Wally Cross, front, trimming the mainsail on the Blue Nights while racing in Palma, Spain. Next to Cross is the boatís owner, Tea Eckengren, of Finland, who hired Cross to help race the boat. Race participants then attended a reception given by the King and Queen of Spain in their castle.
July 19, 2012With its proximity to Lake St. Clair, the Grosse Pointes is a boating mecca. Many people in the area take pride in discussing how many times they have sailed the Port Huron to Mackinac race. Families even plan vacations around the annual event.
For Grosse Pointe Woods resident Wally Cross, the race is just another day on the job.
Cross, a professional sailor, raced in his 44th Bayview Mackinac Race last weekend. He mentions people participate in the race for many reasons, but for him, "it's just another period in the year that I always do because it is my profession."
This weekend, he competes in the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.
Cross was introduced to sailing early in life by his father who was a member of the Bayview Yacht Club.
Wally Cross sewing a sail cover in his shop. His machine of choice: a 100-year-old Singer.
"I started sailing as a kid. My father sailed a lot, belonged to Bay View Yacht Club," he said. "But I didn't really take the sport seriously until I was 16 and then at that time, I worked hard to buy a $400 laser sailboat and really, really learned how to race sailboats and that's when I got the bug."
Cross graduated from East Detroit High School and attended college before deciding to focus on sailing. He left Michigan State University in early 1979 to enter the Olympic Trials.
"At the time it seemed like a good idea," said Cross, whose shot at Olympic gold and recognition ended when the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
Disappointment at not competing, however, was offset by the start of a nearly 30-year professional sailing career that has spanned the globe.
Most professional sailors start by working for a sail-making or other sail-related product company, explained Cross. While participating in the Olympic Trials, he worked for Boston Sails.
"It all starts with being a part of a sail making company, because that is where eventually you make the contacts," he said. "Back in '79, '80, professional sailing really wasn't viewed upon as a means of making a living, so you would sell a sail to someone and usually you would hopefully sell it for enough money where that would cover your costs to sail."
In the mid-1980s that changed when boat owners started hiring sailors to help them win races. Just like parents who hire batting coaches or tennis professionals to help give their children an edge in sports, Cross is hired by others for his expertise in using the best sail design for a boat, making the boat sail faster through trim, arranging the boat to make it more efficient and making decisions to help get the boat around the course a little quicker. And to win races.
"I just had a good ability to know how much to do and where to put (the boat) so it would make the sail perform," Cross said.
Cross has raced in waters around the United States, as well as Europe, Australia and Asia. In a single year, he would be gone as many as 270 days, sometimes in month-long stretches.
Said Cross, a married father of three sons, "You tell people these stories and they see the pictures — 'You're so lucky.' Yeah, I guess, because I'm doing something I enjoy, but nothing makes me happier than being home watching my kid play baseball. That's what's really, really enjoyable."
While there are professional sailors who only sail, most, like Cross, supplement the sailing with other income-making sailing-related businesses like sail making and teaching.
There are no guaranteed contracts like in other sports, so while he continues to race in about 150 races throughout the year, he also teaches sailing and racing. And he also owns a sail-making business, Quantum Sail Design Group in St. Clair Shores.
"I've been literally sewing since 1973. That, really to me, is a good time where I can sew for a long time. It's hypnotic and I don't have to think about anything. It's enjoyable," he said.
Added Cross, "If you did any one thing too much, it gets hard, so if I can blend sailing, selling sails, a little teaching and actually some physical work, to me it's OK."