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Searching for Wind: an Air Force life of sailing

Searching for wind

Bob Curry steers his Class-A catamaran along the waters of the Florida coast. Curry, a 96th Weather Squadron specialist, won a national sailing championship in October at the age of 62. Sailing has been his passion for 45 years. (Courtesy photo)

Robert Curry, 96th Weather Squadron weather forecaster, evaluates the radar for thunderstorms during Tropical Storm Hermine Sept. 1 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Curry evaluates thunderstorms for height and severity. The information gathered aids pilots and personnel performing ground activities. This level of detailed observation ensures safe flight operations for military and commercial aircraft, as well as the safety of base units and personnel. The observations are performed every hour, every day and disseminated nationally and worldwide. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ilka Cole)

Bob Curry, 96th Weather Squadron weather forecaster, evaluates the radar for thunderstorms during Tropical Storm Hermine Sept. 1, 2016 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ilka Cole)

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

For more than 45 years, Bob Curry has searched for the wind. … be it through his Air Force weather specialist career or to fill the sail of his catamaran along the Florida coast.

Since developing a passion for sailing at age 17, Curry has devoted his life to the sea. Now age 62, he recently won the 2019 North American Championship for A-Class Catamaran Classic. The Class-A is Curry’s current style of sailing vessel. It measures 18 feet long with a 30-foot tall sail.

After falling in love with the sport, Curry discovered the competitive side of racing in 1979 in his hometown of Tampa. He began his racing career at 19 after buying his own 14-foot Hobie style catamaran.

After his first race, Curry saw the standings printed in a newsletter. He was at the bottom. Instead of displaying his name, the standings only showed his sail number. That became his motivation.

“From this point forward, they are going to know my name,” Curry, a civilian specialist with the 96th Weather Squadron here, remembered saying to himself.

The following year, Curry began to dominate competitions around Tampa and throughout the Southeast.

By the time he joined the Air Force at age 24 in 1981, he was a national champion in the Hobie catamaran class. He said his primary motivation for joining the service was to enhance his sailing.

During basic and technical training, Curry told anyone who would listen about his sailing plans and goals.

It paid off when his initial assignment orders – originally for Germany – were changed to MacDill AFB. According to Curry, there was a note on his orders telling him “to continue to sail.” That’s exactly what he did.

While soaking up every bit of weather information he could during upgrade training, he continued competitive sailing and continued to dominate.

In 1984, Curry won a world Hobie catamaran title in the Philippines. In 1987, he won three national championships. He won another in 1988.

In a 1988 article about a Tampa competition in which Curry swept every race, Richard Schulman, the regatta’s commodore said, “He was so far ahead today, it was almost like he was sailing by himself.”

In the midst of weather and catamaran training, Curry helped create the Air Force Sailing Team. He assembled a team of Airmen who sailed competitively in various boat classes and styles under the Air Force sports umbrella.

After a failed bid at the 1988 Summer Olympics, Curry went to weather forecasting school in Illinois. While at the school, he got a new orders assignment. This time, it was for Grand Forks, North Dakota.

During a visit to the school, the Air Weather Service commander spoke with the students. At the question-and-answer portion of his talk, Curry asked the commander to help him continue to train to achieve his dream of sailing in the Olympics.

“I’m going to help you make that happen,” said Brig. Gen. John Kelly, according to Curry.

Once again, Curry’s orders changed and he was assigned to Homestead AFB.

At Homestead, Curry switched to a bigger and faster 20-foot, two-person catamaran. He teamed up with Randy Smyth and the pair set their sights on the Olympics.

“I knew the way we were sailing together, we’d win the trials and go off to Barcelona (site of the 1992 Summer Olympics). I just knew it,” Curry said excitedly, remember his racing prime.

His Olympic dreams were very much alive heading up to the Barcelona games, but one thing kept getting in the way – money. Being an unsponsored team came with tremendous costs and Curry had to make a financial decision: take care of his family or go broke trying to make the Olympic team. For Curry, family came first.

“The toughest decision I’ve ever made was to get off the boat,” he said. “I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, that being an Olympic medal, but I had to walk away from it.”

Smyth did actually make it to Barcelona and earned a silver medal at the games.

Just a few days after the Olympics came to a close in Barcelona, Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead, wiping out Curry’s boat and his base at the same time.

The disaster prompted a move back to MacDill before Curry made the move to Eglin in 1994. That same year, he and his new partner won a Mystere 6.0 World Championship title in Canada. Mystere 6.0 is a two-person, 20-foot catamaran.

“I wasn’t sure if I would ever win a double-handed championship, but this opportunity presented itself,” he said. “I told my crew, ‘we’re going for it.’”

They won easily and didn’t even have to race the final heat.

After his second world title, Curry began training for another Olympic run at the 1996 Atlanta games. Unfortunately, a ruptured disc in his back ended his Olympic dreams for good. It also ended his two-person sailing career. Although he didn’t qualify for the Olympic team, 1996 was a banner year for Curry because he was selected for the National Hall of Fame for Sailors.

“To be classified as a hall of famer just goes to show what the sport means to me and that I was able to give back to it,” he said. “It meant a lot to be honored with that group of amazing sailors.”

Throughout his long sailing career, Curry has used his climatological knowledge and insights as a weather specialist to analyze weather patterns and wind strengths. This helped him better prepare for the possible winds he would see during a race.

“Being a weather professional gave me the edge in trusting various wind models against others,” he said. “I also can recognize cloud patterns knowing which side of a cloud to pass on for more wind. With the weather knowledge, I don’t second guess my decisions.”

Curry retired from the Air Force in 2001 and returned to the same job and squadron as a civilian a year later. While waiting for the civilian job opening, Curry claimed the Hobie Wave North American Championship. He sailed the 13-foot catamaran against 65 other vessels. His lead was so big he didn’t have to race in the final two heats.

While transitioning into civilian life at age 44, he also transitioned into a Class-A catamaran for a short time and then a Nacra-17.

“Speed is addicting on the water, but it comes with a cost,” he joked. “The more money you put in, the faster you can be.”

He would master the new Nacra-17 with ease and go on to win national championships in 2004, 2007 and 2009.

In 2012, after 35 years of sailing, Curry said he burned out. He did not feel the urge to sail anymore.

“It became a real burden,” he said. “I couldn’t maintain that high level of interest I had previously.” He put his boats in storage and did not bring them back out for four years.

“Then I just got the itch to go sailing again,” he said. “I’d had enough of not being out there on the water.”

Once he returned to his passion, he began to upgrade his Class-A catamaran. He said he noticed an immediate increase in speed, and that fueled his desire to compete again. By October 2019, he was ready to compete for another national title.

Curry analyzed five years of area wind trends to prepare for the competition. That knowledge, combined with his Tampa sailing experience, led him to a hunch that it would be light winds during the races. Based on that hunch, he commissioned a powerful sail that would benefit from the light winds.

His hunch was exactly right.

Curry entered the final heat tied for first (out of 33 vessels) and finished four spots ahead of his competitor to earn another title. … this one at the age of 62.

Curry said this title was different, more special than the rest. He has more than 20 national titles now. He said it meant a lot to come back and be on top of the sport he has loved for so long. It had been 10 years since his last championship win.

Curry said he has no plans to stop sailing anytime soon, although his knees scream at him to quit during every race.

In the meantime, he will keep his eyes on the weather patterns and horizons, watching for that next gust of wind to catch his sail.