Smooth SailingRandy Smyth Has Made a Name for Himself in the Exciting World of Catamaran Sailing By Tony Bridges
There’s a sign that hangs in the living room of Randy Smyth’s modest split-level home on Goodthing Lake on the west side of Choctawhatchee Bay. It reads, “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.”
EXTREME TEAMWORK During the 2005, 2006 and 2007 racing seasons, Randy Smyth skippered the Extreme 40 ‘Tommy Hilfiger’ throughout Europe and South America. Photos courtesy Randy Smyth.
Which is kind of funny, when you think about it, because Smyth, at 55, doesn’t really need that advice.
This is a man who won his first sailing race when he was just 11 — against adults, no less — and has gone on to sail in exciting races all over the world, winning more than four dozen national and world championships and earning a spot in the Sailing World Hall of Fame.
If you aren’t into sailing, you might not recognize his name, but you’re probably familiar with a few of the events in which he’s competed and won: the America’s Cup race and the Los Angeles and Barcelona Olympics.
You’ve likely also seen a couple of the movies on which he’s worked, such as “Waterworld” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
Smyth makes a living from having wind-in-your-hair fun, runs a successful business and gets invited to all sorts of swanky European parties. On top of that, although thrice divorced, he’s a proud dad to three kids and two large dogs.
Ask him, and he’ll tell you: He has been chasing close behind “happily ever after” for about as long as he can remember. Smyth says the good life he’s led, and continues to live, has come to him just by virtue of being willing.
“My theme is, ‘Yes!’” he said recently, sitting beneath a photo that shows him clinging to a tipping catamaran 30 feet in the air during an extreme race. “And I’ve had a lot of things kind of fall into my lap.”
SKIPPER SMYTH Randy Smyth’s world renowned skills as a catamaran sailor are in hot demand. He has won races for Olympic teams, world championships and Grand Prix Circuits in Europe. Photo by Scott Holstein.
A Sailor Born
Smyth grew up the prototypical California kid.
He was raised in Pasadena and spent weekends playing on the sand in Long Beach, where his grandparents lived. His mother had been sailing most of her life and had him in sailboats before he started kindergarten.
When he was about 9, his father bought him an Aquacat catamaran at a boat show for $695. A catamaran is a different kind of sailboat than you might normally picture. It has two narrow hulls connected by a deck, rather than the one large hull typical to most sailboats.
Smyth immediately took to the catamaran.
“It was a fun thing to get away from my sisters,” he said with a laugh. “There’s something about being on the water. It’s a feeling of freedom, especially as a kid.”
Two years later, at 11, he decided to compete in a race from Los Angeles to Catalina Island, about 25 miles off the coast. His crew of one consisted of his 9-year-old brother David. Their parents and three other siblings went ahead in the family’s 24-foot sailboat.
There were 14 catamarans in the race, all of them manned by adults except for the one carrying Smyth and his brother. Only seven made it to the island, and of those, the Smyth boys were the first doubles team to land.
In high school, he formed a sailing club with about a dozen other kids and, at 15, competed in the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. This time, the crew consisted of his parents, his math teacher (and sailing club adviser) and four friends, and the trip took more than two weeks. They won third place in their class.
Meanwhile, Smyth also found a part-time job making sails.
There isn’t exactly a college degree program for sail design, and Smyth, even though his father was a university professor, wasn’t interested in spending more time in the classroom after high school. But his boss, Rick Taylor, was a meticulous sailmaker who taught him how to design racing sails and took him to Germany to crew in the Tornado catamaran World Championships in 1972.
Taylor served as a mentor, “always saying, ‘You’ve got to do it right, do it this way,’” Smyth told Sailing World magazine several years ago. “His input probably molded me in the right direction.”
That, and Smyth’s own drive to develop his expertise.
“One thing about Randy, he always likes to keep learning,” said Jonathan Farrar, who has raced with Smyth many times over the years. “He always tries to get more knowledge about the boat or the area, or whatever.”
By 1975, Smyth had taken what he learned of sailmaking and turned it into his own successful business, designing sails for a fast-growing list of racing crews and private clients from around the world.
Building a Name in Sailing
Smyth never stopped racing, though.
His experience and skill with Tornadoes — the type of catamaran used in the Olympics — won him a spot in the games in 1984, the year they came to his hometown. Smyth and partner Jay Glaser sailed the Tornado to a silver medal finish off Long Beach.
They soon followed that up by winning their division in the Worrell 1000, a 1,000-mile marathon race from South Florida to Virginia Beach, Va., and by winning the Formula 40 series championships in Europe.
Smyth and Glaser traveled the world, competing in Australia, Brazil, Abu Dhabi and a half-dozen other exotic locales.
The Olympic win had gotten Smyth a trip to the White House to meet President Reagan and a spot in a ticker-tape parade in New York. But the real reward came in 1988.
The America’s Cup is probably the most high-profile sailing race in the world. It consists of a series of races between two boats, often from different countries, that test the speed, design and strategic skills of each team captain.
In 1983, the U.S. team, led by former Olympic sailor Dennis Conner, lost the cup to an Australian crew, ending a winning streak of more than 125 years.
Conner won the cup back four years later but almost immediately was challenged by a team from New Zealand. The rules required that the holder of the cup defend it against all challengers, so Conner began preparing for a race against the Kiwis’ massive 130-foot boat.
Conner had only a matter of months to put together a team and design and build a boat capable of beating the New Zealanders. Smyth — called “the United States’ foremost multihull sailor” by the Los Angeles Times — was one of those Conner chose.
Smyth had planned to compete in the ’88 Olympics but could only participate in one or the other. He picked the America’s Cup and flew to New York, where he attended a meeting in a hangar at La Guardia Airport.
There were 17 specialists in attendance — experts in aerospace design, sail design, catamarans, lake boats and every other aspect of sailing.
Their basic task was this: build the fastest sailboat they could, given six months and nearly unlimited resources.
Smyth said he felt “like a kid in a candy store.” He, of course, recommended that the team abandon the traditional single-hull sailboat design and build a catamaran instead. They settled on a 60-foot catamaran and decided to build two, one with soft sails and one unique vessel with a fixed, hard sail, something resembling an airplane wing sticking up out of the boat.
The wing was designed by Burt Rutan, the famed aerospace engineer who, two years earlier, had developed the Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world without refueling.
But there was pressure, too. The race had drawn significant media attention, and the world was watching. Those were the years of Team USA and hyper-patriotism, and the sailors were under heavy expectations to keep the America’s Cup in the United States.
“You really felt like you were sailing not so much for yourself as for your country,” Smyth said.
Once the catamarans were built, Smyth helped train Conner and the rest of the crew on the intricacies of sailing the multihull boats. The team raced the cats against each other over and over, trying to squeeze every possible bit of speed out of the designs.
In the end, the outcome of the America’s Cup was a foregone conclusion. Smyth said the race was over before it began because there simply was no way for the cumbersome New Zealand vessel to keep up with the lighter, more nimble American catamaran. The U.S. team consistently ran 10 percent to 20 percent faster than the Kiwis.
“It was a little bit anticlimactic,” he said.
The New Zealand crew went to court to protest the American use of the catamaran design but lost the case. The America’s Cup belonged to the Americans again.
What did Smyth do? He continued racing and won another silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
When Hollywood Calls …
Smyth’s name kept circulating among those with a need for sailing expertise and occasionally cropped up in unexpected places.
Not long after the Barcelona Olympics, he got a call from some producers working on a movie called “Waterworld.” In it, Kevin Costner plays a scavenger sailing solo across the face of a post-apocalyptic globe covered almost entirely in water.
The movie was being filmed in Hawaii and had run into problems. The boat used in filming was a French-designed trimaran, but the designer was being difficult about when it could and could not be sailed, which was causing delays, Smyth said.
The producers wanted to know if he would come to Hawaii and sail the boat.
While Costner appears in the movie to be operating the trimaran from the deck using some kind of arm-and-pedal device, it was actually Smyth steering, for those scenes, by joystick and video camera from a tiny, cramped compartment in the hull.
It was “like flying a 747 from the restroom,” he said. “We had a wild time.”
Smyth was intrigued by the culture of a movie set. There were 500 people around, most of them specialists in very particular niches, from pyrotechnics to makeup to storyboarding. Each one played a small but important part in putting the movie together.
“It was fun to step into their world for a week,” he said.
One memorable event was a day spent filming what was a relatively brief scene in the movie — Costner atop the mast, facing into the wind, as the boat sails toward the setting sun.
The idea was that Costner was to be strapped to the mast 80 feet up while the boat sailed through glassy water, largely sheltered from the wind by a nearby volcano. Smyth was supposed to sail the trimaran toward the sun, which would take him out of the volcano’s protection and into rough seas, at which point he would curve around to return to the smooth water.
That was the plan. But the filmmakers, shooting from a helicopter, liked the shot so much that they ordered Smyth to keep going … and going … and going. Straight into 17-foot seas, with Costner still tied to the mast. Smyth said he could see the actor’s legs flopping each time the boat smacked a wave.
He was up there for hours, until well after dark when the filmmakers were finally satisfied and the crew could pull in the sails, which was necessary before Costner could be lowered.
The actor was livid by the time he hit the deck, Smyth said.
“He had a lot of four-letter words,” he said. “Believe me, there’s no way he’s ever going to forget that day.”
He said Costner was so angry, he didn’t even show up for the wrap party held later that night.
The experience was not Smyth’s last with Hollywood. A few years later, he got another call about a sailing scene, this time in “The Thomas Crown Affair” with Pierce Brosnan.
Smyth owned a 40-foot catamaran exactly like what the producers had in mind for the movie. They asked him to come to the cold waters off Norwalk, Conn., inexplicably filling in for a tropical location. The job was to do a little sailing — and then to do a scene in which the catamaran was supposed to capsize on command.
Smyth told the producers, “You tell me when and where, and I’ll flip it.”
He worked with the stunt team to set up safety precautions and used his own team of sailors to make the boat do what it needed to do. The stunt went off as planned — more or less. One of his sailors didn’t move quickly enough and caught a lungful of water, and some safety wires didn’t work the way they should, so Brosnan’s stunt double slammed face-first into a sail made of Kevlar fibers, Smyth said.
Both recovered, but the producers decided that the stunt deserved high-risk pay. Everyone involved took home hefty checks.
“Any time Hollywood calls, you never say no,” Smyth said, “because they treat you well.”
Making a Home in Florida
When Smyth first moved to Fort Walton Beach in 1989, it was not by happenstance.
He had lived in California all of his life and owned a business there — Smyth Sails (motto “Faster by Design”) — with a small army of employees and a factory turning out hundreds of racing sails a year.
But the advent of personal computers changed the way his business worked. Smyth no longer needed a factory where he’d draw up the designs on paper and then supervise his staff as they cut and sewed the material to match his plans. He could design the sails on a computer and outsource the manufacturing anywhere in the world. That meant he could live — and work — wherever he wanted.
And “why live with 27 lanes of traffic, air you can’t breathe and high taxes?” he said.
In analyzing his sales, Smyth had discovered that more and more of his customers were in Florida, which seemed like the perfect place to escape from what he disliked about California. The weather was just as pleasant, but the air was cleaner and the streets less crowded. And the cost of living was much more affordable in Florida than in California.
“You couldn’t buy a garage in California for the prices of a house here,” as he puts it.
Suburban sprawl made South Florida too much like the overflowing L.A. Basin that he was leaving, but Fort Walton Beach, smaller and slower-paced, was just the right size. In addition, it wasn’t likely to get any bigger because of the huge Air Force base in its backyard.
Smyth eventually bought the split-level on a cul-de-sac on Goodthing Lake, a perfect location for him. The waterway leads out to Choctawhatchee Bay and from there to the open waters of the Gulf. The property has a dock at the rear of a wide, lush backyard where Smyth can tie up one of the several catamarans and trimarans that he owns.
Inside, there are 6-foot sailing photos on the walls and a large yellow model of a Piper Cub (an airplane that Smyth has flown) hanging on wires from the ceiling. The motif is Florida marine and the wide windows look out on the lake, where fish and dolphins frequently burst from the surface. In the basement and garage below the living room, Smyth keeps workshops where he designs and paints catamaran parts.
Smyth has divorced since moving to Fort Walton Beach, but he still shares custody of his three kids, an 11-year-old daughter and two sons, 8 and 2. He chauffeurs them to the doctor and the dentist, and they frequently stay with him at his house, along with two giant, shaggy dogs named Desda and Puppin. During a recent interview, his daughter sat nearby, plinking on an electronic keyboard and running to fetch a DVD when talk turned to Smyth’s Hollywood work.
Over the years, he has become a major part of the local sailing scene, particularly at the Fort Walton Yacht Club, where he’s a member. That’s where Cliff Farrah, an amateur sailboat racer, met Smyth about five years ago. Or rather, where Farrah watched as Smyth’s catamaran easily sailed past him and his wife on their mono-hull sailboat during a local race.
“He just destroyed us … but he did it with three kids and two dogs on board,” Farrah said. “And we had our best racing crew. My wife looked at me, and I looked at her, and she said, ‘What the hell are we doing in this thing?’”
Farrah said he was struck by how friendly and approachable Smyth seemed, despite his legendary status in the sailing world. The tips and tricks that make the difference between a slow boat and a fast boat can be jealously guarded, he said, but Smyth doesn’t work that way.
“The kinds of things he has accomplished, people dream about in my world,” Farrah said.
For him to have done those things, yet still be a good friend, a good father, humble and willing to teach other people is “unbelievable,” as Farrah sees it. When Farrah and his crew of amateur sailors signed on to compete in the 2007 Key West Race Week, sailing a Corsair trimaran named Strategery, they asked Smyth to help coach them.
“I learned 20 years in one, thanks to him,” Farrah said. “It literally was the equivalent of having Tiger Woods once a week as a coach.”
With his help, the Strategery crew won the national amateur title.
Middle age hasn’t slowed Smyth noticeably.
There have been hundreds of races over the last several years, from the around-the-world competition that had him dodging icebergs in the Southern Ocean to the extreme catamaran races in Europe that reach speeds of 35 knots in tight quarters, leaving no room for errors.
Keith Notary raced with Smyth in the Barcelona Olympics and the 1999 Worrell 1000, both of which they won. He said there is no doubt that Smyth is one of the top sailors in the business.
“Under high-stress situations, he’s the guy who keeps his cool, keeps thinking and looking ahead,” Notary said. “He’s one of these guys who lives and breathes sailing. Randy is 200 percent suited to what he’s doing.”
In 2010, Smyth plans to compete in the Ultimate Water Challenge, which will see him paddling and sailing 1,200 miles through Gulf Waters and Florida rivers in a narrow, adjustable-width catamaran that he designed and calls The Scissor. At one point, he’ll have to carry the cat on a 40-mile portage.
Why would he do such a thing? Smyth just shrugs and says it’s a challenge.
This also is the beauty of what he does. Smyth puts it this way: A professional swimmer would spend the rest of his life going up and down, staring at that black line on the bottom of the pool. But a sailor who has made the choices he has enjoys a life of variety and excitement.
“It’s diverse enough that you never get bored,” he said. “You just work at being the best in your own little field and hope your field can support you. In this case, it seems to.”
Until that changes, Smyth plans to keep saying “yes,” keep taking to the water and keep trying to live happily ever after.