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Dave Ullman: How Shark Kahn won the 2003 Melges 24 Worlds

Samuel "Shark" Kahn (photo by Pierrick Contin)

The recent success of fourteen-year-old Samuel “Shark” Kahn winning the 2003 Melges 24 Worlds has the sailing world wondering where this kid came from. Sailing phenom or the benefactor of a well-financed sailing campaign? Father Philippe Kahn is known for his success in the Farr 40 and ultralight turbo sled arenas, but little was known of his son before he dethroned an elite group of sailors October 13-17 in San Francisco to take the M-24 World title.

Scuttlebutt tracked down David Ullman, who has had his own share of sailing success but more recently has been involved in the development side of sailors. Ullman made the transition into coaching during the 1988 Olympics, where he worked as the 470 Olympic team coach. His involvement in the America’s Cup has included working as coach for the America’s True campaign in 2000 and with the Oracle campaign in 2003.

But it is Ullman’s participation in the preparation of Shark and Philippe for Melges 24 racing in general and the Worlds in particular that provides us a handy perspective on the road from which they came. Said Ullman, “I got a fortune cookie the other night where the fortune inside really summarized the secret behind their success: ‘90% of a job is preparation’.”

When Philippe got into the class two and half years ago, he enlisted Ullman to help him get up to speed. “I had started doing some coaching with him in Hawaii and Santa Cruz prior to the 2001 M-24 Worlds in Key West, FL. My style seemed to fit what the team wanted, which at this time was before Shark was involved. I was sailing the second boat against Philippe. On an average day we would go sail testing in the morning without Philippe, which allowed him to tend to his regular responsibilities at work, and then in the afternoon he would come down and we would do some short course racing and drills. It wasn’t long before Shark would also join me on my boat in the afternoon.”

Ullman was intrigued by the split schedule concept, which allowed the boat technicians to focus together on speed, and then bring in Philippe and Shark later in the day to concentrate on race situations. An example of how well the training program may lie in the reality that Shark’s first major regatta wasn’t until the 2003 Key West Race Week in January. Says Ullman, “The thing about Shark and Philippe is that neither have a ton of experience, but they both have the best program possible. They are surrounded by the best people, not just racing with them, but others helping them learn about racing, speed and boat set-up. The whole program is very, very well done. And it is not just the best money can buy. It is the best thought process too. Just throwing money at a project usually does not equate to success. Some very, very bright people were involved and have done a bang up job for them.”

So it wasn’t long until their crew work was solid and their boat speed was remarkable. The only thing left was to continue to help Philippe and Shark evolve into top sailboat racers. Remarks Ullman, “The reality is that Philippe and Shark were the final variables, but they are both 'sponges.' They are quite good at learning and absorbing, where every day they would make huge leaps. Their 2003 training goal was clearly how could they best get up to pace for the worlds. And when they got to the Worlds they were both competitive. It wasn’t that just Shark won, but Philippe also had a great regatta for the length of time he has been sailing the boat.”

Winning team of Shark Kahn, Richard Clarke, Mark Christensen, Brian Hutchinson and Brian Lee (photo by Pierrick Contin)

Coming into the Worlds, Ullman had a unique perspective on Shark, having been both involved in a coaching role and now as a competitor in the worlds against him. “I thought that he would be extraordinarily fast but I thought he would have trouble handling really tight situations like mark roundings, start line, boat crossing, etc. These are things that are difficult to simulate when training, especially when preparing for an event with a large fleet of boats. Steering in big breeze would not an obstacle for him, as the conditions in Hawaii were even more severe. So the question was how would he handle the tight situations, and it turned out he handled them superbly.”

But while most world champions are being congratulated for their great achievement, the highly prepared Pegasus Racing Team program has produced mixed feeling for some. Ullman replies, “People can say that it was just his dad’s money won the trophy, but Shark’s team still had to go out on the water every day and get it done. And they truly kicked everyone’s rear end. Is there something wrong with a team that puts together an extremely well thought out, well organized program? They did everything just right. Certainly every boat in the top ten had a crew that was at least as equally talented if not more so. But they had put the time in, and had all the pieces working together perfectly.”

There was little warning that this event would be Shark’s entrance onto the world stage. In Ullman’s sailmaking business, he notes how most kids Shark’s age are working their way up the ladder in junior events. “There is nobody you can compare him to. Nobody has won a major world championship under these circumstances, at his age, with his form of schooling in the sport. Shark didn’t come from a junior program. He doesn’t come from sailing prams and having six or seven years of junior training. He has had none of that.” The reality is that only four years ago, Shark was learning to sail by paddling and steering a Hawaiian outrigger sailing canoe in the big waves off Diamond Head. However, within that short time he has also crossed the Pacific Ocean three times, having done the 2001 Transpac (age 11), the 2002 Pacific Cup (age 12) and the 2003 Transpac (age 13).

So what does a fourteen year old do who has just trounced the sport’s elite? Says Ullman, “He is obviously extremely talented. There are some natural gifts successful sailors have. It isn’t just practice. Some people are just better at sailing than others. He’s clearly one of those really gifted, natural sailors. What will tell is when he follows through with his desire to compete in some of the smaller one-design classes (29er, 49er, 505). But he is a bright, quiet, very unassuming young man. For his age, he is handling himself so well. And my guess is that he will be quite successful.”

Anyone interested in contacting Dave can do so through the Ullman Sails website:

Pegasus Racing can also be reached from their website:

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