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Marcus Spillane – a man with a plan

Marcus Spillane – a man with a plan


Marcus Spillane was recently elected to the Board of World Sailing as one of seven Vice Presidents. An Irishman living in New York, we talked to him about his new role, and what it means for the average Irish sailor. 

Marcus Spillane – a man with a plan.

Marcus Spillane, newly elected VP of World Sailing, shows me his view (via Zoom) of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a beautiful sunny day, the US presidential election results are still trickling in, and the Cork man is recalling with relish how he shut down the Huangpu river in Shanghai for a Nacra 17 event in 2017. It was the first time the busy commercial route was closed in over a hundred years, “I still get excited talking about it” he says smiling.

Spillane moved to America permanently over a decade ago, and since then has carved out a successful career in finance and entrepreneurship. Alongside he’s managed to tread a steady path to the top tiers of sailing organisation – Spillane is past president of several Olympic classes including the 49er, 49er FX and Nacra 17 and has been a member of the World Sailing Council since 2016. His Vice Presidency election, one of seven VPs who make up the Board of World Sailing, marks only the second time an Irish person has achieved this.

You have to mandate change

The Board is now made up of five men and three women. Spillane explains that gender equality is something that World Sailing has been moving “aggressively” towards for the past eight years, and wants to see integrated into every echelon of sailing from the top down. It’s a move he approves firmly of – “you have to mandate it [change], and over time…the glass ceiling will be shattered and women will put themselves forward and with that you raise the entire skill level of everybody”.

If you didn’t know already, the Board of World Sailing are the directors of the organisation, with fiduciary and decision-making duties. They implement the strategic policies agreed by the Council – the Council in turn is made up of the Board and 28 representatives of the 145 Member National Authorities (MNAs) of which Irish Sailing is one, who represent sailing around the world. The Board ensure that any plans and decisions are financially and strategically responsible (particularly in Covid times), and then oversee World Sailing staff to make these actions happen. The Board also represents sailing at an Olympic level with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And all this work is done in a voluntary capacity.

The Pandemic, Parasailing and Portfolios

Like all organisations, World Sailing are having to adapt to the financial impact of the pandemic. They are very reliant on Olympic funding which makes up approximately 45% of their income, and it will be important Spillane says, to find alternative sources of finance. He believes fundamentally that World Sailing has a duty to support sailing members (the MNAs) around the world and is concerned about the need to balance cutting costs at the expense of losing services. “That is absolutely critical…putting money back into our services – events, training and development, parasailing, sustainability, youth pathways, racing rules, Olympics, offshore…all of these are priorities for the sport and we have to give back support to the MNAs”. 

Alternative funding might come from new initiatives such as eSailing which has taken off around the world, and corporate sponsorship – something which the new Chinese World Sailing President Quanhai Li has links to. Ideally, the finance portfolio is one that Spillane with his background would like to get stuck into – leveraging the assets that World Sailing has to attract sponsorship and funding from new supporters and a new audience is one that he believes the board will be able to think creatively about. 

Spillane is keen to change the organisational culture of World Sailing, and the overall role of the Board which up until now has had a very detailed and hands-on approach with World Sailing staff. He’d like to see this “critical” change: “I’m a volunteer. I’m not the person on the ground, delivering. I believe in hiring brilliant people, providing direction and financial support, and then allowing them to get on with delivering the programmes day-to-day for World Sailing”. 

Trickle-down effect

World Sailing’s reach is wide. “We’re a global organisation with big, bold initiatives”. While the average sailor in Ireland may not know it, the agenda World Sailing pushes does trickle down. From sustainability initiatives which result in bans on single-use plastics, to racing rules, safety guidelines, and technological advances. “In four years time we may be running sailing events but have juries on shore, judging through cameras and video footage. And that will be as a result of World Sailing investment”.

World Sailing plays an important role too in the lobbying and representation of sailing at the Olympic level.

Get involved and Giving it back

Spillane’s enthusiasm for sailing is palpable. He grins talking about it: “Sailing as a sport…has given me everything I’ve achieved in life. The people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made, the places I’ve been - that has made me who I am”. He tells me about sailing with one of his heroes, Hugh Treharne, tactician on Americas Cup winner Australia II, and knowing that something like this would never happen without the common bond of boats.

His advice to people ? Get involved in the organisational aspects of sailing at an early stage. “Every step you take, you prove yourself, you gain confidence, and you can go to the next level. And all of a sudden that has ramifications in your personal life, your business life, your sporting life; and it doesn’t matter at what level. When you’re doing things on behalf of people, you learn skills that are invaluable across your life”.

You can follow Marcus on Twitter @MarcusSpillane

Photo above: Marcus Spillane 49er sailing with Rory Fitzpatrick crewing at Bahamas World Championships 2010

Photo below: Marcus Spillane 49er sailing with Rory Fitzpatrick crewing a Perth World Champhionships 2011