By Mark Chisnell
“I’ve grown up sailing my whole life,” said Neil Hunter – at 22, the youngest member of Land Rover BAR’s sailing team – accepting a certain inevitability that, like his parents, he would make a life somewhere in the marine industry. But it was far from a given that he would reach the pinnacle of competitive sailing when he was barely into his twenties.
There can be few more exciting moments in any young athlete’s life than getting the call to join one of the major teams competing in their sport, just a few months before a massive international competition. It’s the stuff of dreams, but it’s a dream come true for Neil Hunter. This is how it happened.
Neil Hunter comes from sailing stock, his father’s a professional yacht skipper and his mother helped to make history for women’s sailing. “My mum was part of the Maiden team that did the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race,” he explained. Sally Hunter, or Creaser as she was then, was on the trailblazing Maiden team that proved to the many doubters that a woman-only crew could race around the world alongside the men – taking two leg victories in their class in the process.
After that adventure, the Hunter’s settled on the Isle of Arran on Scotland’s west coast. “It was an awesome place to grow up, and I was always around the sea, being on an island.” There were family cruising holidays in a 30ft Westerly Tempest, exploring the wild and glorious coastline. “We were always just messing around on boats after school and stuff, and I think my parents encouraged that. I don’t remember not being around boats! My parents bought me an Oppie [Optimist children’s trainer] when I was, like, two or something. My dad and I used to just go out in the Oppie and sail around the Bay.”
Their home was just a short walk from the Arran Yacht Club. “The club was between the school and my house. Me and my brother Rory used to always go sailing. We used to just walk to the club after school on our way home and go sailing for a few hours. I didn’t really do any Oppie racing. I wasn’t an Oppie kid really, I didn’t start racing properly until I was probably about 13. Then I did a bit of RS Feva racing with my brother, who’s two years younger than me.”
The brothers progressed through a sequence of boats, first moving up into the International 420, another well known youth class, when Neil was 15. They were part of the Scottish RYA’s 420 Squad, but got too heavy for the boat very quickly and moved up to the 29er – the youth skiff class – and they sailed in that for a couple of years.
“It was quite a commitment, we probably had two weekends every month training in Cumbrae, which is just off Largs. It involved getting two ferries, one off the Isle of Arran, then drive up the coast and get a ferry from Largs to Cumbrae. So, every Friday night was quite a big one, and a lot of the time we’d miss the ferry back to Arran on the Sunday. We’d end up staying over and getting the early ferry the next morning and going into school absolutely knackered.” They would sleep on the Tempest, which was fortuitously kept on the mainland.
At this stage, Neil’s size was a handicap. “We got too heavy too fast really. I was getting big by this point. It was getting a bit rubbish. We were going really well when it was anything above 15 knots, but below that, we were just too big. So when I was 18 and my brother was 16, we got a 49er.”
The 49er is the Olympic class skiff, and it was a big jump to that level at that age. It also meant that having left the recognised youth classes, they dropped off the RYA’s radar, there would be no support for them in the Olympic classes until they proved themselves of medal potential.
“We were just on our own, because they’re not going to care about a 16-year-old who’s 49er sailing. We were just on our own for probably 18 months in Scotland, training in our 49er. I was at Uni at this point at Strathclyde in Glasgow, studying Naval Architecture, and my brother was still at school. So, at weekends I’d come back to Arran and we’d sail the 49er.”
The hard work started to pay off quite quickly, however. The Hunter brothers began to get results at international events, and to beat some of the Olympic squads. “We just kept grafting away back in Scotland. Our breakthrough result came at the 2014 ISAF World Championships in Santander. We went into it with fairly high expectations, hoping to beat enough of the development squad guys to get noticed. We finished the event 36th out of about 100, I think, and beat everybody, all of the development squad and the Podium Potential guys there. We were the first under-21 team as well.”
The result got them an invite to join the British Sailing Team Podium Potential Squad, and that finally got them support and some funding. “We owe a lot to our parents for giving us the opportunity. It was good that we got that result and broke through into the British Sailing Team, and that made life a lot easier. Once you’re inside the system, life suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.”
The brothers now made a punchy decision and decided to move all the way south to Weymouth, the home of the RYA’s Olympic sailing programme and go full-time. It meant that Neil Hunter would have to give up his University course. “I was thinking that I was going to be a yacht designer and stuff. I thought that would probably lead to some sailing opportunities as well.” But now the sailing opportunities were right in front of him and he grabbed at the chance.
There had been no doubting his commitment from a young age. “When I was 14 or 15, I did rugby at district level for two years and took a bit of a time out from the sailing. I did a couple of years of rugby, and I was like, ‘Right. I want to be a rugby player,’ but then, I just got drawn back to the sailing. The rugby wasn’t really going anywhere, and also, the injury thing is just a nightmare. You’re just constantly injured to some extent. It’s bloody awful. Since then, I’ve been fully focused on making it as a professional sailor, probably from about 16. I thought I’d make it, I just thought I could work harder than everybody else. I just love racing, and I like winning.”
The brothers started training in Weymouth with the Podium Potential Squad in November 2014. “It was great. We suddenly had access to all these facilities, and coaching from Ben Rhodes, who’s been to two Olympics. Massive compared to what we had in Scotland, which was training on our own with our dad in a RIB. It was funded partly by the British Sailing Team, but our parents were still putting money into it at this point.”
They began to get some decent results. “We were 49er national champions in 2014 and 2015. The very top British guys weren’t there, but we probably punched above our weight. We actually won a couple of times at the National Ranking Series in Weymouth. We were always fast, and generally at the 49er nationals in a small fleet, if you’re fast, you’re going to be up there. At the international events, we had more trouble with big fleet management and a lack of experience.” Internationally, their best result was a fifth at the ISAF Sailing World Cup Final in Abu Dhabi.
Then the Land Rover BAR Academy was launched in early 2016; a development squad for talented young British sailors looking for a pathway to the America’s Cup. And suddenly, everything changed. “We heard about the Academy in January. The beginning of January. Everybody was buzzing about it. We were in Miami at the time, actually, at the Sailing World Cup in Miami, and everybody was absolutely buzzing about it in the 49er fleet. Everybody was applying then and there, the day that it came out. I obviously applied and so did my brother.
“Then, a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from Andrew Walsh (Land Rover BAR Academy coach) asking if I would like to come to Oman to do the Extreme Sailing Series (ESS) event. He just went round all the RYA Olympic coaches, I think, and asked who would be good, because they needed some sailors then and there.”
The Land Rover BAR Academy had committed to racing the Extreme Sailing Series in 2016, and the first event in Oman came before any formal trials had been scheduled. Neil Hunter was recommended by the RYA’s Olympic coaches, and he was lucky enough to be picked to race in Oman with senior team sailors that included Leigh McMillan, three-time Extreme Sailing Series winner. They came third, Hunter did well, and was eventually offered a spot in the first Academy intake.
At 70kg and a lot lighter, Neil’s brother wasn’t so fortunate. “We had an Extreme 40 trial for the Academy team down in Weymouth, which my brother was involved in, but unfortunately he didn’t get selected. So, he was a bit like, ‘Right. Where’s this going?’”
Initially, Neil tried to have his cake and eat it. “I was keen to do both, and to be honest I thought I could balance both. I think it is doable to balance the Academy with other sailing, for sure, because the Academy’s only a part-time thing and it benefits your other sailing.”
It didn’t work out quite as well as he hoped. “I was doing more and more with the Academy and less and less 49er sailing. My brother couldn’t see this carrying on. He had nothing to do when I was away doing the Academy stuff. He told me he thought it was time to decide which of these I was going to do.”
“I’d been chatting a bit with Walshy about where this was going and potential opportunities. He thought I could probably make it in professional sailing, which I guess planted the seed. And I thought, maybe I could actually do this. So I had a sit down with Rory, and I had to say that I couldn’t commit to another four years of Olympic sailing when I could be getting opportunities to go and do the America’s Cup. So, I guess it was a bit of a no-brainer that we called it on the 49er campaign at that point.”
The brothers raced their last event at Sail for Gold in Weymouth in June, and Rory subsequently took on a crewing role in an Olympic 470 in the Podium Potential squad. “Which I was quite glad about, because I was feeling a bit bad about the whole situation. I didn’t really see it going this way, I don’t think. The way I envisaged it was like I was going to go to the Olympics and win an Olympic medal, or two Olympic medals. Then, after that I might go and do the America’s Cup or whatever, but first and foremost I was like, ‘Right. I want to win an Olympic medal here.’”
All that has changed now. Neil Hunter was made skipper of the Land Rover BAR Academy and after a busy summer with Extreme Sailing Series events in Cardiff, Hamburg, St Petersburg, Madeira and Lisbon, he was invited to do a fitness test for the senior sailing team by Jono Macbeth, sailing team manager.
Fitness had always been his thing. “Fitness is a huge part of it, and I’ve put a huge amount of work into that. I grew up really active. My family were always out sailing or hill walking or mountain biking. Then, throughout youth sailing and then 49ers, I put quite a big emphasis on fitness. I always wanted to be the fittest person in the team.” Now that would be put to the test by the senior team’s fitness and conditioning coaches.
“I wasn’t really sure what the deal was. I wasn’t really told anything about what it was for, but I was assuming that it was something to do with senior team sailing. I banged in a decent score on the fitness test, then went off to another ESS event.” By the time Hunter returned, there was only a couple of weeks of sailing left in the UK, before the team moved sailing operations to Bermuda. He was running out of time if he was to get a try-out on the boat.
“Then Jono called me up and asked me if I wanted to go out sailing that week. I went out three or four times, it was a massive week. Absolutely energy sapping. Monster days. I think it was probably the most tired I’d ever been in my life. It was really awesome. Awesome experience to get out with the guys in the test boats, having two of them ripping around the Solent was just unbelievable. The week after that, I got a call from Jono to ask if I wanted to come to Bermuda in January, which obviously was quite something... massive and I’m still stoked about it now, to be honest.”
Neil Hunter finished the Extreme Sailing Series with the Land Rover BAR Academy in December, and moved to Bermuda in January, where he has been sailing regularly with the senior team ever since. “Hopefully, I’ll be the fittest grinder in the America’s Cup one day, if I keep working on it. Then, I guess I’ll just keep progressing my sailing and keep working hard, and hopefully do the America’s Cup in years to come.” Dreams do come true.