By Mark Chisnell
“I work with both my parents, and I'm 28 years old. It’s a disaster,” laughed Ed Powys. In this regard, Powys is unique at Land Rover BAR. Father Dave and mother Jane both work for the team, the former as the Base Manager, the latter as the Bermuda Logistics Coordinator, and this is not their first America’s Cup.
They met during the 1983 Cup when Dave was a boat captain and trimmer with Peter de Savary’s Victory Challenge, and Jane – as de Savary’s PA – did the day to day financial management and administration for the team. Ed didn’t come along for a while after that, by which time Dave Powys had competed in more America’s Cups, round the world races and all the big ocean races of the day.
“I think being around boats and sailing has always been a massive part of my life. It was just something that we did. I can sort of remember learning to sail and probably the first couple of times I went on a boat, I think it was with my Dad and sister, Sophie in Lymington. We always had boating and yachting memorabilia around the place, Dad would put videos on, it was always that kind of environment.
“I can remember sailing at the Salterns, a little salt pond in the town. I can remember capsizing. Sailing with some older kids and capsizing for the first time. Things that kind of stick in your memory.”
The family moved to Falmouth – where Ben Ainslie grew up – when Powys Jnr was seven. “I had done a bit of Optimist [children’s trainer] sailing, but never really properly got into the all-weekend-every-weekend thing until I moved down to the West Country, and they had it all going on down there. There was a group of slightly older kids, really good young sailors, with a good youth and junior programme, and some really committed parents, like John Barnes, Eddie Shelton and all that lot – West Country legends. We slotted straight into that setup.”
“It was the first time I properly started doing it, and started going out and having to do it for myself, rather than being taken along by my parents. You're kind of out there. You go out and you're out there sailing by yourself, it was the first time I really figured out what it was all about, and it was definitely something that I could be into. But I think when you're young you get taken along with a group of older kids. You want to hang out with the older kids, don’t you, and just do what they do?”
“I can remember getting my first Optimist, and that was a massive thing. I spent the whole time cleaning it and making it perfect. I’d borrowed one for a bit, and then my dad turned up one day with one on the roof of his car. I must have been about ten. Nine maybe.”
“We lived right next to the sailing club. We were two doors down. So whenever anyone was going sailing I would be there. And people would come and have a barbecue at ours afterwards. It was good. It was fun. It was not too serious. It was just a nice thing to do at the weekends.”
At the tender age of ten, Powys was asked to sail with a student match racing team that included current team mates, Paul ‘CJ’ Campbell-James, and David ‘Freddie’ Carr. “It was quite entertaining, being a ten-year-old when they were all eighteen – I was basically extra ballast! They always take the mick out of me now. There was one time when someone came onboard and said, ‘Are you guys all hungover?’ And I told them all, ‘Oh, yes. I'm quite tired too, actually. I got to stay up and watch Match of the Day.’ They still rib me about that. I hear about it once a week I think.”
The football was serious competition for Powys’ attention however, even if sailing was likely the ultimate destination. “I was obsessed with football, I used to play it every day after school. But it was always the sailing that would come first. I would always go off and do that at the weekends, and not play football or not go to the match. I think the sailing just took more and more of a priority, and that was my choice as much as anything.
“I loved football but I didn’t ever necessarily think that it was going to go anywhere. I never saw myself as being a professional footballer or anything. I was probably thinking about making something from sailing at quite a young age. Definitely as soon as I started racing, and I started racing quite early. I kind of surprised myself, and I think probably surprised my parents with how well I did straight off the bat. Then it kind of escalated after that. It’s the racing. Since I started racing, that kind of challenge. Every race is different, that’s what I love about it.”
“I did the Optimist Junior Nationals, mostly against older kids, and I think I ended up fourth, I can’t even remember, but it was way better than we expected. After that, with the Optimist, I always had quite a lot of potential but couldn’t quite get it together. I did well early but then I was a bit too big. It was the same when I got into the next boat, the 420. We were pretty good early in the 420, but I lacked experience and then before I knew it, I was too big again.”
“I was pretty obsessive about wanting to do well, and so a lot of the time I was frustrated with the results, because I didn’t feel I did as well as I should have done. At the same time it was a lot about having a good time and all that, but I definitely was pretty keen on going sailing full-time.”
By the time he got to the end of his youth sailing career, Powys lacked the real breakthrough result he needed to get support from the RYA’s Olympic development programme. Mum and Dad stepped in and helped him to buy an Olympic 49er, but by then he was at Brunel University doing a product design degree, and the logistics were difficult.
“I stopped sailing, I did a little bit at the start of University, and then the last two years I didn’t really do any. At that stage I was still fiercely competitive, and frustrated at not being involved with all the 49er stuff although logistically and financially it was impossible. I had good friends who were doing it and it was always in the back of my mind, ‘What’s the best way for me to get back into it?’ By now I was probably verging on being too big to steer, so even though I wasn’t sailing at the time I made the decision in my head that I was going to switch to try and do some crewing at any opportunity.”
Ed Powys joined up with Dave Evans in late 2009 in the 49er. “I’d hardly done any crewing at that stage – just the odd National ranking event with Dave, but we’d surprised a few people and he must’ve thought I had potential. I didn’t necessarily have any major expectations for that [Olympic] cycle, but as it was we got our act together quite quickly and did alright. There was a Worlds in the Bahamas almost straight away, so we went to that off our own backs and came 19th, which allowed us to carry on, with RYA support.”
They were training with Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes, who’d been gold and silver medallists at the World Championships in 2007 and 2008. “I think we were quite good for them, in that they didn’t necessarily see us as a threat, and it was good for us because we could tag along and learn from them. They were at the top of the game at that point in time. We worked hard, learnt a lot and progressed pretty quickly and we had a lot of fun travelling with Stevie and Ben – always in stitches laughing. We found ourselves at the end of it actually not that far off.”
In December 2011, almost two years later, Evans and Powys were sixth at the Worlds in Perth, and with the RYA still deciding who would represent Team GB in the 49er at the London Olympics they were in with a shot at selection. “After Perth, at the event in Palma, we were right in the medal hunt, but unfortunately we capsized in the medal race. If we had got a medal there and then... who knows? But the trials went on to Hyeres and it was blown out all week, we only did about four races, and no-one [in the trials] did great. We were all around tenth, and then they selected Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes after that. We thought the trials would continue to Sail for Gold, but they decided to select before, which was a shame – we timed our run a little too late.”
It turned out that this was the high point. They started brilliantly in 2013, with podium positions at the first three World Cup events they contested that year. Then it started to slide off the rails. Their coach Paul Brotherton moved on, “After Paul left I think we struggled to get the balance right – he gave a lot of leadership, and we trusted his judgment which was key. We were still very competitive and battling it out at the top, but couldn’t quite convert the results after Paul left.
In 2014 Ed competed as main trimmer / tactician in the World Match Racing Tour with his friend David Gilmour. It was alongside his 49er commitments. “It was a great experience and hugely fun racing, but in hindsight it probably distracted from the 49er right when we needed to focus the most. We reached the ISAF Worlds in 2014 knowing that one from three in the 49er squad would be cut. We sailed really well, but ultimately we let too much ride on that regatta and the decision, which could’ve gone either way went against us.
“That was a tipping point. After that Dave and I struggled because we were throwing money at it that we didn’t have, and the results got harder. It was always on a limited timescale after that and we decided to call it quits, which was a gut wrenching decision. We’re still great mates and we’ve both said that if we were to go and do it again we would be able to do it a whole load better, just from the experience. Dave is an unbelievably good helmsman and we both feel like we had all the attributes required, but we just couldn’t quite piece it together.”
Stevie Morrison had also called time on his Olympic sailing, and he had got the job as skipper of Oman Air on the Extreme Sailing Series. He asked Ed Powys to join him and the pair sailed the 2015 season together, and even as the Olympic door was closing, another was opening.
“I had a conversation with Ben quite early on [after Land Rover BAR’s launch] and he said, ‘I think guys like you are suited to this kind of sailing. Would you be interested?’ Of course I said yes, absolutely! He put me in touch with Jono [Land Rover BAR’s sailing team manager]. So the whole time I was doing the 49er through 2014 and ’15, I was keeping in touch with Jono. I did some sailing with the guys on a couple of occasions, and did a couple of fitness tests, and eventually we agreed that I would start in January 2016.”
It was pretty much a baptism of fire from then on – Ed Powys was substituted into Giles Scott’s role as tactician for the ACWS event in New York. The wind was tricky, the course much smaller than it had been previously and Powys broke his hand. Still, half-way down the final run of the final race Land Rover BAR were second overall. They ended up fifth after the fleet were turned inside out by a massive windshift on the final downwind.
It came good for Powys at the next two events, with a second in Chicago, and a win at home in Portsmouth before Scott returned from his Olympic campaign (with a gold medal) and resumed the tactician’s role. “I was just happy that I could leave us in a good position and finish with my head held high,” he said. “I'm still part of it. I'm still here, helping them out. It’s nice to be a part of it, even if not on the boat.”
Powys is clear about why he’s got the opportunity, why he got to jump across from the 49er. “I think there’s a bit of a history in this and the last Cup cycle of 49er sailors doing well. I think that the racing lends itself quite well to these Cup boats. And I was pretty committed to the Olympic sailing. I liked to make sure that we had good kit. Always down there making sure everything was right. And we were always pretty good at handling, agility and speed around the boat and things like that.”
Part of Powys’ ability at the balance-in-motion that is 49er sailing is that these days, it’s not so much about football as surfing. “I love to go surfing, which has possibly been at the detriment to my sailing a few times. It’s been a bit of an obsession since my early teens, to be honest. I like to travel. I’ve been to Indonesia five times and any chance I get I'll go exploring. I’m pretty lucky that my girlfriend Eliza is incredibly patient whilst I’m in the sea for hours at a time! My dream is to sail the Pacific and Indian Oceans on a catamaran searching for waves. Maybe in a few years, but probably not foiling!"
And for all the embarrassment of working with Mum and Dad, it’s still useful to have them around. “I think that if I had listened more to what my dad said from my teens, I might have done a whole lot better results-wise, but you’ve got to figure it out for yourself too – I wouldn’t change it. Dad always has good advice, he’s been a sounding board the whole time. And my Mum is about the most organised person you will ever meet. When it comes to the whole logistical side of trying to plan an Olympic campaign and just general life I’ve learnt a lot from her, and she was hugely influential in helping with some of that stuff.” Take heart, parents.