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Last Updated: 16 January 2013

Andrew Knowles, Of Counsel at James & Wells Tauranga office shares his passion for sailing

Finding himself in the water, swimming furiously, is the last thing any keen sailor wants. But that's where Andrew Knowles, Of Counsel at James & Wells Intellectual Property's Tauranga office, started with his sailing passion almost 50 years ago. The then 12-year-old hadn't capsized as a rookie sailor out on the water – instead, he was answering a challenge.

"My Dad was a very keen swimmer, and he said one day to us kids that 'if you can swim half a mile, I'll buy you a P-Class yacht'," explains Knowles. "I thought, 'well, that's interesting' – I hadn't really done any sailing at all – and duly swum my half mile. It was about the last swimming I ever did, and, as promised, he bought me a P-Class yacht, and I loved it, so have been doing it ever since."

'Ever since' has included winning a national championship in the Junior Cherub class as a teenager, then building his own R-Class yachts with "a pretty radical design" (and winning a national championship with one), winning the Olympic 470 trials but missing out on competing due to the Western boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, attending other Olympics as a reserve in the Tornado Class and then a rules adviser to the team, competing in regattas in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere around the world, and now being a national judge and involved with Olympic selection, as well as continuing to get out on the waters in Tauranga each Wednesday evening and Sunday.

Speaking with Knowles, his passion and love for sailing is clear. Looking back now on his adolescent beginnings in his P-Class boat in Wellington, he says he soon found he was "naturally in tune with the boat and the way it felt". Learning to sail as a youngster at the Paramatta Yacht Club, he recalls there wasn't much in the way of coaching and skills in those days. "They just pushed you out and sent you on your way." Small and young for his year at school, Knowles flourished in comparison to his other sporting endeavours. "I was probably more successful at it than other sports, which probably always helps," he says with a laugh.

Nowadays, he continues to be fascinated by the way, no matter how experienced you become, and no matter how many times you sail a particular location, no two sailing days are the same. "In sailing there's a constantly varying bit of water and a constantly varying wind pattern," he explains. "And the other thing is that you go out and do a club race, it's very seldom you come ashore and think 'I've done that perfectly, there's nothing I could have done better'. Nearly always, you're sailing at somewhere between, well, 97 per cent is probably brilliantly good, and 67 per cent is more like a bad race."

While Knowles has sailed everything from small one-person yachts to large multi-crew keel boats (he currently owns three sailboats: a one-person, a two-person, and a 34-foot keel boat he's rebuilding for cruising and racing), he says he most enjoys two-person yachts such as those raced in many of the Olympic classes. "You have to develop very good teamwork amongst two people, but there's not a huge crew to organise all the time."

Despite missing out on going to the 1980 Olympic Games, due to the New Zealand Government officially joining more than 60 other nations in the US-led boycott of those Games (four New Zealand athletes did choose to go, competing under the Silver Fern rather than the New Zealand flag), Knowles still fondly recalls qualifying for the Games in a two-crew 470 yacht as one of his favourite-ever racing moments. "We did win the New Zealand trials, and that was probably the most comprehensive victory I've ever had," he says. "We were just sailing so well, right at the top of our game. We had to beat the guy who'd won the pre-Olympics, who was arguably the number one ranked guy in the world, one of the top guys. And we comprehensively beat him, so that was great."

Knowles got close to Olympic qualification on other occasions, finishing runner-up in the national Tornado Class trials "by a smaller and smaller margin" to Rex Sellers, who after pipping Knowles each time would go on to win the gold medal at Los Angeles in 1984 and then the silver medal in Seoul in 1988. Knowles still has a soft spot for the Tornado, "the old Olympic class of catamaran, a very, very fast boat" – he owns one and races it on Wednesday nights with the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club. "We have quite an active fleet of Tornadoes here, it's the only serious fleet in the country," he says.

In addition to his Tornado, Knowles races his one-man Zephyr in Tauranga and at national regattas. A traditional 'one-design boat' (every competitor's boat is the same), the Zephyr is "like a small Finn, slightly smaller than a Laser", explains Knowles. "It's a class that's feted by the more mature sailor these days. Most of the participants are over 50. They're not as exciting as some of the more modern boats, but they're one-person, and they're also very good tactical sailing." Knowles recently returned from the national champs, where he finished in the top 10 in a top-notch field. "Of the top 10 I think everyone had won at least one national championship in another class, so it's very high-quality racing."

The different sailing classes emphasise different skills, especially as people move between one-person, two-person, and keel boats, says Knowles. With smaller one-design yachts, "the skill is basically purely in how well you work the boat and where you put it in relation to the wind, the waves, and the tide". In other types of racing, such as America's Cup and large keel boat racing, the differing designs become much more important to the results of the racing.

For those looking to give sailing a go this summer, Knowles recommends heading down to a nearby yacht club that does some keel boat sailing. "Say you'd like to go out on a race or a sail in a keel boat, and most clubs would be keen to have you along. Most clubs are short of people quite frequently, usually on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday night."
And for those wanting to hone their sailing skills further, Knowles recommends jumping into smaller boats. "Start doing some classes, perhaps in the boat you like the look of – there's always a reasonable amount around at the club... you'll be a better sailor once you start sailing small boats."

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