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Lessons from Sailing’s Knight of the Olympic Order

You never know who you are going to bump into at a regatta, but what a joy it was to be able to spend time with the Bahamas’ most legendary modern day sailor, Sir Durward Knowles during the 2008 Star World Championships in Miami. 

Sir Durward Knowles exudes class, dedication and generosity.  Commodore of the International Star Class Yacht Racing Association for twenty-five years, member for seventy years, Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, one of four sailors to share the record of having an Olympic career that spanned forty years, and a philanthropist dedicated to aiding the unfortunate in his native island country, the Bahamas, he has a lot to share with all who come in contact with him.  At 90, his fund raising acumen has out-survived his ability to steer a Star around a race course.  While visiting Miami, the elder statesmen provided some of these insights to a successful career, sailing or otherwise.

Born in Nassau to a seafaring father, Knowles was destined to spend his life on the water.  The shallows and reefs of the Bahamas invite shipwrecks and, at the age of nine, Knowles and his young friends came upon a sailboat that had been washed up on the beach.  Longing for his first boat, the ingenious Knowles hatched a plan to put the boat back into working order and claim it as his own. 

Knowles’ band did not have money, but fortunately they had Knowles as a leader.  I would never call Sir Durward Knowles duplicitous, but shrewd and crafty come to mind.  Knowles concocted a ruse to outwit other Bahamians who had no way to access the water on their own.  He suggested that he and his scamps name their boat, which had been acquired by an act of God, “Church”.  The Bahamians were a faithful lot and would do anything to support their church.  Using the generic name, the boys sold tickets take to unwitting believers of numerous denominations to go sailing on Church.  When asked about how much money he raised with Church, Knowles said, “enough to put an engine in it.”  Not bad for his first fund-raising effort.

Knowles attended his first international regatta in Cuba and his first Star World Championship in 1947 in Los Angeles.  Logistics play a big part in attending major sailing events in this day and age, but can you imagine sailing a Star boat from Nassau to Havana or Miami?  That’s what Knowles and his crews did so that they could represent their isolated nation in international competition.  The unknown and woefully-underfinanced Knowles’ reward for his sail to Miami (followed by an eight-day drive across county to LA) was a victory in the 1947 Star World Championship. 

Knowles and Sloane Farrington returned to their 30,000 compatriots as heroes.  It didn’t take long for Knowles to parlay the fame into private sponsorship and public support for him and Farrington to attend the 1948 London Games.  Not only that, he cemented lifelong relationships that were instrumental in developing marinas and ports that have proven vital to the growth of his country’s economy.

As the Bahamas’ first sports hero, Knowles was a sports personality that transcended racial barriers throughout the islands.  His acceptance as a model sportsman made it easier for him to generate support for his sailing campaigns.  After returning from the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 with the Bahamas’ first Olympic Medal, he found it all that much easier to raise sponsorship.  As he explained, “we were delivering something and the money wasn’t wasted.”  When he took issue with the way blacks were being treated in the Bahamas, he gained all that much more support from the disenfranchised community. 

Knowles has been a champion of the disadvantaged, particularly the disabled.  He has “never had any difficulty raising support” for the Bahamas Association for the Physically Disabled, a program which has supplied well over 1,000 wheelchairs to those in need. Sir Durward gleamed with pride when he reported on the recent delivery of another 200 wheelchairs.

The longest serving executive of the Bahamas Olympic Association, Knowles is well aware that garnering sponsorship for Olympic sailing campaigns is entirely different than it used to be.  “Many of the Europeans are sponsored by their countries and don’t need sponsors, while others need help from their sailing organizations.  It’s much harder than it used to be,” he admitted.  Somehow, it seems that Knowles’ talent, smarts, endurance and conviction would be more than an adequate foundation for a good campaign of any sort in this day and age.

Lynn Fitzpatrick’s articles have appeared in international publications including Cruising World and Sailing magazines.  She is the 2008 Sports Information Specialist for sailing at the 2008 Olympics.

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