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Insight: Nick Hutton

By Mark Chisnell

Land Rover BAR Sailor, Nick Hutton
© Harry KH

It takes some people half a lifetime to find what they want to do, while others never figure it out. Nick Hutton was fortunate, he knew from a very early age. “One day, when I was twelve, my mum asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. Apparently, without hesitation, I replied, ‘I want to get paid to go sailing.’ I’m sure if you ask any twelve year old the same question, their answer is bound to involve what they enjoy doing the most; I count myself lucky that I’ve managed to turn my childhood dream into reality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not been without its challenges and there’ve been times when I’ve thought, I’m never going to make it – time to get a proper job – but somehow, here we are and I wouldn’t change it.”

If Hutton was so clear about it so young, it’s probably because he started even younger. “My first outing on a boat was when I was six months old. My parents had a Folkboat and they used to put me in a hammock below deck. In the evening when they went ashore, they’d just leave me in that hammock – sleeping soundly, I’ve always been a good sleeper – they'd go out for dinner and come back to find me still rocking away. A world away from how you’d be allowed to do things now, but it was fine.”

Baby Nick Hutton on his first sailing trip

Nick Hutton is another of those on the sailing team for whom the sport runs deep in the family. “I grew up in Kingswear in South Devon and my parents used to run a rigging business called Atlantic Spars, based in Dartmouth. They built masts for race boats, the BT Global Challenge and that sort of thing. Our family hadn’t always been in the area – my mum and dad grew up in Hampshire – but they sailed into Dartmouth by accident one day and liked it so much that they never left.

“I started sailing single-handedly when I six, out of the Royal Dart Yacht Club in Kingswear. My parents had to persuade them to let me start two years early on the youth programme, I was so desperate to get out there. I was really fortunate that the Royal Dart has a very good junior sailing programme that’s important to the club. They had a fleet of brand new Opi’s [Optimists - worldwide single-handed junior training boats] and so I adopted one of them, which was called Blue Cloud and maintained it myself. I’d get stuff from Dad’s workshop to go and put on it and I continued to sail it until I was around ten or eleven.”

“I was also swimming and competing for my local swimming club until I was around twelve. I used to train before and after school every day and then, come Friday, I’d get into the car with mum and leave to go sailing. Mum and dad drove me miles for my sport and I can’t thank them enough for that – it was relentless. We’d get home from the training weekends or regattas on a Sunday night and I’d be straight back in the pool for 6am on the Monday, before heading to class for the inevitable lecture from the teacher because I hadn’t done my homework. Eventually something had to give and I had to make the choice between swimming or sailing.”

Young Nick Hutton on the helm in the Cadet Class at the age of 12

Hutton chose sailing. He graduated to the Cadet class [two-person junior training boats] and headed, as crew, to his first world championships in Tasmania at the age of twelve. By the age of fourteen, he was winning national championships and his ambition in the sport was firmly established. He moved up into the bigger youth class, racing the 420 as crew for Paul ‘CJ’ Campbell-James [now Land Rover BAR’s wing trimmer] and was soon selected for the RYA’s National Youth Squad. Hutton was also match racing with Campbell-James; coming second at the Youth Match Racing World Championships. Together, they went on to win many national and international championships. “CJ and I have grown up sailing together and we know we work well as a team – it comes naturally because we’ve done it for so long. Hopefully there’ll be a few more years of that to come.”

After two years at Bicton College in Devon, in 2000 Hutton moved to Southampton to start a course at Southampton Solent University. “The whole goal of going to university was to be in the right place to progress what I wanted to do – and that was still sailing. In Southampton, it was all about hanging out with the right people and getting the opportunities to go and sail big boats. Of course, that was nothing to do with what I was doing on the degree course! My wife still laughs about the time where she opened up the folder for the finance and accounting module of my course and one single bit of paper fell out. Safe to say, I didn’t go to many lectures when I could be out on the water instead.”

While he was at university, Hutton raced the Olympic Tornado class for a year. “And then one day I had a phone call from Mark Campbell-James, Paul’s brother, asking whether I’d go and sail with them on the Bear 52 [a 52 foot racing boat]. It was then that I really had to make the choice between the dinghies and the race yachts – basically meaning Olympic campaign or no Olympic campaign. I went for the latter; it was a great opportunity to get into big boat sailing proper, with a group of guys that I knew really well and on a really good boat. That summer of sailing the 52 – 2001 I think it was – was epic. We lived in Cowes in a crew house and helped to look after the boat. That’s where I started learning how to prepare and maintain a race yacht – a skill that saw me through the winters in later years, when there was no sailing to be had. I loved it and it was a great boat to sail.”

The following year, Hutton finished university and went to work at a local sail loft, racing dinghies as part of the job but looking for a move back into big boats. He stayed in Hampshire and spent the next few years doing his apprenticeship out of the south coast village of Hamble, racing on whatever boats he could and doing what he needed to do to get by.

Meanwhile, the America’s Cup – Hutton’s ultimate goal – had been engulfed by a row about rules, boats and format that excluded all but two teams from the event in 2010. “I almost gave up on it; it was massive in Valencia [in 2007], hundreds of people and loads of teams. And that’s the dream; you can see it, it’s not far off, you’ve just got to keep doing what you’re doing and be good at it. There was a British team in 2007 and it was all heading the right way. And then nothing. There were all these guys that were my sort of age that just missed out. It was mentally a really tough time and I thought, ‘let’s just go and do something else’.”

In 2006, Hutton had spent the first of several winters in the Caribbean, working for Sir Richard Branson, teaching watersports at his luxury resort, Necker Island. It was after he came home that he started on the path that would eventually lead to the America’s Cup. The Extreme Sailing Series (ESS) was about to launch, and double-Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson had got a boat and had asked Hutton to sail with her.

Nick Hutton onboard with Shirley Robinson for the Extreme Sailing Series

“I did three years with Shirley, it must have been 2007, 2008, 2009. And then CJ called me and asked me to join him on his Extreme 40 team, called The Wave, as part of the Oman Sail team.” The Wave won the Extreme Sailing Series in 2010, and subsequently Campbell-James was quickly hired by the Italian America’s Cup team, Luna Rossa. It had just been announced that the America’s Cup would move into multihulls.

Nick Hutton onboard the 2010 Extreme Sailing Series winning boat, The Wave

Now things were moving in the right direction, and suddenly all those people racing in the ESS were in the right kind of boats at the right time; Hutton’s fortunes had turned. He started another season with The Wave before also joining Luna Rossa. The Italian team had done a technology share deal with Emirates Team New Zealand, and the Kiwis were the first to develop the foiling AC72. The Italian team got in on the ground floor, but only with the first generation equipment. They were eventually beaten by the Kiwis in the Louis Vuitton Challenger Final.

“It had its highs and lows, as everything does when you’re training for something massive and putting in 100% all the time. But it was a fantastic experience, I learnt a lot, made some awesome friends and the memories of our time in New Zealand and San Fran are ones that I’ll always treasure. Ultimately, the time sailing for Luna Rossa was the perfect launchpad for what I’m doing now; if I hadn’t done that America’s Cup, then the likelihood of getting into this one in a key role would’ve been pretty low. If you miss a cycle, it’s very hard to get back in, because you’ve missed all that learning.”

It was also at this point that Hutton cemented his relationship with David ‘Freddie’ Carr, the pair of them sailing for Luna Rossa. “You just understand what each other needs, without even looking. Just by tone or feeling the boat, you know what the other guy needs to happen. And that’s pretty important for trying to get these boats around a track. We also ended up sharing hotel rooms quite a lot...” he laughed, “...with the trips away for the World Series. We worked out that I’d spent more time sharing a room with Freddie than my wife in 2012 – not something I’m that keen to repeat!”

Nick Hutton sailed with Luna Rossa in the 34th America's Cup

At the end of the 34th America’s Cup, Hutton returned to his job on Necker briefly, but soon found himself fielding phone calls from prospective America’s Cup teams. Luna Rossa wanted him back, but other teams, including Land Rover BAR were interested as well. “I was trying to decide what to do, and after Christmas I pulled Richard [Branson] to one side and asked him his opinion. I remember saying something like ‘Look, what should I do with this?’ Setting out the options for him. I’d known him for probably five, six years by that point and he always showed an interest in my sailing.

“Richard’s response was to ask me two questions; ‘Well, how would you feel if you did the America’s Cup for one of these established foreign teams and you won it?’ I replied that it would be what I’ve always dreamt of doing. And then he said, ‘All right. How then, would you feel if you were with this foreign team and you didn’t win, but the British team, including all of your British team mates did and took the Cup home after all these years?’ I said, ‘Yes, okay, I get your point.’ He said, ‘I know they’re both good opportunities, but if you can do it for the British team then it will mean that much more than if you did it for one of the others.’

“I called the other interested parties that evening and said, ‘I’m going to go with Ben.’ They were fairly understanding – queen and country means a lot for us Brits after all and you can’t put a price on that. My wife, Philippa, and I had also just bought a house at home in Devon, so we knew we could live in the UK, start a family and put down some roots back in England.

Nick Hutton onboard Land Rover BAR's America's Cup Race Boat, R1, during training in Bermuda

“When I was younger I loved that you could just get in a boat. It was the only thing you could drive without a licence – you could go where you wanted by yourself and it was your own fault if you messed it up. Now it’s more about the winning and the competition. I’m very competitive, I think it’s just how you’re wired. It’s like seeing a set of stairs and working out how you can make the ascent more of a challenge for your mind and body, rather than just walking up.

“And I just love going fast. It’s infinitely more fun for me when it’s like, ‘Mm, this could go really bad, it’s going to really hurt.’ I love things like that, whether it be on the mountain bike or dirt bike or whatever else, the closer to the edge it is or it’s perceived to be, the more I enjoy it. I don’t know why that is, but it’s always been the same and these foiling cats are the fastest boats. It’s all about being on the fastest boat.
“I love these boats – doing the bow on a monohull you’ve got nothing to do for quite long periods of time. Whereas when we’re out on the water in R1 [the Land Rover BAR race boat] you literally can’t switch off, because you’ll miss it and you’ll have messed it up. All the things I love need quite a lot of focus and quite a lot of fitness to get the best out of it, so this really is perfect for me.”

If Nick Hutton is, as Freddie Carr once put it, ‘the young, extreme sport, athlete guy’, then he’s already making sure that the next generation follows in his wake. “We’ve got my little son Rafael. He’s learning pretty quickly, being a bit like me and he loves the outdoors. I took him on my motocross bike at six months and skiing at eight months, strapped to my chest. Philippa’s like ‘Seriously?’ But I reassured her, ‘It’s fine, it’ll be all right.’ So off we go, just cruising down the nursery slope and he loves it. Same with the dirt bike, just put him in the front, cruising.

“He’s 18 months now and he’s driving the lawnmower at home, off around the garden with us walking beside. He’s still not strong enough to turn the steering wheel, but you can send him off. The latest thing is stand up paddle-boarding in Bermuda – he’s got good balance for a nipper. I want him to experience this stuff when he’s young, rather than just saying, ‘You can’t do that, you’re too young.’ Just do it all now. You know, if he can learn anything from it then it will put him in good stead later on.” It’s an attitude that doesn’t seem to have done his dad any harm.

Land Rover BAR Sailor, Nick Hutton
© Jack Abel-Smith