Life in yachting's fast lane

I Love My Sport: Chris Steele

25 year old Chris Steele of Devonport is one of New Zealand’s leading yachting helmsmen. He leads a team called 36 Below Racing that competes in the Extreme Sailing Series around the world. Chris also competes on the world match racing tour. This essentially involves steering performance yachting catamarans that are not unlike the machines that were used in the recent America’s Cup in Bermuda. They can reach up to 40 knots. On face value Chris leads a pretty exciting life, sailing all over the world. Channel Mag’s Aidan Bennett put these questions to the ex-Westlake Boys pupil in November.

AIDAN BENNETT: How did you first get into yachting and what path have you taken for it to be a career?
I first got into sailing when I was nine years old, growing up 50 metres  from Narrow Neck beach. It was no surprise we stumbled upon Wakatere Boating Club – the perfect set-up to breed young talent.
When I first started I was never any good at all. Mum and Dad came from an army background, and we grew up playing soccer and rugby. However sailing was the first real challenge I felt with sport, out in the middle of the harbour, on your own, there really were no easy options once you left the beach. There was only one way to get back and so it taught you to be very independent, which I loved.
After winning my first world championship at the age of 14 I knew sailing was going to play a pretty big part in my life. To know at that time that I had beaten the best of the best was a pretty humbling experience, and it took off from there. Growing up, it was all about the America’s Cup; watching Team New Zealand defend that trophy in our home waters was pretty special. A few years ago I decided to chase that pathway and go down the match racing road. It was hard because I took on a discipline which I really didn’t know anything about, but the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron's Youth Training Programme gave me all the opportunities I needed. I was able to create my own team (36 Below Racing) and climb the ranks to finally start regularly racing on the World Match Racing Tour. I’ve raced against some of the best in the business, and I’ve been super lucky to have had some of the best race with me.

AB: Do you have a particular sailor you admire for what they have achieved?
Sir Russell Coutts. Growing up he obviously won almost everything, and he got a pretty rough reputation when he left Team New Zealand. I always admired him for being the best. I can also say that in the last four to five years Russell has mentored me, through everything he has done, from anywhere in the world. He’s given me more time than anyone to help out with the direction I’m heading in, and offer advice and support where possible. It is very humbling to have someone of his profile giving me their time to help me with my dreams and aspirations.

AB: You pretty much travel the world sailing at the moment. Tell us about your 2017 year. Where have you been and what have you been competing in?
2017 has been an awesome year, a lot of travel with both the World Match Racing Tour and the Extreme Sailing Series. High performance catamarans are a lot of fun; it’s been a game changer! [Learning a] new set of skills, and plenty of different techniques, it’s been more similar to the sailing I did growing up where you really have to learn to make a boat go fast. We finished the World Match Racing Champs two weeks ago in China where we came home fourth, a little disappointing having led the competition for five and a half out of the six days. Because the boats are so fast if you make one mistake you lose hundreds of metres, and it’s very hard to get everything right at those speeds. We have been lucky to spend most of the year in Europe and the US. It’s been a blast!

AB: Do you have a favourite place to sail in the world?
Sweden. The sailing there is amazing and the people remind me of Kiwis. Love sailing, love having a good time, and super friendly. It really is a neat place.

AB: What is your favourite country to visit?
My favourite place to visit is probably Chicago, an awesome city on the lake. There is so much to do there and it’s such a sporty culture. They love their local sports teams and there is just so much atmosphere! Not to mention every yachtsman loves fresh water, it makes life a lot easier!

AB: Is life as a professional yachtsman as glamourous as it sounds or more like hard work?
Life as a pro sailor has its ups and downs. Usually the people on the outside only see the ups, but it can be very challenging at times, both mentally and physically. We are competing for a living, you win and it’s all pretty nice; however if results aren't going your way, it’s very hard to make a living. If you're a new team it’s hard to get sponsors, and that means you end up paying for most of it yourself which is a situation we were in this year. As if the competition isn’t hard enough already, knowing you need to finish in the top four in each comp just to break even adds a whole lot more pressure to the situation. That’s probably been the hardest thing to get our heads around.

AB: It seems that whenever you’re not sailing you have a golf club in your hand. You obviously love it. What is your favourite course to play in New Zealand and overseas and what is you current handicap?
I do love golf. Again because of the challenge. It’s such a technical game that requires so much focus and attention to detail. One bad shot can ruin everything at any moment. It’s crazy to play a game for four hours and have to stay switched on that whole time! My current handicap would be around an eight. I expect that to go down now that I have some time off for summer, as I’ll be playing a lot! However when I start getting busy with sailing again it will definitely blow out to double digits pretty quickly; it’s one if those sports you just need to keep doing to stay good at.
I played an amazing course in Oman this year, called Al Mouj golf. I played with Ernesto Bertarelli and the Alinghi team. He is very handy and plays off a four, so it was nice to get one up over him for all of the Kiwis, haha!
I’ve played all over New Zealand and some of my favourites would be Titirangi, Gulf Harbour, Wainui, Wairakei and Muriwai.

AB: Still love it when you get back home to the Shore?
I love living in New Zealand and on the Shore. I honestly can’t see myself choosing to live anywhere else in the world year round, unless it was purely for the logistics of sailing. There really is no place like home!

AB: What are you up to for the holiday season?
I have some time off over summer, will be playing a lot of golf and just some casual sailing on TP52s in Auckland Harbour. I also do some coaching up at Manly Sailing Club for the Russell Coutts Sailing Foundation which is such a neat new programme giving so many young kids a great opportunity to get into the sport. Russell is such an influential character In the world of sailing and for him to invest his time and money into that club is really cool.
In January I’m looking at competing in Australia against some of the America's Cup legends in a new circuit called the Superfoiler series. It’s a new three-man trimaran that’s been designed to hit speeds in excess of 40 knots. Will be hectic and a lot of fun, very exciting to watch too. So we are currently just trying to get ready for that which involves sorting out a solid team, trying to get some sponsors onboard etc. Exciting times! Following that I’m still working out the best plan of attack. The America’s Cup haven’t released the designs of their boats yet, and there is plenty of rumours of other circuits starting up so it’s a bit of a waiting process.

AB: What does the future hold for Chris Steele? What is your ultimate goal in sailing?
My ultimate goal is I sail in and win the America’s Cup. That’s always been the pinnacle. The hard part is trying to line up a shot at a moving goal post, as the boats have changed a lot in the last couple of cycles. So I’ll keep plugging away to try and best set myself up for that, and who knows maybe some other stuff in between. I love a challenge and will keep pushing as long as I can keep my head above the water!

Issue 83 Dec 2017 / Jan 2018