and respect, and it’s a pretty elite group of people to be a part of. Winning a world championship is something that kind of follows you forever, and this is very similar in that regard.”

He and his skipper are not professional sailors, he reminds us. They go to work every day. In many ways, they’re weekend warrior like everyone else. “We sail one day a week and a weekend a month maybe,” Lowry says. “But what a great sport we participate in, where you can develop over a long period of time the skills and techniques you need to compete at a really high level. And to win an award like this when you’re 54 and 45, respectively, and doing it the way we are doing it…”

Never in a million years, he adds, did he think he was going to win a Rolex, especially at his age. But the truth is, he was more excited for Martin. “It’s no secret that the guy is a stud in all forms of sailing that he’s done,” Lowry says. “I’m just helping a little bit.”

Martin, for the record, didn’t follow the traditional path of an American junior sailor. By his telling, he taught himself how to sail at a horse-riding camp where he and his sister were sent one summer long ago. “I didn’t really like the horses, and they didn’t really like me,” Martin tells me.

Martin (left) and Lowry (right) continue to excel together in 505 class sailing because of regular training with mentors and friends in Northern California.
Martin (left) and Lowry (right) continue to excel together in 505 class sailing because of regular training with mentors and friends in Northern California. (Abner Kingman/)

But at that camp, there was a little pond with a small sailing dinghy stored on the beach. “I would just go Snark sailing all day instead of riding horses.”

The following summer, instead of sending him to back to horse camp, his parents bought him learn-to-sail lessons on the Potomac River, where he gleaned fundamentals in a Flying Scot. When his lessons were done, he’d hustle over to Washington Sail Marina, near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. “I’d just bum rides on any boat I could. It was the late 1970s, so racing was pretty active.”

As a teenager, he soon got a Laser and started mixing it up with the local adult Laser fleet. He was eventually recruited by Thistle Class standout Brent Barbehenn, who tutored him in the art of racing to win. Together they won Thistle National titles in 1982 and 1984.

When he was 17, local D.C. sailor James Jacob got his hands on an International 505 and needed a crew, so he tapped Martin—­obviously having no idea that someday he would become one of the greatest Five-Oh sailors of a generation.

After his freshman year of college, in 1985, he won the Laser North Americans—a 185-plus boat fleet. “That was probably the first time I thought that maybe I can be good at this sport at a top level,” Martin says. And man, was he right.

His competitive-sailing trajectory would lead him to a Finn ­campaign, and to California for the 1992 Finn Olympic Trials. Soon after, weight jackets were banned, and it was obvious he wasn’t built for a boat that’s built for beasts. So he hunted for a hookup in the West Coast International 505 sailing scene, and his friend from back home, Macy Nelson, directed him to the great Howie Hamlin.

“I called him up to see if he wanted to sail together, and he said: ‘No thanks. I’m all set up sailing with Steve Rosenberg, but thanks for the call anyway,’” Martin says. “I figured, oh, OK. So much for that.”

But a few months later, there was a regatta in Richmond, California, and Rosenberg couldn’t make it. Hamlin called, they won the regatta, and so began Martin’s long and illustrious 505 career.

Not quite concurrently, Lowry’s rise to the top of the sport began on the waters of Lake St. Clair, Michigan, coincidentally, sailing a Thistle with his father. “I don’t remember how young,” Lowry says, “but really young. There was a good little club scene in Detroit in the summertime. There were some really good Thistle sailors, and Dad would bring me along every once in a while. People in the sailing community kind of get that Detroit punches above its weight in terms of sailors.”

As a talented junior sailor himself, Lowry won the Sears Cup (US Sailing’s junior keelboat championship) in J/24s in 1992, and that, he says, parlayed into getting into Stanford and racing there for four years.

The sailing-team roster would have listed him as a 6-foot-6-inch 210-pounder with the physique of a basketball player. He says he’s the runt of his family. His brother played European pro basketball, and his father was drafted by the 76ers in 1964 but never played for them. For sailing, he says, he whittled himself down to 176 pounds.

“My sophomore year, I sailed with these twins—Sareeta and Sujatha—who were like 85 pounds apiece,” he recalls. “When it was windy, they weren’t strong enough to last a whole practice, so I’d sail with one of them for like an hour, put her out, and then put her sister in the boat, and do the rest of the practice with her sister. They were like interchangeable parts.”

After graduating as an All-American in 1996 and taking a job as a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Lowry eventually jumped into the new high-speed realm of 49er sailing. Those years of Olympic 49er-class training clarified his understanding of high-level sailing.

In 2002, balancing work and sailing, he started skippering an older 505 with a friend. Over the next five years, he says, he fell in love with the boat and the sailors who worked together for the greater good of the fleet. After his friend sold the boat, he says, he spent a few years racing Moths before returning to the 505 as a crew—an ideal place given his physique. You could say he was right where he belonged.

Fast-forward to 2019, and together Martin and Lowry were running the 505 table: winning the class’s National, Canadian and World championships all in one year. Suffice it to say, the Rolex selection committee had an easy time.

But their success that year wasn’t a singular effort. They had the help of their tightknit West Coast crew and their regular Tuesday training sessions. To note, five of the top boats at the Fremantle Worlds in 2019 were members of their training squad.

“That’s something that Howie [Hamlin] and I developed in Long Beach,” Martin says. “When we started sailing together, he would talk about goals and set new ones every year. And one of his goals was to win the 505 Worlds. And I said, ‘That’s fine to set that goal, but what steps are you taking to achieve that?’ And he just sort of looked at me like, ‘What do I need to do besides just go to a regattas?’ I said, ‘Well, you need training partners, you have to test equipment, etc.’ And that was how the Team Tuesday training sessions started.

“Howie—being the most motivated person in the world—started organizing it, getting training partners, and we started racing on Tuesdays. The philosophy behind our approach is what’s key: sharing all information and having the mindset that your goal is to speed up your training partner. And that means everything, not just boatspeed. It has to be a mindset of working together and everyone working for the goal.”

Initially, Martin tells me, they would just go out and speed-test. They got really fast in a straight line, but sheeting in and blazing into a corner doesn’t always work. “It became clear that we weren’t practicing the tactical side of the game, so we changed up the program, set out a couple of marks, and practiced racing. That was a key improvement to the program because it forced us to practice everything: starting, tactics, jibing, tacking, mark roundings. We saw our regatta results really jump up after that.”

Lowry wasn’t part of the founding Tuesday crew, but his ­Olympic-class training experience certainly cemented similar ­foundations. His 49er sailing, he says, drove home the importance of preparation. “I think preparation is one of the big things it taught me,” he says. “Junior sailing and college sailing are obviously really great and intense sailing, but the level of preparation both on the boat as well as from a mental standpoint is really different. Understanding that there is a broader set of things that you really have to master was a big learning moment. It also goes beyond the boat preparation. It’s all about mental preparation for the various cycles within big events that you need to really perform well at. There’s also a ‘one-notch-up’ kind of physical element.”

Self-motivation and collaboration, he adds, were also important takeaways: “In many cases, the ability to work with other teams that you’re competing against and make each other better is a big part of what we’ve been doing, and it really makes a difference. If you’re working with another team, you can compare and contrast things—where you are weak and vice versa—and you can trade notes, and everybody gets better. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s really underestimated in the sport of sailing. With the right kind of approach and the right kind of sharing, you can get better really fast.

Two sailboats crashing through waves on the water.
Two sailboats crashing through waves on the water. (Abner Kingman/)

“It’s been going on for a long time in the 505 class, long before even I got into it. It was happening 20 years ago, and it’s sort of been instilled in the class—the American class, I would say—that this is what you do. You would have briefings and debriefings; when you are done sailing, you go to the debriefings. That’s just what you do. The class is particularly keen on getting new people to participate in the class, but like a lot of Olympic boats, the setup is really important. And the leaders want you to come up that curve really fast so that you’re another good competitor to race against.”

Nowadays, in San Francisco, the group calls itself Team Tuesday Norte. San Francisco’s strong winds force boathandling prowess and sharp awareness when it comes to shifting gears on the fly. From his vantage point way out on the trap wire is where Lowry has developed his keen eye and big-fleet tactical smarts. In the 505 world especially, it’s well-known that you’re only good as your crew, and Lowry is clearly one of the best.

“Calling good tactics from the trapeze on a 505 is really hard,” Martin says, “but it’s better that the crew does the upwind tactics because the driver is getting blasted in the face with water the whole time. We talk together about the general plan—what we think is working and what’s not—and there’s a lot of conversation going on, but Adam is definitely in charge of executing the upwind tactics.”

That on-the-fly conversation, he adds, is continuous for them, and that was a big part of their success in Australia. “Fremantle was interesting because it was expected to be really left-hand-favored,” Lowry recalls. “Everyone was expecting that it was going to be a race to the left-hand corner, and it turned out to be anything but that. What was working on the course was highly variable. In this event, what was really important was recognizing when things were changing and not being stuck with your plan.”

He highlights one race in particular: “We started in the first third of the line. As you do, you talk about the things you think are going to work before the start of the race, and you look around the course, and all of a sudden you see the far-right side...something special is starting to happen over there. I think what we were able to do was change our strategy when that was warranted. Part observation and part willingness to just abandon what you thought was going to work, and go with what you saw on the racecourse.

“The hard part is that I’m trying to just observe a lot. I’m trying to see what’s working across the course. You’re looking at the boats, and when you sail a boat enough, you can look from a distance and see if someone is lifted or headed or going really fast. The 505 in particular, when someone is going fast, the attitude of the boat is a little different, a little bit more bow up. So you are looking for those types of cues. I think the other thing—and this is going to sound super-ambiguous—is I’m not thinking about what is the right tack to be on now. I’m trying to think about the beat as a whole—where we position ourselves relative to the fleet and the competition we’re close to in order to beat them to the mark over the whole course of the beat.”

Another key element, he adds, is having the skipper and crew ­clicking as a tactical unit. “Mike’s very complimentary, and I appreciate that,” he says of his skipper who lauds him at every opportunity. “But it is more complex than that. First of all, I call tactics upwind, he calls tactics downwind, so he equally deserves credit for tactical decisions.

“I think one thing we do really well is understand each other’s roles in any given time. When we are going upwind, he’ll be feeding me info about what he’s seeing and what he’s feeling—really important data in the overall planning of the beat. And I do the same thing downwind: I’m trimming, so I can feel the waves and stuff like that, and that tactical input is really important.”

Tuesday practice sessions with other 505 teams allow Martin and Lowry to benefit from the group’s collective-growth mindset.
Tuesday practice sessions with other 505 teams allow Martin and Lowry to benefit from the group’s collective-growth mindset. (Abner Kingman/)

With both Martin and Lowry balancing full-time careers—Martin as a mechanical engineer for a firm called Synapse Product Development, and Lowry as co-founder of Ripple, a plant-based milk producer based in Berkeley, California—they’ve continued their Tuesday training sessions, pausing only during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Without question, the best physical training for sailing is sailing,” Martin says. “On days we don’t sail, I do a lot of foil kiteboarding, which is actually a good workout as well. It’s similar to driving a 505 in that you are pushing with your quads and pulling with your arms. In the off-season during the winter, I bike-commute into work, and that builds my aerobic ability beyond what I get from sailing.”

Naturally, he keeps his kite gear in the car, and if conditions look good, he says, he can be on his foil board within 15 minutes.

And even though he’s sailed the 505 for nearly three decades, Martin has never once lost interest in the development class. “The 505 is a pretty great boat in a wide variety of conditions, and to me, it’s more fun to sail that than anything else. It is also super-tight ­racing. In 2019, we had a great season. Adam and I won every regatta we sailed in together, which was nice, but it’s not like we ever just walked away with any event. Every single race was hard-fought, and we had to sail really well to win. Anytime we make a mistake, we would lose two or three boats, because at every regatta, there will be five or six prior world champions on the water. In this class, you gotta be on it. It’s a fun boat, and it’s still super-challenging to sail.”

The 2020 Worlds in Sweden were canceled due to COVID-19, but this year’s championship is scheduled for Bermuda in October, where they intend to be locked in stride once again. Lowry, no doubt, will have a few spare trapeze hooks and a spare centerboard at the ready.