By Mark Chisnell
It’s probably fair to say that no one comes into the Land Rover BAR sailing team with a better multihull racing pedigree than Paul Campbell-James whose father, David, represented Great Britain at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “My Dad went to the Games when I was one, in a Tornado, the only multihull class in the Olympics at the time. He got selected in 1980 as well, when the British boycotted and didn’t send a team. I started sailing when I was only four, my older brother [Mark] was already sailing at the time and he help paved the way for me.
“We started sailing at the local sailing club, Piddinghoe. It’s a tiny little pond near Newhaven that has produced some really good sailors over the years, which is quite ironic for such a small little place. Mum and Dad use to tie a rope to my boat and if I got into trouble just pulled me back in. When we got a bit older we used to sail off the seafront in Seaford, which was a shore break when it got windy. So it wasn’t the ideal place to learn but it was close to home and it was easy to get to.”
Sailing had already been in the family for a couple of generations. “My Dad got into it through his dad, but my granddad got into it by building a boat and teaching himself. He was just very keen, and into his woodwork. I think his first boat was actually a land yacht, but that soon progressed on to the water. He lived near Emsworth, and kept a boat there for as long as I can remember.”
“Sailing wasn’t quite the professional sport that it is now, so Dad used to have to work through the winters to fund his sailing through the summers. He always says that he didn’t see the light of day for six months to make sure he could afford to go sailing during the summer. But I’ve rarely seen him sail; he stopped to teach my brother and I, always saying he enjoyed watching us sail more than sailing himself.”
The Campbell-James brothers began in Optimists [international single-handed junior sail trainer]. “Mum and Dad used to drive us to all ends of the country for all the regattas. I qualified for my first Europeans — held in a windy Turkish venue – when I was 10, weighing just 35 kilos and finished seventh to last out of almost 300! I went on and did four World Championships after that in the Opi. You’ve got to be top five in the country to go to the worlds. Seventh was my best result, and I think that’s the second-best British result ever. Having an older brother makes you the most competitive person in the world, and you just want to go and do better and better.
“But I wasn’t getting on too well at my school, so my parents sent me off to boarding school at Sevenoaks, which was a pretty big change. This helped move me from a student getting C’s to one managing to scrape 3 A’s at A level. It also had the bonus that it was pretty much the best sailing school in the world, and Bruce Hebbert – who was the sailing master at the time – got me into team racing and we ended up winning the schools team racing worlds for two years. And then we all, as a group, went to Southampton University together and won the student team racing for all three years.
“It’s also when I started match racing, I did the Youth Worlds with Nick Hutton and David Carr, who are both also at Land Rover BAR now. I think we got up to 12th in the ISAF open world rankings with the help of the RYA funding. It got harder to put the time in once I started getting to the business end of an engineering degree.” Campbell-James remained very focussed on his goal, and apart from all the competitive sailing at university, studied Ship Science. “It got me thinking differently, it got me thinking like an engineer, and my problem solving worked quite differently after that, which in turn helped my sailing.”
In retrospect, Paul Campbell-James could hardly have prepared himself better for what was to come, with a solid engineering background, match and team racing experience, and a pilot’s license. “I always wanted to sail for a living and dreamed of doing the America’s Cup, but it was very hard to get into. I figured as a backup plan I would try and set myself up to be a pilot, so after university I went off and got my licence. I went to Orlando and had perfect conditions every day for three weeks, and came back with a licence. Then I rolled straight into the Olympic training in the 49er and the hobby started turning a little bit more into a job.”
“In 2005, I started sailing with Mark Asquith and I managed to go straight on to the RYA’s development program, which was perfect. Then we got the result we needed at the next regatta and got on to the performance program. After three top ten results at 49er World Championships, we basically decided that while we were ninth in the world, we were not going to qualify for China as the world champion was also British. I had been jealously watching the Extreme Sailing Series for a few years, and managed to join Oman Sail for the 2010 series. We had a great team including Khamis Al Anbouri, a local Omani and went on to win. This was my first real experience in a multihull.
“Then as luck would have it, during that year Oracle decided that the America’s Cup would change their rules to race in multihulls, and we were in the right place at the right time. Before that change, it was just a fantasy that we could join a team with a pedigree like Luna Rossa for our first campaign, but they were after a new team and we’d just won the best multihull circuit at that time. It was absolutely perfect. We joined Luna Rossa and won the Extreme Sailing Series again with them the year afterwards. Then bought two AC45s, made our AC72 and did the 2013 America’s Cup. It was an awesome experience.”
Luna Rossa made it to the final of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series, where they were beaten by Emirates Team New Zealand. Afterwards, in 2014, Campbell-James returned to the Extreme Sailing Series. “I sent Ben [Ainslie] a message saying, ‘If you need any help with the Extreme 40s, just let me know.’ He came back saying that would be really interesting, we should have a conversation.
“I didn’t know Ben or Jono [Macbeth] particularly well, I’d sailed against Ben a lot, and I’d had dinner a few times with Jono. I guess that being British was a big part of their criteria, and they were looking for someone that could drive the second boat if needed, but also someone that could learn how to trim the wing. I hadn’t done any wing trimming when I joined this team.
“I’ve got to give credit to Jono and Ben, because at the time I didn’t really see myself as a wing trimmer, but they asked me to come and try it and I was very keen to be involved in a British team. I was doing the Extreme 40s at the time with another team, but joined BAR for the second half of the 2014 season doing mainsheet, and really enjoyed sailing with Ben and racing with a British flag at the top of the rig.”
“I’ll be the first person on the water and the last person to come in, because I absolutely love it. It was the same when I was growing up, we sailed twice a week at school and then we sailed all weekend. It was a big part of life and still is, my wife Helen is very supportive and has moved around the world with me chasing my America’s Cup dream, and hopefully I’ll be able to get my daughter in a boat soon – although she’s only 9 months old!
“I think the technical part of the America’s Cup is massive, but going down the first reach with six identical AC45Fs smoking along at 30 plus knots... there’s not much better feeling than that. I also love going out sailing on the test boats, because they’re absolutely awesome. There’re not many boats that can touch 30 knots going upwind, it’s pretty unbelievable.
“I’ve sailed against or with the lads in this team for twenty years. It’s very cool that you can grow up with all these guys and then all end up in an America’s Cup team together racing for Great Britain, it’s surreal but absolutely awesome.”