SYDNEY, Australia - Sailing convention says it takes six years of hard work, hard knocks and occasional splashes to turn even the most experienced racer into an Olympic-caliber skipper of a high-powered, highly technical Star boat.
But Gavin Brady, a 26-year-old from Annapolis who races for his native New Zealand, never bothered with the old rules.
He mastered the boat's fundamentals in three months.
And qualified for the Olympics.
Brady is in Sydney, representing New Zealand in the most technically demanding class of Olympic sailing competition.
It's a story that falls somewhere between a lark and an Olympic dream.
Brady and his partner, Jamie Gale, know the odds are stacked against them, that rank outsiders don't just mount a late Olympic challenge and come away with a medal, especially out of a Star fleet flecked with would-be sailing superstars.
"I know stuff happens in the Olympics," Brady said. "Good guys choke. Guys take each other out. We're here to have fun."
And maybe slip away with a prize.
Brady has a Kiwi accent, a Maryland driver's license and a global outlook. He has raced in the America's Cup with Paul Cayard's America One and sailed in the Whitbread Round the World Race with George Collins' Chessie Racing.
Annapolis is his home because he likes the city and the people. And it's also a good base for a young sailor on the rise. He arrived in 1993, and only once did he consider leaving. He flew to Auckland and stayed for three days before realizing he missed Maryland.
"I like living in America," he said. "And I like Annapolis. It's the sailing capital of the world."
Now, he's dockside at one of the world's most glorious harbors, preparing his boat for an Olympic test - 11 races over five days beginning in six days.
The Star class boat is a sailing hot road that has to be tamed with guts and guile. It's a shallow keelboat, 22 feet, 8 inches long and powered by a 285-square-foot sail.
"It's unstable," Brady said. "With most boats, you try to get power. With the Star, you try to de-power. Goodness knows how they sailed with wooden masts."
But the Star is a boat of choice for those trying to earn their international spurs, and Brady has ambitions to "keep trying to be the best skipper in the world."
It was Cayard who suggested to Brady that he give the boat and the Olympics a try, even at the risk of potential embarrassment.
"I told Paul that I've got the opportunity to go to the Olympics in the Star boat class and that I might finish last," Brady said. "Paul said, 'So what. Just start in March and do the best you can. Represent your country.' Those were sound words from the master."
Brady hooked up with Gale, who was on the B-boat for Team New Zealand's winning America's Cup campaign in 1995 and was a grinder for the recent America's Cup campaign of Young America.
At 6 feet 2, 269 pounds, Gale, 28, is nicknamed "Big Fella." On the Star, he provides the ballast.
"I hang over the side," he said.
They began training in March outside Miami and encountered problems within minutes of leaving the dock.
"We actually got stuck in irons, stuck dead in the wind," Brady said. "I felt like swimming back to the dock and leaving the bloody boat out there."
But he didn't. Eventually, he gained control of the vessel, learning to keep things simple, follow the lead of experienced and successful crews and concentrate on racing. He pulled off a surprise at the Star Worlds in Annapolis, leading the fleet for several races and eventually finishing seventh to qualify for the Olympics.
"We had a lot of support from the Annapolis community," Brady said.
While other youngsters in New Zealand lived in houses and had back yards, Brady spent his formative years, from ages 7 to 16, on his family's 40-foot yacht. His father was a fisherman, and the family sailed around New Zealand, moving with the seasons. The South Pacific was Brady's playground
"I can't imagine not growing up that way," Brady said. "There were certain things I missed out on, such as learning how to learn; I took correspondence courses. And I had a hard time adapting to a school environment. But I became street smart."
And also, sea smart.
"I always had a close relationship with the sea," he said.
To pick up pocket money, he would go out nights in a dinghy, set a net and collect dogfish.'They're little sharks," he said, holding his hands about four feet apart.
For a kid in New Zealand, the little sharks were no big deal.
It's the same with the Olympics. For Brady, they're something to be captured and savored.
Normally, he sails for sponsors and often has to answer to successful businessmen turned skippers. But the Olympics is different. It's two men in a boat, on their own, trying to deal with tricky winds, cold water and a hot fleet, trying to win a medal.
"We haven't spent four years getting here," Brady said. "Our whole life is not on the line."