Morgan Larson’s sailing achievements
• U.S. Junior National Champion
• Collegiate National Champion
• 3-time College All-American
• 15 U.S. national titles
• 3 world championship titles
• U.S. Match-Racing champion
• U.S. Single-handed champion
• Admirals Cup winner, U.S. team
• Bermuda Race overall winner
• Bronze medal winner, Pan American Games
• 3 time bronze medal winner, 49er World Championships
• Second place at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials
• 49er North American champion
• 505 North American champion
• XXX Louis Viutton Cup, AmericaOne
• XXXI Louis Viutton Cup, One World Challenge
• Two-time Pacific Cup winner (California to Hawaii)
• Two-time Transpacific Yacht Race first to finish
• Melges 24 European Champion
• Farr 40 European Champion
• Extreme Sailing Series 2014 winner
Morgan Larson doesn’t make a very compelling argument that he’s getting too old to be at the top of his game.
At 43, the Santa Cruz native just guided the Swiss vessel Alinghi to victory in the 2014 Extreme Sailing Series, positioning himself at least at the fringes — if not near the center — of the discussion of the top sailors in the world.
Over the course of 11 months, he skippered the 40-foot ship and its three-person crew in nearly 230 races at eight international venues. When the final race concluded in Sydney, Australia, in December, the Alinghi had beaten out 10 teams chocked with Olympic and America’s Cup royalty. Among those left in his wake were double Olympic gold medalist and Red Bull skipper Roman Hagara, British Olympic legend and J.P. Morgan BAR skipper Ben Ainslie and Leigh McMillan, skipper of The Wave, Muscat, who has dominated the Extreme Sailing Series over its eight-year history.
Larson called the win the pinnacle, thus far, of a career that also includes two America’s Cups.
“It’s the highlight because of the level of competition,” he said in a phone interview from Hood River, Ore., where he lives with his wife and two toddlers when he isn’t in Capitola or out racing. “Two of the top four sailors in the world right now — well, two or three of them — were in that series. It was a big deal.”
In turn, winning the Extreme Series makes Larson a big deal.
“Morgan’s domination of the series shows his extreme level as a pro sailor,” David Ullman, a four-time world champion and former coach of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “He is one of the best in the world.”
Larson expected America’s Cup teams to come knocking on his hatch after the win. They did at first, but none picked him up for their 2015 campaign. It’s a slight Larson attributes to his age and a movement in sailing toward younger skippers.
“A couple different people were interested and there were opportunities that slipped through the cracks and didn’t materialize,” he said. “It was kind of disappointing.”
“Ten years ago, I would think I was in the prime age of the top guys doing the job I would do on a boat. But boats have changed and the successful guys are now in their mid-30s,” he added. “If I was 30 years old and had the season I had, I would have several teams offering me multi-million-dollar contracts. But I’m not, and that’s just the reality.”
A few years back, Larson would have used the gap in his schedule to try to make the U.S. Olympic team. That was his ultimate goal in 2002, when he narrowly finished second in the 49ers trials. Now, however, as he tries to remodel a house and care for his daughter Lola, 2, and adopted son Taj, 1, he says that ship has sailed.
“It’s hard for a 43-year-old to go after the Olympics. It’s a big-time commitment with no real pay,” he said. “As much as it is what I would love to be doing, and I’m thinking I’m young enough physically to be doing it, somewhere in there you have to swallow the reality that you’re not as young and quick as a 25-year-old.”
So, Larson has been looking for new challenges. It seems he’ll find plenty of them this year.
Instead of taking his pick of events and boats, Larson actually found himself scrounging for assignments in late December, after Alinghi owner Ernesto Bertarelli announced that he wanted to go out on a win and would not enter the boat in the 2015 Extreme Sailing Series, scheduled to begin in Singapore on Thursday. In January, however, Bertarelli approached Larson with the idea of entering the revamped Great Cup 32 Racing Tour. The five-stop European tour features 32-foot foiling catamarans and mostly privately funded boats, unlike the Extreme Series, where Alinghi was the only unsponsored boat.
Larson has won three world championship titles and 15 national titles, but has never sailed a GC32. Then again, neither had he sailed an Extreme 40 until he joined the series aboard Oman Air three years ago. He skippered that team to second place, then joined Alinghi last year, when the team boat tied for first but lost the tiebreaker.
Larson, who has reputation of being appropriately laid back for a sailor from Santa Cruz, said his crew taught him a lot about the vessel and made the difference in this third try in the series.
“At the end of the day, they didn’t need leadership,” he said. “There were times when we broke our mast and the chips were down. All the people had been in the sport and were really level-headed, and that made it really easy. “
Others, however, say that kind of teamwork needs nurturing. And over the years, Larson has developed an adeptness at bringing out the best in his crews. That’s why experienced sailors like Ullman and David Hodges of Santa Cruz — winner of 12 national championships as a skipper — believe Larson will have plenty of years and plenty of opportunities to return to the America’s Cup, if that’s what he wants.
“You have to have a special talent,” said Hodges, owner of Ullman Sails Santa Cruz. “Some is experience and some is just having the touch.”