The Olympians: Charlie Shipway, sailor

Sometimes getting to the finish line requires a lot of tacking.

Charlie Shipway on his wooden Herishoff sailboat, Southwind, in Edgartown Harbor. — Sam Moore

We believe instinctively (apologies to Hemingway and Fitzgerald) that Olympic athletes are different from us.

We think that world-class athletes are not just physically more gifted than we are, but that their success comes also because they are animated differently, that their internal drive burns more fiercely than Everyman’s.

So we particularly love it when Everyman is on the Olympic stage. Honestly now, other than the crash factor, did you ever watch bobsledding before the Jamaican bobsled team competed in the 1988 Games? Weren’t you especially moved by the true stories of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire”? Not to mention the undervalued “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. hockey team that won it all?

None of them were supposed to be there at the end.

Chilmarker Charlie Shipway’s unlikely saga enroute to competing as a sailor in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona is one of those stories, and his experience indicates that we are right about Olympians’ max internal drivetrains — but he believes that inner drive is in Everyman.

With the 2016 Summer Olympics set for for Rio de Janeiro in August, the Times talked with the Island’s premier sailing instructor about the Olympic experience that helped to focus a continuing life view that “you never give up, you play the game until the end,” a mantra that has informed his sailing and life instructions to generations of students over the past 23 years here.

A summer kid from Connecticut, Mr. Shipway, now 48, was introduced at 8 years of age to sailing on Menemsha Pond, home to fiercely competitive small-boat racing, and he credits those pond sailors with setting his sails correctly: “Dan Greenbaum, Dan Karnovsky, Arthur Roy Railton were an eclectic bunch, really good at whatever they did in life. Competitive. When I was 13, I finished last in every race on the pond, but they stayed at the finish line to applaud. Arthur Railton cheered us on and wrote us up [in the Dukes County Intelligencer]. He didn’t care if you won, just that you competed.”

Mr. Shipway said that watching the “Miracle on Ice” as a 12-year-old in Connecticut’s Farmington Valley also inspired him: “I remember watching the final game between Russia and the U.S. on a grainy black-and-white TV with an eight-inch screen. Back then, relations between the U.S. and Russia were a lot different, so seeing the U.S. kids competing against essentially a professional Russian team was amazing. It occurred to me that some of the U.S. kids were only five or six years older than me. It didn’t seem to be a big difference. I saw possibility. That game moved me to want to be an Olympian.” Just 12 years later he would be one, following a circuitous path that included skill, luck, and timing.

Mr. Shipway played hockey and ran track successfully in high school, but embraced sailing as his sport. “I went to Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. Nice school, but landlocked, so I left after two years and moved to California, then split time between the West Coast and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands [USVI],” where he sailed every chance he got, worked in a health-food store, then checked the want ads in hopes of moving up the income chain doing construction work.

“It was a short ad, something like ‘Olympic cat sailor looking for crew.’” Until that moment I had no idea the USVI had Olympic sailing,” Mr. Shipway said of his introduction to Jean Braure, a 57-year-old Olympic sailor who could not keep crew because of his erratic sailing style. “I called him right away.  We went for a sail. He said, ‘You’re it.’ We had nine months to prepare,” he said.

Answering want ads is not the preferred method for building an Olympic team, particularly these days when kids are groomed from tots, but it worked for Mr. Shipway and Mr. Braure, then 57, the USVI’s oldest Olympic competitor in 1992.

Team Braure would sail a double-hulled (catamaran) in the Tornado class after beating two other USVI contenders. “We won three races in a row, but we were scoring by international rules and thought we’d lost, but scoring was done by Olympic rules, which made us the winners,” he said.

All good — except they had to get their boat, gear, and themselves to Barcelona. “The USVI committee gave us an airline ticket and a uniform. We ended up renting a boat in Barcelona and carrying our gear and sails with us; it was 50 percent cheaper than shipping it, and we needed the extra time to practice,” he said.

Team Braure, working with a new boat, had a few solid races, but finished last among the 22 countries competing in the Barcelona Olympics. While it hurt, Mr. Shipway put the racing in perspective in light of his Olympic experience. As each race went by, it became a bigger problem, thinking about explaining what happened. It was humbling: “Our coach told me to just enjoy the experience — ‘A lot of good sailors don’t get here,’ he said. Certainly I made every other country happy they weren’t last.”

Mr. Shipway remembers the opening-night ceremonies in exquisite detail: “We followed a very long tunnel to the stadium, and as we got closer, we could begin to hear the roar of the crowd and to see the lights, then when we walked out on the track and looked at a full stadium, cameras, kings and queens — people from around the world — and it gave me a feeling of unity and togetherness with everyone on earth, doing things that don’t tear the earth apart.

“A big deal was meeting athletes. For some reason, they put us right in front on the velvet rope. I met the King of Spain, who was competing. When an archer shot a lighted arrow that lit the Olympic torch, I thought I was in heaven. Only one in a hundred athletes would win a medal, but I learned what makes them all tick as people and sailors.

“The real importance is that I was given the opportunity to be an Olympian, and now I can share with kids that whatever obstacles you have, continue to work hard,” he said.

Mr. Shipway moved to the Island the year after the Olympics, following the birth of his daughter, his nomadic sailing days done. He ran sailing programs for several towns, and operates Shipway Sailing and Racing on South Road in Chilmark, a full-service marine company with services ranging from boat tuning, rigging, launching, and hauling to race instruction. The mission is to provide a self-sufficient approach to clients with an emphasis on safety.

Mr. Shipway suffered a serious arm injury during a seniors-league hockey game here a few years back, and used the tools he had been given in sailing and life to complete rehab in record time, using some out-of-the-box solutions in order to provide for his family. “Sometimes you have to find a different tack to reach the goal,” he said.

He teaches his belief that commitment to finishing and working hard until the game is over will result in something good, something we didn’t expect. You could argue that that is the true Olympic value, and Mr. Shipway says he learned it here on the Island as a teenager.

”I owe it to those sailors on Menemsha Pond who taught me never to give up, to keep coming back,” he said.