It’s not often that you meet a man called X who isn’t straight out of a superhero film, with extensive super powers that are able to defy the laws of gravity and propulsion, alongside an epic back story. Well, it seems we have one in our very backyard and have done for some time. But we will come to the reasons for this at the end.
When X sits down opposite me in Varadero he is the epitome of a Captain. A little bit rugged, with wise yet twinkly eyes and slightly dishevelled hair. He is everything a sailor and Captain should be. And it is at this point that I know I’m going to really like this man. And sure enough I do. I have heard tales of the mystical X over the years through various friends in the industry. All positive, all tipping the nod to someone who clearly has too many tales to fit in over a coffee.
But he is generous enough to find time, despite the boat or boats needing his full attention to tell me his story. The first fact is particularly interesting and gives substance to the suspicion that this man has a vast and extensive set of skills that have brought him to the place he is now. He is actually a jeweller by trade, having studied for a fine arts degree as a Metalsmith. Well, I didn’t see that coming.
Curiosity peaked I ask how he came to go from fine arts jewellery to high performance superyachts. And so his story begins. Soon after qualifying with his degree he became part of a small but prestigious jewellery company who were doing wonderfully and life was good. However the fates had a different journey for him. A chance meeting with a friend set up the possibility of helping with a delivery from his native Australia, where he grew up in Tasmania, to Samoa. Well, he’d never been to Samoa, so he decided to take a few weeks off and set off on a small adventure. Little did he know.
It was then that he met another guy who needed to deliver a boat to Hawaii. Again, he’d never been to Hawaii, so…yes, you guessed it. Off to the middle of the Pacific he went. This chance meeting led to X competing in the Kenwood Cup regatta out of Honolulu, which X says was easily one of the best regattas in the world, but sadly is no longer in existence.
Chance meeting after chance meeting continued, but the coffers started to run dry so it was time to think of packing up and returning to his day job. However, once again fate intervened and X met a chap from Sydney who said he would pay him to deliver a boat to its next destination. This was absolutely unheard of to X but an opportunity that he could not possibly pass up. And so it was that he discovered the world of professional sailing and never looked back. Except, he says with a grin, in the pre mobile phone world of 1990, to pick up a postcard and let his colleagues know that there had been a change of life plan and that he wouldn’t be coming back. That’s certainly one way to hand your notice in.
I ask if he still makes jewellery and he says that he still designs pieces, but now he hands the designs over to others to make as he simply doesn’t have time with all of his other activities, such as running and Captaining the extremely busy Highland Fling programme. Highland Fling are a fleet of boats belonging or having belonged to the highly successful Baron Irvine Alan Stewart Laidlaw, a Scottish businessman, and a former member of the House of Lords. A keen racer of both cars and sailboats, his passion for sailing and charitable work with disadvantaged children is legendary.
X joined the Highland Fling programme in 1993 where he was part of the freelance crew that raced in the high profile Key West Regatta. It was here that he was introduced to Baron Laidlaw for the first time and they hit it off. He continued to race for other boats and other owners across the years, including taking part in the 2001 Americas Cup Jubilee in the UK, but he always returned to the Fling programme. He worked on the build of the 2005 112ft Swan, Highland Breeze, however Baron Laidlaw didn’t enjoy her racing style and so two weeks later he bought a Wally 80 and primed her for the perfect raceboat. It was at this point in 2006 that he let the previous Captain go and asked if X would stay on while they looked for a replacement. Fast forward to 2021 and he is still on.
There is clearly a real pride coming from X as he talks about the various boats and races that have made up his career to date with Highland Fling. From Swans to Wallys, to the elegant 2003 Feadship Lady Christine named after Baron Laidlaw’s wife, things have certainly never been dull during his 28 years. They have won the Maxi four times and have never not finished on the podium. At present there are six boats in the fleet, one on every continent, with three full time crew, including his wife Sarah. And the newest addition, the jaw droppingly beautiful multihulled, first of its kind, Gunboat 80 is sure to keep up the Highland Fling tradition of fun, adventure and winning.
I ask abut Sarah as I have also heard really impressive things about her as well. He chuckles. And agrees that she is quite legendary. Having given up serving cocktails in the Caribbean she finally joined boats as a stewardess. She came on board the Wally 80, Highland Fling 11 after leaving a 116 footer that she had been racing on. It was here that she learned to rig and service winches. He says that when they are out sailing, despite being petite, she can pack a kite alone faster than most of the rest of the crew. They married in 2012 and manage to spend about three months a year in their home in Palma with the rest of the time being divided all over the world, from Cape Town to the US, Monaco to the rest of the Med. They go wherever they are quite literally flung.
I realise that time is running short and although I could sit for hours listening to X, he does have an awful lot to be getting on with without sitting here entertaining me. So, at the very end of our chat I finally pluck up the courage to ask him about the scar on his face. And this is where I discover his true superpowers that I mentioned at the beginning. Those of hope, enthusiasm and passion.
After experiencing a horrific car accident in which he lost a close surrogate uncle, he somehow survived. And for those that are squeamish, don’t ask to check out the pictures. For those that aren’t squeamish, what you find is a brave 12 year old who had 182 stitches put into his young body whilst he flatlined twice. It’s a terrifying and heart-breaking story, which could have left lesser people damaged for life. But not X. He says that his favourite part of everyday is waking up and that that day just continues to get better and better. He wakes up and shakes the day with both hands. He loves his job, his wife, his life. He is an absolute inspiration and I’m left humbled to have had the chance to meet and chat to this legend of the industry.
By Victoria Pearce