When some of the top sailors in the Caribbean, including Robbie Hirst, John Holmberg and Mike Green, gathered in St Maarten recently for the North Sails Regatta, the potential for a clash of egos was huge. Instead, it became a chance for those who thrive on the competitive edge to hang out with likeminded souls. And few seem to thrive more on competition than Antigua’s Karl James.
Although James was not victorious in St Maarten, he was influential throughout. His rush for the line on the last wind shift of the regatta gave Holmberg first place at Mike Green’s expense. It was a stunning moment that is consistent with a majestic year battering the opposition in June’s Caribbean Laser Championships, and winning all nine races in the Laser Open division of the Caribbean Dinghy Championships.
If James, who turned 37 this year, is relentless on the water, on the dock he is unassuming and quietly spoken. His record speaks for him – 43rd in the Open Laser division of the 1996 Olympics and 39th in the Sydney 2000 games, a tantalizing three places behind fellow Antillean Cor Van Aarnholt. But James, who started sailing (holding fenders and putting on sail covers) in 1979 aged 12 on big Charter boats picks out his second place in the 2001 Sunfish World Championships as his biggest achievement to date.
His progress from charter crew, through Olympic competitor to youth sailing instructor is an inspiration. His first passion was for racing bikes, but with the encouragement of the late Paul Goss, he began dinghy sailing and started in Lasers in 1986. "I’ve never really been coached," he says. "I’m the kind of person who sees it and does it, and learnt by trial and error." Once it came to competition, this same single-mindedness was key. "I do not like to lose," he adds. "I can replay a race in my head and it bothers me."
When Antigua’s Karen Portch went to the 1992 Olympics, it was a boost and in 1993 James met Dennis Connor, who was staying at the St James hotel. They went sailing on a Hobie Cat and later Connor gave the Antiguan a Laser. With support from the Antigua Yacht Club, Karl was able to hone his skills and was soon mixing and racing with fellow Caribbean Olympians Mike Green, Robbie Hirst and Paul Dielemans.
For Regatta organizer Robbie Feron, Karl James, "is an example of how training does produce results. We so often have this culture whereby it is assumed that sailing is genetically endowed and cannot be learnt and skill development is not an issue. Karl is the example that proves so clearly the inaccuracy of this assumption."