In 2003, in the rolling Pacific swells off Marina Del Rey, California, Nelson Stephenson was preparing to start Race 3 of the Star Class World Championship. He coaxed his twenty-three-foot Star boat toward the starting line. On his windward side was Paul Cayard, an America’s Cup veteran who is one of the best-known sailors in the world — a dark-haired, rugged, six-foot-three-inch sailing icon. To leeward, just a few feet away, sat Torben Grael, a six-foot-one, five-time Olympic medalist from Brazil who spends thirty-five hours a week on the boat. Many other sailors in the 103-boat fleet carried similar credentials.
Imposing company for a fifty-year-old who looks every bit the financial whiz he is in this company of tans, tone and tousled hair — and who hadn’t set foot on a sailboat until he was thirty-one.
But Stephenson was not especially worried about his competitors, or his age. He accepted that the odds were stacked against him. Both Cayard and Grael had been racing sailboats since they were seven years old, and each was a former Star world champion.
No one was surprised, including Stephenson, when he finished the third race well behind his starting-line neighbors. After three more days of trimming his sails and playing the waves amid a pack of aggressive racers, Grael placed second overall, Cayard fourth — and Stephenson a distant, indistinctive ninety-second. “I knew I had no chance to win that regatta,” admits Stephenson in his characteristically direct, calm voice. “The Star boat is all about technique, and the more time you put into it, the bigger your rewards.”
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