The continuing viability of any sport depends on its ability to nurture future generations.
Integral to the company’s core philosophy laid down by founder Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex has always recognised this critical role and supported its partners in the transmission of knowledge – no more so than in sailing, where yachting legends such as Rolex Testimonee Sir Ben Ainslie ensure, through their inspiration and instruction, that the sailors following in their footsteps are well equipped to maintain the highest standards of excellence.
Sport for life
Ainslie knows from first-hand experience the need for young talent to be encouraged and supported by senior athletes in their chosen field.
The Briton, who began sailing at the age of eight, is one of the most accomplished yachtsmen in the sport’s history, the most successful Olympic sailor of all time with medals from five successive Olympic Games – four of them gold – and a four-time Rolex World Sailor of the Year. He currently leads Ineos Team UK, which is challenging for two of the greatest prizes in professional yachting, the America’s Cup and SailGP.
Yet he, too, was once a novice, a young sailor seeking knowledge and guidance as he took his first tentative steps in the sport. Help was close at hand in the form of his father, Roddy, who skippered Second Life in the first ever, crewed round-the-world race in 1973. Another of his early heroes was the late Paul Elvstrøm, a Rolex Testimonee whose Olympic record Ainslie surpassed at the 2012 Olympic Games.
“Paul was someone who had really transformed the sport of sailing in his era,” explains Ainslie. “His challenge was very different to the one I had faced and after London I wrote to him to say that he had been a huge inspiration through his achievements.”
Aside from his father and Elvstrøm, Ainslie looks to another Rolex Testimonee as someone who had recognised the need to mentor young and upcoming sailors such as himself. “Paul Cayard helped me greatly when I started to transition my career into the America’s Cup,” he remarks. “I know that Paul, in turn, was helped himself by the likes of Durward Knowles (a sailing gold medallist in 1964) and Raul Gardini (head of the Il Moro di Venezia Cup syndicate).”
Ainslie continues: “As part of my current campaigns, we have a team of young sailors that we are helping bring up into the senior team. This is part of the tradition of our sport. Knowledge gets passed on. This is a sport for life. One is not in it for a short period, and there are always opportunities to help the younger generations come through.”
Cayard is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest yachtsmen, excelling in a range of disciplines and leading events. A seven-time world champion and a seven-time America’s Cup campaigner, he became the first US sailor to win the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1998. He is also a two-time Olympian and competed in a number of Rolex-partnered events, including the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, Rolex Fastnet Race and Rolex Middle Sea Race.
But he is also acutely aware of the support he received on his journey to the elite ranks. “I am a great believer in our sport and what it offers. I have been privileged in my career.”
Cayard is now actively engaging with youth to encourage participation in the sport. “Sailing offers so much in life, it is only natural to give back,” he explains. “I raced with my teenage children to Hawaii from California to help expand their horizons. I’m also involved in helping build a pipeline of talent in the United States to improve our results in international competition. It takes long-term vision, an investment of thinking, time and energy. It’s so important because what sport teaches is so valuable in life.”
Both Ainslie and Cayard are members of the Rolex family of Testimonees that features several other yachting legends – including groundbreaking round-the-world yachtsmen Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier – whose achievements have set benchmarks to which future generations aspire.
These towering figures in the sport are an essential part of Rolex’s partnership with yachting that dates back more than 60 years. The beginning, back in 1958 with the New York Yacht Club, heralded the launch of a deep involvement that now spans the globe and encompasses a broad range of disciplines and aspects of the sport. With a rich history underpinning the relationship, upholding traditions – particularly those that help safeguard the future – is a key element.
SailGP, the global championship that is redefining sailing, is one of the latest additions to the Rolex yachting portfolio. As the official timepiece, Rolex is proud to be associated with a series that demands precision, dedication and performance from the athletes and their boats. Combining advanced technology with the most talented individuals, SailGP echoes Rolex’s quest for perpetual excellence, while the developing art of foiling – lifting a boat’s hull out of the water to reduce drag and increase speed – further illustrates the sport’s alignment with the brand in its shared desire to constantly evolve and innovate.
Away from the high-profile, high-energy racing, there is another reason why the Rolex and SailGP partnership is such a natural fit. The SailGP Inspire programme endeavours to create pathways to success for young sailors. The aim is to ensure the sustainability of the sport by delivering life-changing opportunities to aspiring sailors, regardless of their background. These opportunities range from hands-on lessons, mentorship and team building, to connecting the most talented with the pinnacle of the sport, where they meet the sailing world’s best athletes and race on the same course as their heroes.
Expertise through the generations
Beyond SailGP and its family of Testimonees, Rolex supports prestigious yachting competitions, from ocean classics to leading inshore regattas, where expertise is transferred within the sailing community – between peer groups and different generations, and from professionals to Corinthians. This transmission of knowledge has particularly helped broaden the appeal of offshore racing, with the Rolex Fastnet Race and Rolex Middle Sea Race enjoying record fleets in recent years.
Participation at these demanding races depends on yachts meeting stringent qualification requirements, which include the experience of their crews. Veteran participants regularly ensure young, inexperienced sailors are included in their team. Passing on their expertise, passion and the camaraderie inherent in the sport are essential for improving performance and promoting a sense of solidarity with the wider fleet.
Matt Allen, winner of the 75th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race in 2019, is proof of how this unwritten process works so well. He completed his first race in 1980, aged 17, and was then a winner in 1983 as a crew member on Challenge II under the tutelage of the doyen of Australian sailing Lou Abrahams. The late Abrahams himself took part in 44 Rolex Sydney Hobarts, winning twice, along with seven Rolex Fastnets, before retiring from offshore sailing at the age of 80 in 2007. Abrahams was highly regarded for his enthusiasm in encouraging youngsters to participate in sailing, from dinghies to ocean racing.
The 2019 race marked Allen’s 30th trip south from Sydney. At the final prize-giving in Hobart, he reflected on his win, but more significantly, on his sense of a sport that recognises the importance of bridging age groups. “Winning this year’s race really brings a lot of history together,” commented Allen. “Over the years, I’ve seen amazing boats participate, but it’s actually the people that make this race: the sailors, the friendships, the competition. They are what makes this race and ocean racing what it is.”
Last year’s 40th Rolex Middle Sea Race was won by Elusive 2, co- skippered by local Maltese sailors Maya, Aaron and Christoph Podesta. Their victory was built on an intrinsic knowledge and respect for sailing and the race instilled in them by their late father, Arthur Podesta, a veteran of 35 Rolex Middle Sea Races. “We used to think it was all about the race,” says Christoph, “but now we know that our father’s purpose was to bring the family together to share adventures and experience. It continues to be special.”
While always respectful of heritage, Rolex is forever forward-looking. During the Swiss watchmaker’s earliest days, its founder recognised the growing appreciation of an active lifestyle when envisaging a pioneering watch that would be as robust, precise and reliable as a marine chronometer. The belief in protecting the past in order to shape what lies ahead remains as strong today as then.
(All images courtesy of Rolex and SailGP)