On Top of the (Sailing) World

Mike Martin, left, congratulates his partner after their world-championship victory. (Photo courtesy Mike Martin/Rich Roberts)

(The following profile of one of Alcon’s employees – an engineer who, in his spare time, is a world-champion sailor – appeared in the 3Q 2009 issue of Alcon’s quarterly global magazine, Alcon World News.)

The Pacific Ocean lies only nine miles away from Alcon’s Irvine Technology Center (ITC) in Southern California, down winding Laguna Canyon Road.

For many of the facility’s 600-plus employees, this proximity to the water may not even occur to them as they go about their work on the INFINITI and Constellation Vision Systems. But for Mike Martin, a Principal Engineer in charge of retina accessory development, the sea is never far from his thoughts.

For the past three decades, Martin has been pursuing another passion: small boat sailing. In late August, this love of squeezing every ounce of speed out of a puff of breeze resulted in a singular honor when he became the first sailor in his chosen category – the two man, 505 class dinghy – to win a championship as both a helmsman (who steers the craft from the rear) and crew (who mans the front of the boat). The two honors came ten years apart, during which time he also managed to pick up a pair of world championships in another category, the 18-foot skiff class.

While remarkable, this level of achievement is nothing new for Martin. Since he began sailing as a child in Alexandria, Virginia, in fact, he has put together an impressive resume of achievements on the water to go along with his four world championships, including: nine North American championships in two classes, a collegiate championship and ten national and European championships. Add to that his 1999 induction into the Old Dominion University Sports Hall of Fame, where he was a three-time All American sailor in the 1980s, and you begin to see the formation of a pattern: developing sight-saving technologies for the world’s largest eye care company isn’t the only thing he loves.

“Succeeding at anything in life requires the same sort of preparation and dedication,” he said. “Some of the places we sail can have very harsh conditions, so preparing yourself and the boat in meticulous detail is the same as in developing products: you have to anticipate what the demands will be and prepare your products to meet those demands.”

In the sailing world, as in the surgical products industry, research and development are key. Boats in the 505 class – so named because the craft can be no longer than 5.05 meters in length, or 16.5 feet – are the sports cars of the yachting world. Under the right conditions, with the proper rigging and control of a seasoned skipper, they can reach speeds topping 25 knots. “The 505 is a very exciting, fast boat. They have very quick acceleration,” Martin said. “It’s like racing a Porsche.” As a result, proper preparation can mean the difference between a victory and bobbing in the waves alongside your upturned craft, waiting for help to arrive.

While the dimensions of the dinghy are strictly controlled by the sport’s governing body, just about everything else – including the hull’s composition, sail configuration and other rigging arrangements – is left up to the crew. As an engineer, this need to endlessly analyze, tinker with and perfect his boat’s set-up is one of the many aspects of sailing that appeal to Martin.

At his first world championship victory – the 1999 regatta in Quiberon, France – the boats of the top three finishers featured equipment designed by Martin. Likewise, several of the 100 craft from nine countries present at his latest world championship, held in August at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, also featured a few of his innovative designs.

“Sailing is nothing but a big engineering or physics problem,” he said. “And, in this class, you’re pretty much the driver, the pit crew and everything else, so it’s very hands-on, which I enjoy.”

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