Lars Grael was sailing in Brazil’s national championship regatta in 1998 when a drunk powerboat driver rampaged through the course and rammed into Grael’s Tornado.
Grael’s right leg was nearly severed by the propeller. He almost bled to death. Three times after he was rescued he flat-lined and had to be resuscitated. He underwent 10 surgeries and the leg was amputated.
Grael, a world champion, Olympic medalist and third-generation member of Brazil’s first family of sailing, thought his competitive career was finished.
But his brother Torben, also a champion, persuaded him to try to become a skipper in the Star class. The Star, a graceful, century-old keelboat with a prestigious pedigree, has a narrow cockpit that Torben figured would be simpler for Lars to move about in given his limited agility. The two-man Star, with its tall mast and large, 285-square-foot mainsail, requires a strong, hefty crewman to hike out close to the water. Lars was able to rig his own hiking strap so that his left foot can stay hooked in when he tacks.
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“I found that I could adapt to the boat very well and not have a major disadvantage,” Lars said.
So well that Lars and crew Samuel Goncalves won the Star world championship last year in Buenos Aires. They are in Miami this week defending their title as the championships have returned to Biscayne Bay and the Coral Reef Yacht Club in Coconut Grove for the first time in eight years. The 79-boat fleet features some of the top yachtsmen in the world.
Lars is in fifth place with one race to go. Torben, the 1990 world champ and two-time Olympic gold medalist in Star, is sailing his distinctive lavender orchid-colored boat with crew Guilherme de Almeida; they’re in sixth place.
The brothers, who grew up in Niteroi sailing on the 2016 Rio Olympics venue of Guanabara Bay, have often sailed together, winning two Snipe world championships, and coached each other. But when they are sailing against one another, brotherly love blows away with the breeze.
“We are very close but we also fight a lot on the water,” Torben said.
Lars recalled how at one national regatta Torben lodged a protest against him.
“He won the protest but lost the championship to me,” Lars said. “It’s not easy to compete against a brother. But when one does better, we are proud. Off the water, we have a lot of respect.
“If not for Torben’s motivation and support 18 years ago, I wouldn’t be sailing now.”
Lars’ wife Renata said the brothers can’t resist engaging in the sibling rivalry they’ve had since they were boys.
“Back home we’ll go out for a relaxing cruising day and one will ask, ‘What time are you going out?’ and the cruises will turn into a match race,” she said, laughing.
Much to the disappointment of the Graels, they won’t be racing Stars at their hometown Olympics. The class was eliminated from the Games in a controversial, close vote of the international sailing federation.
“Taking the Star out of the Rio Olympics would be like if they held the Olympics in Jamaica and they removed the 100-meter dash,” said Torben, a six-time Olympian. “It’s a lot of politics and conflict of interest with boat builders.”
Lars, who won the 2014 and 2015 Miami Bacardi Cup for Stars, calls the absence of Stars “a big mistake” because the prestige and skill associated with the boats attracts the sport’s superstar skippers.
“The Star brings in the biggest bunch of famous sailors, which helps the popularity of the sailing,” he said. “Also, more than 50 percent of people worldwide sail keelboats. Star was the only one left in the Olympics. Now the Olympic classes are formatted for small dinghies and young, light sailors.”
Instead of competing, Torben, 55, will be coaching Brazil’s team, which includes son Marco in the 49er class and daughter Martine in the 49erFX. Lars, 52, will be commentating for Globo TV. His son Nicholas is aiming for the 2020 Olympics in 49er.
Guanabara Bay, overlooked by Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer monument is a majestic setting for sailing. TV cameras will adore it. Sailors will not. They are the ones who have to dodge raw sewage and garbage as well as dead animals, mattresses, the occasional TV. During test events, sailors have seen condoms, tampons and all sorts of plastic debris in the polluted bay, and many got sick. One sailor collided with a submerged couch.
Rio organizers failed in their promise to hook up towns and favelas to sewer systems and clean up the bay. Now the country is mired in an economic crisis.
“There were a lot of things they could have done when they had the money and now they have no money,” Torben said. “It’s a pity because it’s a beautiful place.”
Lars advocated moving the venue to Buzios, which is 90 miles northeast. Guanabara will also test sailors’ patience because of its currents, shifty breezes and light air in August, he said.
“Fortunately we don’t have much rain in August because when the rain comes it washes the city and garbage and sewage into the bay,” said Lars, who has observed a few floating corpses over the years. “It’s nasty, but if you swim in it you won’t die.”
The Graels used to swim in it all the time, when it was as clear as Biscayne Bay. The water was their backyard. Their grandfather, Preben Schmidt, fell in love with Niteroi, which is across the bay from Rio, when he came to Brazil from Denmark in 1924 as an engineer building bridges. He bought the silver-medal-winning 6-meter sailboat from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, named Aileen, and taught his children to sail.
Lars and Torben learned from their mother and uncles Axel and Erik Schmidt, who competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics in the Star and Soling classes and won three Snipe world titles. Torben is a Volvo Ocean Race winner and his wife Andrea is an accomplished sailor. Their brother Axel also sailed until he became more involved in environmental causes, founded Brazil’s Green Party and became vice mayor of Niteroi.
“I think somewhere we have the sailing Viking culture inside us,” said Lars, who has served as Brazil’s secretary of sport and as a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
During Lars’ rehabilitation from the accident, Torben got him a 1933-vintage 6-meter from Finland named Marga. They enjoy sailing the 37-footers back home and intend on competing together in the 6-meter worlds next year.
“Many times I thought about quitting, when my body is hurting, because hiking on one leg is very painful,” said Lars, who named his Star after his wife, Renata. “But Renata encouraged me.
“And Torben wouldn’t allow me to quit. How could he? He needs me to race against.”