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San Diego Sailor Trains for His First Olympics



Most days, Caleb Paine spends a few hours suspended off the side of his boat, inches from the waves. In the sailing world, it is called hiking: When the wind picks up and the sailboat starts to tilt, Mr. Paine will hook his feet into loops fixed to the deck—called hiking straps—and lean back hard over the gunwale, using his body weight as a counterbalance. He’ll hang onto the mainsheet and tiller to steer the boat ever faster. Getting soaked is often part of the deal.

“My boat class is especially popular in Eastern and Northern Europe, so many of our championships are in places that are pretty frigid,” Mr. Paine says. “I never take the sun for granted.”

The 25-year-old skipper from San Diego just earned a spot on Team USA for the coming 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He has been training with the U.S. sailing team for six years. This will be his first Olympics.

At 6-foot-3-inches and 220 pounds, Mr. Paine competes in the heavyweight dinghy division, Finn class. The Finn is a one-man boat with a 15-foot hull and a single sail.

With the international sailing schedule, he only gets about three months a year in his beloved Southern California. He spent most of March in southern Spain for the Finn European Championship, where he secured his spot in Rio by beating his mentor and former training partner, 2008 Olympic silver medalist Zach Railey. Then it was off to Hyères, France, in April for the Sailing World Cup. In December, the U.S. sailing team went to Brazil to train in Guanabara Bay, site of the Olympic races. They fly there again on Wednesday.

Despite reports of questionable water quality in Rio’s harbor, Mr. Paine says he isn’t worried. “I wash my sailing gear every day. We’ve been going down there for three years now, and I’ve had no problems whatsoever.”

He has pared down his life to four pieces of luggage: sailing bag, toolbox, small duffel and a backpack. Things have to be water tight.

To save on shipping costs and time, Mr. Paine has three boats stashed around the world: San Diego, Barcelona and Rio.

His sailing bag holds a life jacket, wetsuits and neoprene “hiking pants” fitted with extra padding on the rear. He also packs two sails for different wind conditions, spare ropes and plenty of pulleys for repairs.

The Finn is considered one of the most athletically demanding boats because of the acrobatics and stamina required to maneuver it. Mr. Paine estimates that he burns about 10,000 calories every day that he’s sailing.

On the boat, he wears Sperry deck shoes or sailing boots for traction. (Sperry is the title sponsor of the US Sailing Team.) To keep sun and rain off his face, Mr. Paine wears his lucky San Diego Padres baseball cap.

In some ways, sailing has resisted the digital revolution. Mr. Paine can carry some techie instruments, like his Raymarine TackTick digital compass and a wind direction indicator, but smartphones are prohibited. Coaches and sailors aren’t allowed to communicate during a race. “It’s just you and the boat out there,” Mr. Paine says. “It’s great because you know the best athlete wins, not the best technology.”

He started sailing at 2 weeks old when his father, Doug, a schoolteacher who loved the water, put newborn Caleb in a backpack and rigged up a suspension system in the cockpit of his 25-foot sailboat. The pair still sail together when they can.

Mr. Paine says he feels fortunate to have grown up near San Diego’s Mission Bay Yacht Club, though he never really felt part of the yachting set. “Let’s face it, sailing is an affluent sport, and my dad was a teacher and my mom was a nurse,” he says.

He has been supporting himself through a combination of private donors, commercial sponsorships and performance-based grants from the U.S. sailing team.

After the Olympics, Mr. Paine says he will continue to work toward his bachelor’s degree at the California State University Maritime Academy, where he is studying marine engineering. And he has his sights set on the Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world event that takes nine months to complete.

An adventurous spirit runs in the family. Last year, Doug Paine completed the Singlehanded Transpac Yacht Race, sailing solo from San Francisco to Honolulu.

Lately, the younger Mr. Paine has been carrying around the book “Footsteps on the Ice,” based on the diaries of his grandfather Stuart D. Paine, who served as a dog-sled driver and navigator for Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1933 expedition to Antarctica—at age 22. “I hope that I have at least a little bit of what he had in me,” Mr. Paine says.

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