Sailing Solo

James Hammitt ’78, is a professor at the School of Public Health—and a superb sailor.

Jim Hammitt and a teammate sailing a Lark dinghy on the Charles River in 1976
Jim Hammitt ’78 (on left) sailing a Lark dinghy on the Charles with Harvard Sailing teammate Charles Coolidge in the fall of 1976Photograph courtesy of Russell Long ’78

During his five-days solo at sea this June, professor of economics and decision sciences James K. “Jim” Hammitt ’78 slept no more than 20 minutes at a time.

“You…sleep for just 15 or 20 minutes; wake up; check the course, the wind, the sail trim, the navigation; check for other vessels in the vicinity, which you can do in a minute or two; and then go back to sleep,” he said. Hammitt maintained this rigorous schedule for the 635 miles between Newport, Rhode Island and St. George’s, Bermuda—a trip that comprises the one person, or “single-handed,” leg of the biennial “Bermuda One-Two” race. (The lone skipper is joined by a single crew member on the return leg.)

Jim at the helm of the Reveille at the start of the singlehanded leg of the “Bermuda One-Two”
Photograph by Susie Klein

A professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Hammitt said “One of the other guys in the race is a neurologist at Tufts Medical School who studies sleep. And he said that if he does not get REM sleep, he hallucinates,” Hammitt noted. “Other people don’t have this problem…and I’m lucky to be in that camp.”

Even without hallucinations, the solitary trip to Bermuda is not an easy ride, according to Hammitt’s wife and fellow sailor Susie Klein. “What Jim did is like solo climbing Denali,” she said. “The kind of sailing we do is not la-di-da yachting at all. It’s really rugged, getting thrashed about…It’s a very physical thing, and you’re often wet and very cold.”

Hammitt enjoyed a less taxing journey on the race’s “double-handed” leg with his crew John Paulling, Klein’s childhood friend. The pair finished in first place—news that came as no surprise to anyone who has followed or been part of Hammitt’s lifelong sailing career.

Hammitt grew up cruising on the water with his family. As a high schooler, he raced the 2,250 miles between Los Angeles and Honolulu in “Transpac”—the most important race on the West coast. (He later sailed that course four more times.) At Harvard, he joined the College sailing team, which he captained as a senior.

His former co-captain on that team, Russell H. Long ’78—the youngest-ever U.S. America’s Cup Skipper—called him a “fantastic sailor.” “As an undergrad he was voted an All-American during a very competitive year, and has never lost his touch at the helm. I’m sure he has many more racing successes ahead of him.”

Jeremy D. “Jay” Henderson ’78, J.D. ’82—another sailing team alum—recalled his time crewing for Hammitt, who was also his freshman roommate. “He’s a very quiet person. So it was always a pleasure to sail with him because there would never be any yelling,” Henderson said. “He was always very levelheaded and in control and just a really naturally gifted, fast, sailor.”

After college, Hammitt’s continued commitment to the sport brought him to San Francisco’s “Big Boat Series,” where in 1981 he met his wife.

“Because we’d both been really intensely on the racing circuit, we knew a ton of the same people and had friends in common. And, in fact, my parents had met him at a regatta in Florida like five years before I met him,” Klein said. “About 10 minutes into the conversation I decided I was going to marry him.”

Klein noted that Hammitt met her two requirements in a husband: that he be smarter and a better sailor than she was. “It’s hard to find people who meet those criteria,” she said, laughing. Indeed, Klein was an All-American sailor at Berkeley, and grew up racing on San Francisco Bay.

“My father had found $20 in a bush with a buddy when he was 10 years old and went and bought a boat and raced every day of his life,” she said. She inherited the passion from him, and now she and Hammitt have passed it down to their two sons. The family has sailed to Morocco, Tunisia, Malta, Turkey, and various places in Spain, France, Italy, and Greece on the Reveille, a 41-foot boat built in England in 1985.

Hammitt raced on the Reveille in the “Bermuda One-Two,” although the electronic navigation and communications equipment required some serious updating for safety. “Ninety percent of winning a race happens before you leave the dock—having the boat, having the equipment, having it prepared, having a strategy,” Hammitt emphasized. “For offshore racing, you have to be prepared for storms, for breakage, for malfunctions.”

Given his career researching decision-making under uncertainty, Hammitt is well-equipped to anticipate and manage such contingencies. Twice, he said, he has been on a boat when the mast broke. Shortly after he disembarked another vessel, its keel fell off; the craft turned upside down 300 miles off the coast.

But most of the decision-making and risk management Hammitt does while racing is more prosaic, and involves predicting winds, currents, weather patterns, and other boats’ behavior. “You’re trying to forecast the future, and of course, we can never do it perfectly,” he said. “It’s all balancing risk and reward.”

Read more articles by: Juliet Isselbacher

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