Niyo: Detroiter Bora Gulari making waves in Rio

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee have only been together since last winter, but have built a rapport they hope will lead them to success in Rio.

Rio de Janeiro — It’s hard to say exactly when Bora Gulari got carried away with this life he lives on the water.

Surely, it was before the Turkish-born Detroiter became a two-time world champion sailing the fast Moth class hydrofoils several years ago

And probably it was before he’d started sailing competitively, joining the club team at Michigan, where he graduated from in 2001 with a degree in aerospace engineering. Maybe it was even before his father, Erdogan, a chemical engineering professor for nearly 40 years in Ann Arbor, hooked him up with his own windsurfing rig as a 5-year-old, then watched him flail around Geddes Pond and Whitmore Lake as a young boy.

No, it might’ve been when he was still a toddler — the boy named for the hurricane-force wind that sometimes blows across the Adriatic Sea — and he was out on the water with his parents, both avid sailors before they’d emigrated to the U.S. from Istanbul in 1979. They’d tack around in their two-person 505 dinghy, “with me in a bassinet, basically,” Gulari said. “And one day they even lost me out on the sailboat when I was quite young. They capsized, and I floated away and washed up on shore downwind.”

Fortunately, an uncle was there to snag him. But by then, yes, Gulari likely already was hooked on sailing.

“And now I live for it, honestly,” said Gulari, who’s living a childhood dream this summer, competing in his first Olympics, beginning Wednesday in Guanabara Bay in Rio.

Gulari, 40, is sailing a new Olympic class, the Nacra 17, a two-person catamaran that’s one of three mixed-gender events at the Rio Games. (Tennis and badminton are the others.) For Gulari, who made his name internationally with the speedy, one-man Moth boats, it has been a bit of an adjustment. He’s not only sailing competitively with a woman for the first time since college. He’s sailing with a woman, Louisa Chafee, the daughter of former Rhode Island governor and presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee, who is 24 and two years out of college.

“It’s a new element, and there’s a lot of things that I like about it,” Gulari said. “It can get fierce sailing with two guys.”

It can in a mixed boat, too, but Gulari jokes sailing with Chafee, a three-time All-American at Brown, “makes me bite my tongue a lot. I’m a nicer person because of it, I promise.”

New team, same drive

He’s not promising a medal in Rio, where the competition format for the Nacra 17 — the fastest Olympic boat — calls for a dozen races on different courses leading up to next week’s medal race. France, New Zealand and Australia are the favorites in a 20-boat fleet, along with other European boats from Denmark, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

For Gulari and Chafee, just getting here was the real feat. They joined forces last winter — Gulari looking for a new crew, Chafee a new skipper — and only a week before Olympic qualifying began in Miami.

Bora Gulari, a 2001 graduate of Michigan, calls the Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit his home base. This week, that base is Rio de Janeiro.

“But we just pushed each other,” said Chafee, whose late grandfather was once Secretary of the Navy. “We kept saying, ‘No, we can do this.’”

And once they had, they were off and racing around Europe and back and forth between the U.S. and Rio, where they’ve spent nearly two months getting used to the conditions — and each other.

“The most important part of being a good team when you’re on the boat is working well together, effective communication and not taking things personally,” said Gulari, who races out of the Bayview Yacht Club on the Detroit River. “It’s obviously a very intense situation and being able to roll with things and just keep trying is an important thing. And it takes dedication. There’s a lot of hours, a lot of travel.”

Olympics worth cost

A lot of money, too. When not on the water, much of Gulari’s time the past several months has been spent on logistics, from coaches to tow boats and fundraising. He says this Olympic year has cost about $200,000, far more than his days of Moth racing, “when I would have to literally be burning money to break $30,000 in a year.”

It’s a far cry from his early days of racing on a shoestring budget. Gulari gave the Olympic Trials a shot in 2004, and after the Moth World Championships opened up more opportunities — he’d tried that class on a whim after watching a YouTube video — he even spent some time on America’s Cup crews.

But he’d always harbored Olympic hopes, and when his mentor and friend Charlie McKee, U.S. Sailing’s high performance director, suggested the Nacra 17 as a new challenge, he went for it. Now that he’s here, he’s glad he did.

“It all comes down to being able to represent my country — I take so much pride in that,” said Gulari, who marched in last week’s Opening Ceremony. “Everyone was chanting “U-S-A!” The flags were flying. It was electric. It was awesome. That was the coolest experience of my life.”

So cool, in fact, that he’s already talking about doing it again — at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — even before his first race in Rio.

“It’s funny how life works out,” Gulari said. “But I’ve already told the guys that luckily I’m pretty fit and I don’t have a lot of constraints on my life, so I’m pretty sure I’ll give it another go. This is just getting my feet wet in the game again.”

He’s been doing that his whole life, really.