Old head, young shoulders

by Ivor Wilkins for Seahorse Magazine, March 2023

There is no let up in the queue of top international sailing talent lining up to join the literally ‘fizzing’ performance team at Doyle Sails… America’s Cup, SailGP and Volvo veteran Kyle Langford is just the latest

A brief exchange during a training session aboard the supermaxi Commanche ahead of the 2019 Sydney Hobart race provided Doyle Sails with one of those rare sparks that add impetus to company strengths and change individual career paths.
It illustrates Doyle’s drive to build a formidable talent pool of top sailors to develop, refine and test new concepts and technologies while helping customers sail faster towards achieving their goals.
The Commanche moment came in one of those periods when the boat is settled in its groove, the breeze is steady and the crew, perched along the rail, can briefly catch their breath. 

Kyle Langford, a young Australian trimmer who had already packed two America’s Cup campaigns and a Volvo Ocean Race into his short career, was chatting to fellow Moth sailor, Tom Johnson, about ideas for a new sail design.

Taking advantage of the lull in activity, Doyle Sails CEO, Mike Sanderson, made his way forward from the afterguard and slotted into the line-up on the side-deck. During a casual conversation, Langford asked whether Doyle Sails was doing any work in the Moth class. 

“We are very keen to get involved,” Sanderson replied, “but we’re looking for somebody to work with.”

“Well,” said Langford, “we are definitely your guys.” 

The resulting collaboration led to a podium finish at the next Moth worlds and cemented a place for Langford in the Doyle Sails champions league of sailing stars. 
From Langford’s perspective, that session on Commanche had already been an eye-opener to the direction Doyle Sails was taking with its Structured Luff technology. 
“It was an absolute revelation,” Langford recalls. “The first time we put up the new Structured Luff J1, the load on the headstay went from 20 tons with the previous sail, to 14 tons for the same luff projection. It was unbelievable.”

He immediately grasped the implications. “If you are reducing your loads by more than 25%, you can reduce the structure in the boat and rig by 25%. Everything gets smaller and lighter and the performance gains are huge.

“Just reducing the load was a significant gain on Commanche, but you could immediately see that if you were starting from scratch, it would revolutionise the way boats could be designed and built.”

In the three years since that Commanche encounter, Langford has gone on to secure two SailGP championship titles as wing trimmer aboard the Australian team led by Tom Slingsby. The Doyle Sails synergy continues in that fast-paced arena, with Doyle providing the one-design headsails for the fleet.

 The Langford recruitment underlines how Doyle Sails targets the world’s best sailors in support of its “By Sailors for Sailors” ethos. As a case study, Langford’s career not only exemplifies the qualities Doyle Sails looks for, but also a determination to keep freshening the pool with a younger generation of stars.

“I already knew about Kyle’s outstanding racing record,” says Sanderson. “But beyond that, what impressed me was his technical intelligence, his clear understanding of what makes a boat go fast and his ability to communicate his thoughts and ideas, which is invaluable in a technical design and development environment.

“He was clearly a person with the drive and determination to succeed and would be an asset both within the Doyle Sails culture, but more importantly in helping our customers achieve their performance goals.” 

From the outset, Kyle Langford has always been younger than his sailing peers. “I have been fortunate that throughout my career, I have always been the young one, so I have had older, more experienced people to learn from,” he says.

He grew up in a sailing family based around the Lake Macquarie Yacht Club north of Sydney. “My brother, Mark, is four years older than me. When Mark was eight-years-old, he was able to join sailing lessons at the club, but I was not happy with just watching on.”
Kyle was so insistent that the club made a special exemption to enable him to start lessons alongside his brother at just four-years-old. 

“After about 10 years, our sailing started getting more competitive,” he recalls. “When I was 14 or 15, I was not loving school that much. I definitely preferred being on the water, so I looked for every opportunity to go sailing.”
At that stage he was sailing with Evan Walker in 29ers and they were starting to consider the Youth World Championships. However, the selected 420 dinghy hardly lit their fire, so they switched to multihulls and started training in Hobie 16s.
“Evan was down in Sydney, which is a two-hour drive south of Lake Macquarie. So, for about nine months my mother would pick me up from school two days a week and drive me to Sydney for training sessions. I also spent every weekend in Sydney.”
Although they had little opportunity for high level racing during this period, Langford and Walker headed for South Korea and won the Hobie 16s youth world title. “That was my first big international competition and I decided there and then that I wanted a professional career in sailing.”

A period of youth match racing, laser and 18ft skiff racing followed while he ground out his final school years, before resuming his partnership with Evan Walker towards an Olympic Tornado campaign. 
In 2007, the pair headed to Portugal for the Tornado worlds. “Our results were distinctly forgettable,” Langford laughs, but their Tornado programme was soon dashed anyway, when the class was dropped from the Olympic slate.
However, the America’s Cup taking place in neighbouring Spain caught his eye and he began paying attention. “To be honest, I had not followed the America’s Cup that closely up to then, but with the Olympic goal out of the picture, I decided I would do everything I could to get involved with the Cup.”

After several years of racing in a variety of disciplines, including the world match race circuit, his America’s Cup opportunity came when he was racing RC44s with fellow Australian Jimmy Spithill, who offered him a position with Oracle Racing. Langford was just 21 years old.
“I clearly remember my first day with Oracle. Although I had been doing quite well up to then, including match racing with some success against America’s Cup sailors, I suddenly realised how little I really knew about sailing. I had no idea how much I didn’t know until I joined Oracle. 
“Fortunately, I was the youngest member of the team by 10 years, so again older, more experienced guys took me under their wing and opened my eyes to the technical and development side of the sport.”

The 2013 campaign in San Francisco was meant to be his apprenticeship, serving as understudy to wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder. However, that plan dramatically changed when, just three days before the opening race of Oracle’s America’s Cup defence, Langford found himself propelled onto the A-boat in the crucial wing-trimmer role. 

Talk about a baptism by fire. “For sure I was a little bit nervous,” he admits, “but, probably naively, I was confident I could do a good job.”

History shows it was an extraordinary event, with Oracle storming back from 8-1 down against Emirates Team New Zealand, to win the Match 9-8 and retain the Cup. 
At 24, Langford was a Cup winner. Four years later, he experienced the pain of losing the Cup against the Kiwis in Bermuda. But the personal gains were enormous.
Although Langford was, by his own admission, not a star pupil at school, he never lacked ambition or a driving thirst for knowledge; he viewed his America’s Cup experience as his Masters Degree in Sailing. 
“It would be such a missed opportunity if you were around so many brilliant minds across so many specialist fields and you failed to learn as much as possible from them.
“I have found in the sailing world that if you show an interest in any area, no matter how advanced their formal qualifications might be, the experts are always very helpful and forthcoming in passing on that knowledge. 

“I have been very lucky to take advantage of that. It has provided a good foundation for my career going forward.”

Next big-ticket item on a busy to-do list: race around the world. Straight off the Bermuda America’s Cup, Langford found himself donning sea boots and foul weather gear for the Volvo Ocean Race with Bouwe Bekking’s Brunel team. 
This was foreign territory. “At that point, I had never sailed through the night before, cruising or racing. I had never done a Sydney-Hobart, or really gone offshore.”
One senses this was not a passion project, but more of that drive to complete the entire curriculum of his sailing education. Accordingly, by 30 his CV included a world dinghy title, Moth worlds silver medal, RC44 match race champion, an America’s Cup win, two-time SailGP champion and a podium finish around the world. 

There is a pattern here of setting high goals and achieving them. To that extent, his professional sailing credentials are beyond question. When it comes to helping a team or campaign develop a successful performance package, however, the real added value lies in the ability to translate those credentials into vital intelligence to drive the process forward.

“Regardless of whether you are using a solid wing on an AC50, or a mainsail on a TP52, the balance you are trying to achieve and the general concepts are the same. At the end of the day, you want to maximise drive and minimise drag.

“You can jump on any boat and, through experience, straightaway feel if the sails are good or bad. With a fundamental understanding of the physics of sailing and the engineering behind the building of sails, you need to identify the factors impacting their performance and what can be improved. 

“Just saying it is bad is unacceptable. Helping figure out the solutions and providing solid feedback to the design team is what makes a good development sailor. If you are struggling for height, for example, you probably have too much drag. An adjustment of just a couple of millimetres can make a huge difference in terms of luff curve, or broadseam shape.

“My goal is always to be on the fastest boat. When I am part of a team, it is always about looking for that last percent of performance. 

“Partnering with Doyle Sails gives me access to the best designers and technology in the world as well as some of the best sailors in the world. 

“The first time we put that Structured Luff sail up on Commanche, I was impressed to be working with the guys who came up with the concept. And the best part is that there is still plenty more development to come. I am excited to be part of that process.”

Mike Sanderson: “Kyle’s extraordinary story is all part of our philosophy of gathering the best expertise in all aspects of the endeavour – design, technology, materials, sailing performance – and using the combined power of that knowledge and experience to keep improving. 

“That way, everybody keeps lifting the game and the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.” 

ABOUT DOYLE SAILS // As sailors, our obsession with sailing connects us to the water. The water is our playground, a sanctuary where we seek enjoyment, a competitive playing field where we race; it’s sometimes our home and always a place that unlocks our sense of adventure wherever that adventure might take us.

Our obsession with sailing takes us to every corner of the world and onboard every yacht. We become part of teams, share in the adventures of friends and families, sharing our knowledge and experience with those who have the same passion for sailing as we do. Sailing is in our DNA, where the water unlocks our sense of adventure. We are the custodians of a legacy that has been supporting sailors for close to four decades, and while our world changes around us, our commitment to sailors who seek the same enjoyment and adventure as we do hasn’t.

From our sailors to yours, we are your experts in sailing. Your adventure starts with Doyle. By sailors, for sailors.

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