Meet 23-year-old Neil Hunter as he heads into his second America’s Cup campaign.
Who inspired you to start sailing?
My parents are both sailors and my mum was part of the crew on 'Maiden' who competed in the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World race, essentially they really inspired me to start sailing.
Like a lot of sailors, my first boat was an optimist dinghy at a very young age.
First sailing club?
Arran Yacht Club
Ben Ainslie was definitely one of my childhood heroes!
When did you know you wanted sailing to be a career rather than a hobby?
I think when I decided to leave university to go into sailing full time I committed to it being a career. From an early age I'd dreamt of it though.
What do you love most about sailing?
Racing and winning!
What has sailing taught you?
So much and so many transferable skills, especially working as part of a team.
Favourite ever sailing race?
The first race I competed in during the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in the America’s Cup Class – a 50- foot foiling multihull. That moment was unreal.
How do you know when you have good form?
When you are fully prepared for an event or run so that everything just comes together effortlessly, and you don't have to think about what you're doing next.
How do you know when you're on the limit?
You don’t want to let anyone down so that makes you push even harder when you're on the limit.
Being selected for the senior America’s Cup team and winning with the youth team in Bermuda are two career highlights, but they happened in such a short amount of time.
If you weren't a sailor what would you be?
Probably an athlete in another sport, maybe a rower. When I was younger I wanted to be a rugby player.
If you work hard enough you will achieve your goals.
What other sports do you play?
Cycling and skiing, both in a fairly big way.
How do you spend your time when not sailing?
I’m usually in the gym! Or spending time at home on the Isle of Arran, Scotland.
Neil Hunter is no longer the new kid on the block. Rewind two years ago to age 21, through a promotion from junior to senior team he was the last sailor to be selected for the British Challenge and the youngest to compete in the 35th America’s Cup. Fast forward to the AC36 and it’s a different story, this time round he was one of the first to be recruited.
Although Neil hails from a sailing background, inspired by ambitious sailing parents, through his pure determination alongside physical and mental strength, within 18 months he made his career rocket; from running an Olympic 49er campaign and racing with his brother, to racing consecutively in the senior and junior America’s Cup, winning the former. Now aged 23 Neil is looking ahead to his second consecutive Cup campaign and enjoying being back onboard the America’s Cup Class from the AC35 - this time fleet racing - in the inaugural Sail GP circuit.
“I’ve grown up sailing my whole life,” said Neil Hunter, accepting a certain inevitability that, like his parents, he would make a life somewhere in the marine industry. But it was far from a given that he would reach the pinnacle of competitive sailing when he was barely into his twenties. He still remains one of the youngest members of INEOS TEAM UK’s sailing squad, but now he has one Cup campaign under his belt.
There can be few more exciting moments in any young athlete’s life than getting the call to join one of the major teams competing in their sport, just a few months before a massive international competition. It’s the stuff of dreams, but one that came true for Neil.
Neil’s father was a professional yacht skipper and his mother helped to make history sailing as part of the Maiden team that competed the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race. Sally Hunter, or Creaser as she was then, was on the trailblazing team that proved to the many doubters that a woman-only crew could race around the world alongside the men – taking two leg victories in their class in the process. 40 years later their story has recently hit the big screen, in a documentary charting the challenges they faced.
“It was pretty cool watching my Mum up there on the big screen earlier this year, it was actually a bit surreal! I could not be prouder of her, we all her – we’ve heard the stories over the years but seeing her and watching it was another level. Hopefully next time it will be her watching me up there!”
After that adventure, the Hunter’s settled on the Isle of Arran on Scotland’s west coast. “It was an awesome place to grow up and being on an island I was always around the sea!” There were family cruising holidays in a 30ft Westerly Tempest, exploring the wild and glorious coastline. “We were always just messing around on boats after school and my parents encouraged that. I don’t remember not being around boats! My parents bought me an Oppie [Optimist dinghy] when I was two or something. My dad and I used to just go out in the Oppie and sail around the Bay.”
Their sailing club, Arran Yacht Club, was located between home and school and Neil and his brother, Rory, would walk to the club after school, on their way home, to go sailing for a few hours. “I didn’t really do any Oppie racing, I didn’t start racing properly until I was probably about 13. Then I did a bit of RS Feva racing with my brother, who’s two years younger than me.”
The brothers progressed through a sequence of boats, first moving up into the International 420, another well known youth class, when Neil was 15. They were part of the Scottish RYA’s 420 Squad but quickly got too heavy for the boat so they moved up to the 29er – the youth skiff class – and sailed in that for a couple of years.
“It was quite a commitment, we probably had two weekends every month training in Cumbrae, which is just off Largs. It involved getting two ferries, one off the Isle of Arran, then drive up the coast and get a ferry from Largs to Cumbrae. So, every Friday night was quite a big one, and a lot of the time we’d miss the ferry back to Arran on the Sunday. We’d end up staying over and getting the early ferry the next morning and going into school absolutely knackered.”
The hard work started to pay off quite quickly, however. The Hunter brothers began to get results at international events, beating some of the Olympic squads. “We just kept grafting away back in Scotland. Our breakthrough result came at the 2014 ISAF World Championships in Santander. We went into it with fairly high expectations, hoping to beat enough of the development squad guys to get noticed. We finished the event 36th out of about 100 and beat everybody, all of the development squad and the Podium Potential guys there. We were the first under-21 team as well.”
The result got them an invite to join the British Sailing Team Podium Potential Squad that finally got them support and some funding. “We owe a lot to our parents for giving us the opportunity, but it was. such good timing to get that result and break through into the British Sailing Team. Having that support made life a lot easier.
The brothers made a bold decision and decided to move all the way south to Weymouth, the home of the RYA’s Olympic sailing programme and go full-time. The brothers started training in Weymouth with the PPS in November 2014 and started to place some top results.
Then early 2016 the British Challenger for the 35th America’s Cup launched an Academy programme; a development squad for talented young British sailors looking for a pathway to the America’s Cup. Suddenly, everything changed. “We heard about the programme in the January and there was so much buzz around it. We were in Miami at the time competing at the Sailing World Cup and everybody was applying then and there on the day it came out. I applied straight away too, so did my brother.
“A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from Andrew Walsh (the Academy coach) asking if I would like to join the team in Oman at their first Extreme Sailing Series (ESS) event.” The team had committed to racing in the whole ESS circuit in 2016 and the first event in Oman came before any formal trials had been scheduled. Neil was recommended by the RYA’s Olympic coaches and was lucky enough to be picked to race in Oman with senior team sailors that included Leigh McMillan, three-time Extreme Sailing Series winner. The team came third, Neil continued to excelled and was eventually offered a spot in the first Academy intake.
At 70kg and a lot lighter, Neil’s brother wasn’t so fortunate. “We had an on- water trial for the team down in Weymouth, which my brother was involved in, but unfortunately he didn’t get selected. Rory subsequently took on a crewing role in an Olympic 470.
After a busy summer competing at Extreme Sailing Series events in Cardiff, Hamburg, St Petersburg, Madeira and Lisbon, Neil was invited to do a fitness test for the senior sailing team by Jono Macbeth, Sailing Team Manager.His fitness was put to the test by the senior team’s strength and conditioning coaches and he placed high scores. They all saw something special in him.
“I wasn’t really told anything about what the test was for but I was assuming that it was something to do with senior team sailing. I just went for it, gave it everything. Then it was off to another ESS event to race with the Academy.” By the time he returned, there was only a couple of weeks of sailing left in the UK, before the senior team moved sailing operations to Bermuda. He was running out of time if he was to get a try-out on the boat.
Jono saw how hardworking, incredibly fit and willing to learn the young sailor was and took a risk. “Jono called me and asked me if I wanted to go out sailing that week. I went out three or four times and it was a massive week, absolutely energy sapping. Monster days! I think it was probably the most tired I’d ever been in my life but it was awesome.
“It was huge experience to get out with the guys in the test boats, having two of them ripping around the Solent was just unbelievable. A week later I got another call from Jono to ask if I wanted to join the team in Bermuda in January, which obviously was quite life changing.”
Neil finished the ESS with the Academy in December and relocated to Bermuda the following month. After four months of training with the team, Ben [Ainslie] and Jono [Macbeth] asked him to race onboard with the team during the Cup. “When I went to Bermuda, although I hoped to, I didn’t actually have the expectation of ending up racing in the Cup. It was a massive moment in my sailing career. We didn’t do as well as we would have liked in the Cup, but I felt a huge sense of personal achievement. It was a dream come true and one that all happened so quickly.”
“Then literally two days later I re-joined the Academy team and went straight into training - and racing - on the AC45F in the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup. This time I was in the role of bow onboard, which is one of the most physical. It’s a really fun boat to sail and we won the event which made the whole experience even more surreal.”
For Neil, there was never any doubt he wouldn’t return to race in another Cup. “Immediately after we got back, I was talking to Jono and Ben about the next edition. I really wanted to be involved. I had a few months where I didn’t really grind but I did other sports – some cycling and kitesurfing then as that year came to an end, towards the end of 2017, I ramped it all back up again.
“I’ve already made a huge step up fitness wise from Bermuda but this campaign everyone is really up there and everyone has upped their level I’d say. It’s just under two years to go but things are getting pretty real now. The race boat is in production and it is looking extreme. We’ve been looking at these boats for a year or so now and really getting our heads around how epic it’s going to be to sail them. Teamwork and sailing skills are going to be an event bigger part than they were during the last America’s Cup.
On his goals for the future, “My aim is to be one of the fittest and best grinders in the team and the America’s Cup which hopefully helps achieve the ultimate dream of winning the America’s Cup.”
He’s already experienced that dreams can come true, but also that you have to work incredibly hard to achieve them.