© Billy Black

© Billy Black

Julianna Barbieri and Hugh Piggin had beginnings with a wee taste of similarity, but not for long. Both grew up near the water, and that’s where their similarities ended…’til much later in their lives.

Julianna grew up north of Boston on the water, but, she remembers, might have “spent maybe one day in a sailing boat.” Born in New Zealand, Hugh’s life was on a different trajectory, following the arc of many of us antipodeans in that he grew up sailing. After graduating with a degree in Science from the University of Auckland, he started working on boats and of course one thing led to another and he found himself in Newport. About the same time, Julianna was taking a degree in TV Production at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College in upstate New York.

Hugh’s boat took off for France, where he worked in the professional racing scene for several years. His time was spent as part of various teams on Class40s and Ultime trimarans, racing and moving boats around, occasionally at high speed. He was fascinated by the idea that you could be in, on and around boats and make a life as the French professional sailors do – not just a living.

Julianna ended up with CBS Sports in New York, producing award-winning on-air graphics. On one summer weekend, Hugh was back in town refreshing himself with an icy cold ale while Julianna was, oddly enough, in the same bar with some girlfriends from New York, enjoying the treats Newport in summer has to offer.

Perhaps one of the sparks that piqued Julianna’s interest (and there were certainly many – he is a Kiwi, after all), was Hugh’s description of what he did for a living: “I’m a professional sailor.” “I didn’t know such a career existed,” she chuckled. Neither did her co-workers, although she recalls they agreed, “Yeah, I suppose you could do that.” Such a beginning might, if you were reading the Hollywood script version, be unlikely to lead to the creation of Manuka Sports Event Management, LLC, owners and producers of The Atlantic Cup. But it did.

Regular readers will know The Atlantic Cup (which starts June 10; atlanticcup.com) is a double-handed offshore race from Charleston, South Carolina to New York City, then to Portland, Maine, concluding with a weekend of fully crewed inshore races and, of course, a huge party. Channeling their separate skills, the duo created an event that’s consistently well supported by sponsors and the only sailing event in the U.S. that does not have a yacht club as its organizing authority. When it began, The Atlantic Cup was also the only American sailing event to offer prize money.

The intersection of professional sailing and sponsored events is a thin, bumpy line in the U.S., overloaded as we are by the alphabet sports and the low number of people who sail. That such an activity can be done is attested to by the success of The Atlantic Cup. The first event went off in May 2011 with four teams. Julianna and Hugh were married in August. In 2012, the event had twelve teams and was the beginning of a wider appreciation of the impact of sailing and the environment and the first carbon neutral regatta in the U.S. The entry list for 2020 is around seventeen at the moment including some of the well-known (in France) names in the solo scene.

In the interim, Manuka has produced other sporting events, generally with a water theme. They produced a fishing tournament for Pabst Blue Ribbon, which came about through Pabst’s sponsorship of The Atlantic Cup. The brewing company called Julianna and asked, “Can you run this for us?” And off they went.

Tapping into Hugh’s Kiwi origins, they used the Coast to Coast Race across New Zealand’s South Island as a template to create the Round the State Race. A combination of running, bicycling, SUP boards and kayaks, this race generally follows the coast of mainland Rhode Island from Tiverton to Westerly.

Then there’s the Pineapple Cup, which used to be called the Montego Bay Race, an 811 nautical-mile blast from Miami down through the Windward Passage to Jamaica. A scan of the sponsor list from 2019 is encouraging for sponsored (and so professional) sailing in the U.S. But the next BIG Manuka production is The Race Around, a global circumnavigation, double-handed in Class40s, and despite being scheduled to start in 2023 they are already into the thick of the massive effort of producing such a major event.

I asked Julianna and Hugh about the possible future of professional, sponsored sailing in the U.S. They think it’s not totally impossible. There are a lot of ‘good’ things around sailing: it’s a healthy sport, there’s teamwork, and the arts, sciences and nuances of a sailing boat and how it operates can be packaged, as the America’s Cup has started to do, in bite-sized chunks for the non-sailing consumer. The key though, is making sure the underwriter gets the ROI they’re looking for.

Julianna has not yet taken sailing lessons, but she and Hugh own a lobster boat launch and can be seen, when not doing everything else they do, tootling around Newport Harbor and Lower Narragansett Bay, enjoying the view. Sounds to me like they’ve certainly made a life from sailing, and not just a living. ■

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