A Venezuelan Exile Is Conquering Moth Boats, Sailing's Extreme New Sport

Victor Díaz de León slices through Biscayne Bay in a craft that looks more insect than boat, with a small sail and a pair of wings extending from a narrow carbon-fiber hull. As he glides at breakneck speed past downtown Miami's skyline on a gray February afternoon, the vessel abruptly rises out of the water, its keels exposed like a pair of popsicle sticks. The boat remains freakishly aloft as it zooms ahead.

Díaz de León, dressed in a full-length wetsuit topped with a snug life jacket, leans far over the side of the alien vessel. Soon he's soaring faster than the speed of the wind. At five-foot-two, the 26-year-old is compact enough to easily duck under the boom as the sail swivels through quick turns. With the hull above the water, the sound of slapping waves has vanished. In fact, there's no noise save the whistling wind.

Trailing in an inflatable powerboat, his coach slams the throttle forward to keep up, the engine roaring as the craft slaps over the choppy waves. But Díaz de León easily slices through the turbulence, twice as fast as the wind — so fast he feels like he's flying.

Sailing has been central to Díaz de León's life, starting in his childhood in a canal-crossed Venezuelan city he thought would always be home. But not like this. Only in the past decade has sailing on hydrofoils — an adrenaline-soaked, X Games-esque branch of the sport — begun to take off. Díaz de León, a professional sailor whose team holds the world championship title in a more traditional sailing class, was hooked with his first taste of foiling Moths three years ago.

"Sailing in general is thought of as kind of a slow sport," Díaz de León says. "But the Moth is actually superfast and really exhilarating and extreme. I feel like any boat you get scared of sailing is pretty cool. And with the Moth, it's actually scary."

In fact, Moths look so odd — angular, soaring up to three feet above the waves — that bystanders regularly stop and stare as they fly by.

"Some people can't even wrap their head around it," says Seth Siegler, a San Diego-based sailor who is secretary of a national organization for the vessels. "They're not asking what kind of sailboat is it — they're literally asking what is that, and you start by saying, 'It's a type of sailboat.'"

In the sailing world, some believe this is the future — a Red Bull vision of the sport for a new generation. In recent years, the technology Moths use to fly above of the water, called foiling, has made its way into the sport's equivalent of the major leagues, America's Cup. In 2020, it will make its Olympic debut.

But with their razor-sharp foils and blazing speeds, Moths can be dangerous — wipeouts are bruising, and broken ribs are common. One Olympic sailor lost the tips of three fingers last year when his foiling catamaran capsized.

Unlike more mainstream sailing competitions, where pros easily haul in six-figure salaries and sometimes millions in prize money, Moth sailing in 2018 is barely funded and mostly about pride. Yet Díaz de León, who spends nearly every afternoon perfecting turns in the bay, is one of least 100 foiling Moth sailors in the States today. While his races on more standard boats pay the bills, he dreams of flying across the bay on his Moth.

As Díaz de León darts across the bay with a handful of other Moths zooming alongside, he passes a traditional sailboat with two huge white sails and a hull resting firmly in the water.

"That's the past," says his coach, Massimo Bortoletto. Nodding toward Díaz de León, he adds, "This is the future."

Victor Díaz de León loves the feeling of flying he gets on moth sailboats, which soar above the water and can hit speeds up to 40 mph.
Victor Díaz de León loves the feeling of flying he gets on moth sailboats, which soar above the water and can hit speeds up to 40 mph.
Photo by Amadeus McCaskill

Miami has been a sailing hub longer than it's been a city. In 1887, a full nine years before Henry Flagler would extend his railroad into the area and the few hundred settlers would vote to incorporate, Coconut Grove resident Kirk Munroe pitched the idea of celebrating George Washington's birthday with a boat race on Biscayne Bay. The handful of others who lived in the area were enthusiastic, and the event — the bay's first organized yacht race — was held later that year.

"It was," yacht designer Ralph M. Munroe wrote in his autobiography, "a success in every way."

At a meeting at the Peacock Inn a couple of months later, Kirk Munroe, a novelist (no relation to Ralph) who penned adventure tales inspired by his travels around the world, proposed starting a club. Ralph Munroe, a yacht designer whose home is now the Barnacle Historic State Park, immediately came aboard as commodore, and the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club was born. The Washington's Birthday Regatta became an annual occurrence on the bay and would continue for years until, as Ralph Munroe's autobiography recounted, it ultimately "degenerat[ed] into a chowder party."

After Flagler's railroad opened Miami to the outside world and development swept the area in the post World War I era, the population began to take off. Other sailing clubs — the Miami Yacht Club (initially called the Southern Florida Boat Racing Association) in 1927, the Coconut Grove Sailing Club in 1946, and the Coral Reef Yacht Club in 1955 — sprung up along the coast. They began to sponsor prominent regattas such as the Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup Race, which was named for the tea mogul, a longtime yachtsman. That event, first held off Miami Beach in 1928, helped put the area on the map as a serious sailing destination.

When the Cuban Revolution forced the Bacardi Cup to leave Havana, it moved to the Coral Reef Yacht Club in 1962. The racing series is still hosted there as part of Miami Sailing Week and holds the distinction of being the only Cuban-born sporting event to survive in the States.

Miami's sailing profile only continued to rise over the years. Since 1987, the city has been home to the U.S. Sailing Center, one of the ten official U.S. Olympic training sites in the nation. The facility began hosting North America's premier Olympic qualifying event, now known as the World Cup Series Miami, in 1990.

But professional sailors flock here even when there isn't a regatta. All winter, scores of decorated mariners come to the Magic City to train. The letters stenciled on their sails reveal how far they've traveled: "AUS" for Australia, "GBR" for Great Britain, "IRL" for Ireland.

Part of Miami's appeal, of course, is the year-round temperate weather. But Biscayne Bay also boasts a steady breeze and warm water that make for perfect practice conditions.

"Especially in the winter, it's the best sailing in the U.S.," says Willem Van Waay, a professional sailor from San Diego who is training in Miami.

That's why some of the world's best sailors call the Magic City home. Numerous Miami residents filled out the rosters of the two most recent Summer Games' sailing crews. Two sailors on the U.S. team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio — Dave Hughes and Pedro Pascual — hail from Miami. Three other locals — Mark Mendelblatt, Brian Fatih, and Trevor Moore — were on the team that went to the London Summer Games four years earlier.

This winter, as the city hosts one regatta after the next — World Cup Series Miami in January, Miami Foiling Week in February, the Bacardi Cup in March — the bay has once again been crowded with sailboats manned by world-class sailors.

Among them most days, either training on his team's J/70 sailboat or flying around on his Moth, is Díaz de León.

A Venezuelan Exile Is Conquering Moth Boats, Sailing's Extreme New Sport
Photo by Amadeus McCaskill

The son of a marina manager who spent his weekends sailing, Díaz de León grew up on the water in the Venezuelan port city of Puerto La Cruz. His dad's love affair with sailing began at 35 years old, when he bought a sailboat just to try it. From the first time he set out on the boat, he was taken by the freedom of moving across the water without a motor or gasoline, using the power of the wind alone.

Sailing, in fact, was what brought the family to Puerto la Cruz: Díaz de León's father, with whom he shares a name, lived in landlocked Caracas when he took up the sport. He was so enamored that he moved to be closer to the sea. In Puerto la Cruz, he met Marisabel Pacheco, and the two married in 1990. Victor, their first child, was born in 1991. Another boy, Federico, came five years later.

Most Saturdays and Sundays, the family would head to the sprawling Mochima National Park and spend the day sailing its Kool-Aid-blue water and exploring its 32 tiny islands. In those days, the Díaz de Leóns were mostly untouched by Venezuela's faltering economy and growing instability, which was beginning to spiral amid declining oil prices, heavy spending, and widespread corruption.

Childhood for Díaz de León was mostly bliss. A happy, sports-loving kid, he had an uncanny ability to pick up an activity and quickly master it. He was only 3 when he learned to ride a bike. His dad remembers a friend marveling when Victor was rollerblading at 4 and asked how he learned. "Well, I don't know," he responded. "He just watched me."

When Díaz de León Sr. competed in regattas, the youngster would tag along. Just like his dad, he loved sailing from the start. "When you're young and playing basketball or soccer, your coach is giving you instructions from the sidelines," the younger Díaz de León says. "But with sailing, you go into the water and create something."

By the time he was 6, he was competing in his own races aboard one of his dad's sailboats. About a year later, he got one of his own: an Optimist, a small dinghy created for kids.

Venezuela has nearly 2,000 miles of coastline, but its sailing community is relatively small. Though Venezuela native Eduardo Cordero has won several world championships, the country has had no Olympic medalists in sailing in recent years, and Díaz de León says most people prefer powerboating.

"The funny thing is, none of my buddies really knew what sailing was very well," he says. "A lot of them thought it was kind of silly that I was doing that. I got heckled by my good buddies about sailing: 'Why are you sailing those little kiddie boats?'"

He began training daily with his dad's coach — an Italian immigrant, World War II vet, architect, and world championship-winning slalom snow skier whom Díaz de León compares to Leonardo da Vinci. A sailing institution in Venezuela, Umberto Costanzo was both tough and demanding, insisting his sailors carry their boats to the water instead of using dollies.

By the time he began training Victor Junior, he was in his 80s, yet he would continue working with sailors for years to come. "He never came out on the water with us," Díaz de León told the sailing site Sail 1 Design. "Not once. Instead, he would explain the physics, tactics, and sailing concepts on land so then we could go experiment with the theories on the water while he watched from shore."

Díaz de León was a naturally talented sailor. But he also spent every day on the water, learning the feel of the boat and how to make it go faster. Sailing is a technical sport — "like a chess game," Díaz de León says — and requires on-the-fly decision-making that can make or break a race. Over countless hours on a boat as a child, he came to understand how to adjust the mast to get the perfect sail shape and how to tell with a glance what the wind was doing.

"A really good sailor can hop on a boat and they kind of feel the boat and what the boat needs," he says.

A deep competitive streak made him extraordinarily persistent and driven. His dad remembers him peppering his coach with questions, responding to every answer with another query. When he was told he needed strong leg and abdominal muscles, he asked his dad to make him a special chair that would help him build strength. He got permission to take the chair to school so he could sit in it all day.

"Anything he wanted to do, he would force himself to get it," Díaz de León Sr. says.

That determination paid off. At 9 years old, Díaz de León made the Venezuelan national sailing team — the youngest athlete selected. For several years, he was the Venezuelan champion in the Optimist class. He traveled widely with the team throughout his childhood, with stops including Florida, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, Spain, Martinique, Colombia, and Cuba. Fiercely independent, the 13-year-old once returned from Ecuador with his hair bleached blond, shocking his parents.

But his anchor was always his family and his homeland, which he dreamed of one day representing in the Olympics. Once while sailing in Trinidad and Tobago, he called home asking for his Mother.

"How do you make arepas, Mama?" he asked, referring to the popular Venezuelan dish. "I want to eat arepas."

Díaz de León has been training nonstop in the hopes of breaking into the top five at this year's Moth World Championships.EXPAND
Díaz de León has been training nonstop in the hopes of breaking into the top five at this year's Moth World Championships.
Photo by Amadeus McCaskill

Díaz de León never expected to get the call. He was 17 years old and a few months into a yearlong stint in the United States when he picked up the phone to find his parents distraught. They were leaving Venezuela, they said. His dad had been robbed and threatened, and in a country that had become one of the most dangerous in the world, they'd decided they had no choice but to get out — for good.

As Díaz de León absorbed the gravity of what they were saying that day in winter 2009, he felt a deep sadness sink in. He wouldn't even have a chance to say goodbye to the country where he had grown up, the country he thought he'd call home for the rest of his life.

"I didn't want to do anything other than just go back and be at my house and see my friends, and it was really — it was really hard," he says. "It was really hard... not knowing when or if I could ever go back."

Díaz de León had come to the States in 2008 after graduating from high school in Venezuela. He was living in D.C. and studying English and already felt deeply homesick as one of the youngest students in his courses. He couldn't wait to return home, where he'd recently bought a new car with his sailing winnings.

Back in Venezuela, though, conditions were worsening by the day as the economy imploded and violence simmered. By 2007, the Venezuela Violence Observatory estimated crime had spiked 70 percent in the previous seven years.

When Díaz de León Sr. was robbed in the winter of 2008 and then had multiple kidnapping threats, he left Puerto la Cruz for Caracas. But the threats continued, so in March 2009, after selling most of their belongings, the Díaz de Leóns took one-way flights to the United States.

"It's not easy to start all over," says Díaz de León Sr., who had studied at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach decades earlier and eventually found work in the States as an airplane mechanic.

As for his oldest son, he felt crushed. "It was hard because I loved my town," he says. "And I didn't like it at first here. It was really different."

Díaz de León never stopped thinking about how to get back on a boat. After a semester at a community college, he transferred to St. Mary's College of Maryland and joined the varsity team, sailing 420s — dinghies with one hull and a two-person crew. By the time he was a junior in 2013, he was one of the best on the team. And that summer, he had his first taste of professional sailing.

"I just remember when I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be the best in the world, and I didn't really think about anything else of how I was going to make money, make that happen, or anything like that," Díaz de León says.

But the fastest sailors in the world are very well compensated. They compete on teams owned by wealthy people — mostly men — who are sailing enthusiasts and often pour millions into hiring the best. Rank-and-file members of Oracle founder Larry Ellison's America's Cup team pull in salaries of $300,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Díaz de León found his way into this world through Van Waay. The San Diego sailor had been wanting to try adding another person to a new type of boat he was sailing, the J/70. Van Waay, who had graduated from St. Mary's years earlier, thought that with Díaz de León onboard, the team might hit the sweet spot of weight distribution to reach new speeds. At the time, most teams were sailing J/70s with three people. Díaz de León brought Van Waay's team, whose boat was called the Heartbreaker, to four.

They tested his theory at a 2013 regatta in Key West. "We were so fast that then there was a scramble," Van Waay says. "The whole fleet was trying to get a fourth person."

Díaz de León was hooked. He promptly took a year off school to continue racing. In 2014, he graduated with a degree in economics, but by then he knew his future lay in sailing. "I always knew he couldn't be in an office," his mom, Marisabel, says. "He was going to be trapped. He likes to be free in the water."

He was soon hired to race for several teams in regattas around the nation. In September 2014, Joel Ronning's Catapult sailed with Díaz de León, Van Waay, and Bill Hardesty and nabbed second place at the J/70 World Championships in Newport, Rhode Island. The finish was bittersweet for Díaz de León: The team had dominated the first couple of days but couldn't pull out the finish.

Around that time, Díaz de León reconnected with a girl he'd met at a high-school party in his hometown and thought, Maybe some other time, when I'm older and cooler, I'll hit on her. When he saw Daniela Hernández's photos on Facebook, he remembered her immediately. He asked her out on a date. She lived in Miami, and by that time, his parents had relocated to Kendall because South Florida felt more like Venezuela.

"I was like, 'Well, this is ballsy, so let's go,'" says Hernández, who left Venezuela in 2007 to attend Boston's Suffolk University. "He's a go-getter, and I think it applies to all areas of his life."

Every time he was in Miami visiting his family or sailing, he asked her out, impressing her with his persistence. Their relationship became more serious when he moved to Coconut Grove in 2015.

By then, Díaz de León had established himself as one of the best in the up-and-coming generation of competitive sailors. And then, in 2015, he dove headfirst into a new realm of sailing.

In Newport, a friend let him try his Moth boat. Díaz de León climbed aboard ready to show off, but the waves were big that day, and he quickly crashed. "Dude, you look pretty bad out there," said Van Waay, who was there watching.

But once he mastered the strange little craft and felt the flying sensation that came with the foils, Díaz de León knew he had to have a Moth of his own. Then he wiped out again.

Victor Díaz de León
Victor Díaz de León
Photo by Amadeus McCaskill

Gliding impossibly high above the deep-blue water off the coast of the Japanese town of Hayama, the fleet of Moths looked like stick puppets being moved across a theater. There were 68 of them, all zooming toward the buoy that marked one end of the course, then heading back in the direction from which they'd come.

Near the front of the pack, Díaz de León, leaning far off the side of his boat, focused on getting to the end of the race. It was the fifth and final day of the 2016 Moth World Championships, and each day, he had been either eighth or ninth to complete the course, making him the highest-ranking American in the running. But it was a tight spread in the top 13 or so, and he needed to finish strong.

Only a year after Díaz de León's introduction to hydrofoil Moth sailing, he was already pushing the best in the world at a sport with an obviously growing popularity: The championships in Japan had attracted Olympic and America's Cup sailors from all over the world.

"It's taken the sailing world by storm," says Bennet Greenwald, a longtime San Diego-based sailor and the owner of a team on which Díaz de León previously sailed. "And it is probably, for future generations, what sailing will represent."

Though the Moth class originated in the 1930s, only in the past decade has it exploded, thanks to major advances in foiling technology. The class traces its history to a small, single-sail boat that Australian Len Morris built in 1928 and named Olive, after his wife. The following year, Capt. Joel Van Sant built a similar boat, the Jumping Juniper, in North Carolina.

For decades, Moths were cheaply made and often home-built. The International Moth Class Association held annual world championships, but by the late '70s, interest among American sailors had waned. Moths survived only in Australia and parts of Europe and seemed destined to die off among competitors.

But that changed in the early 2000s, when Australian Moth sailors began adding foils. Made of carbon fiber or aluminum, foils are knife-sharp daggerboards that lift a hull out of the water even in light winds, eliminating drag so the boat becomes much faster. After Australian Rohan Veal used a foil to blow everyone else out of the water at the 2005 Moth World Championships, the reaction in the sailing world ranged from "WTF?" to unbridled enthusiasm. Soon enough, the technology became highly sought-after — even though it makes racing boats more dangerous.

Adding foils to a boat allows it to sail up to four times faster, which also means crashes are more common and more devastating. One of the cutting-edge sailboats rolled out by America's Cup in 2013 capsized during training in San Francisco, killing an Olympic sailor trapped beneath it.

Siegler, the U.S. Moth Class secretary, says there are risks involved with any kind of sailing, and Moths are becoming more accessible and easier to pilot. "Things happen so quickly there's a whole different skill set that you need to develop as far as being able to actually sail them, but that comes with practice," he says.

And there's no question that the pure speed added by foiling appeals to sailors. Bora Gulari, an Olympian from Detroit, continues to sail foiling boats even after losing parts of three fingers last year in an accident he told ESPN "wouldn't have been as violent without hydrofoiling." He got his first glimpse at the technology in 2007, when he watched a couple of blurry YouTube videos on his iPhone. He knew he had to try one, but the boats proved difficult to come by. The technology was so new they were hardly available commercially.

"I couldn't get a boat," he says. "I kept looking, and you literally couldn't get a boat."

A year passed before Gulari learned about a foiling Moth that was hitting the market. He put down a deposit and snagged the boat for $11,000 — a major markdown from the $35,000 they typically command. Gulari became one of the first in the States to own one of the Moths, which are built by companies in Europe and Australia. In 2009, he beat out 48 other sailors to become the Moth world champion. Four years later, he reclaimed the title, this time in a fleet of 79.

As foiling Moths win new devotees, Gulari, an aerospace engineer by trade who is now considered one of the pioneers of foiling, makes it a point to ask first-timers one question.

"I try to ask people: 'How'd you feel once everything got quiet?'" he says. "Because if you sail a lot, you're used to the boats making noise. The first time the Moth lifts up, all of a sudden there's silence, and so it's pretty cool. That's one of the special things. Instead of hearing the water, you get to hear the wind. And it's, like, meditative."

Says Siegler: "It feels like magic. It really does. It doesn't feel like it's going to last, but it does. It lasts the entire time you're sailing."

For Díaz de León, that first time on a Moth was the freest form of sailing he'd ever experienced. "Wow," he thought. "I love this."

As he soared toward the finish at the 2016 Moth World Championships, he hugged the final buoy and crossed the finish line ninth overall. With a goal of finishing in the top ten, Díaz de León was thrilled. For a year after the race, he got to stencil the number nine on the sail of his Moth.

"It was a very new challenge for me, a new boat, and I didn't really know what I was going to go against," he says. "And it was nice to see that all the hard work paid off and I was among the best ten guys in the world."

A Venezuelan Exile Is Conquering Moth Boats, Sailing's Extreme New SportEXPAND
Photo by Amadeus McCaskill

Díaz de León makes a sharp turn on his Moth, and the keels disappear back into the water. The boat tilts, dumping its sailor. Van Waay, driving the powerboat through today's massive waves, loops around and pulls up beside the downed Moth.

"They're all going by ya!" he calls out to Díaz de León. "They're passin' ya! Let's go!"

On this sun-soaked Tuesday in February, Díaz de León has stiff competition on Biscayne Bay, including Gulari and Great Britain's Paul Goodison, who won the 2016 championships in Japan. From a distance, the boats look almost evenly lined up. But every inch matters, especially with this year's Moth worlds just weeks away. Díaz de León is approaching the challenge the same way he always has, with singular focus and all-out determination.

"He breathes it every day, and he wakes up and goes to bed thinking about sailing, checking his Moth practice — how he did, if he can improve in something," Hernández says. "It's his everything."

For all of the top sailors' enthusiasm, though, there's no money in Moth sailing; in fact, it can be an expensive hobby between buying the boat and paying for endless improvements. So Díaz de León has been cramming in time on his Moth between racing for five teams and coaching to pay the bills. Some weeks, he spends 70 hours on the water.

His Moth obsession hasn't hurt his competitive career on other types of boats, though; last year, he was the lead on Peter Duncan's Relative Obscurity, a boat that beat 160 others to win the J/70 World Championship. Though Díaz de León thought the team, which also included Van Waay, had a good shot, he could hardly believe the victory when it came. It wasn't until later that the tears came.

"It's kind of a surreal feeling," he says. "It takes a while to sink in — something you've been dreaming of your whole life, since you were 6 years old."

Last summer was also huge for Díaz de León's personal life. Years after he first spotted Hernández and imagined one day asking her out, the two were married in an small ceremony in Miami. They later returned to Venezuela for a visit — Díaz de León's first since leaving ten years earlier.

In Puerto la Cruz, he saw his house and his school and where he grew up sailing. He looked at the same whiteboard he'd stared at years ago, sat on the same bench, even sailed his old boat. It was enough to make his eyes well up.

"It's like I went back in time," he says. "Even the same trees were there, just kind of more grown."

Back in Miami, his focus is now on the Moth Worlds. The pursuit isn't totally about pride: If Díaz de León can distinguish himself in Moth sailing, he hopes he might get hired by one of the America's Cup teams, which have used foiling technology since 2013. It would put him at the pinnacle of the sport and also allow him to sail on foils all the time.

In the three years since Díaz de León first sailed a foiling Moth, the class has grown in popularity even more precipitously, with the world championships seeing record numbers of entrants. For this year's competition, which will be held in Bermuda March 25 through April 1 and include 50 to 75 of the world's best, Bacardi signed on as a sponsor. And more sailors have felt the pull to try the most extreme version of their sport.

As Díaz de León and Gulari tear across the bay together that Tuesday afternoon, they're joined by Terry Hutchinson, an 11-time world championship-winning sailor in his several classes and an America's Cup veteran. Hutchinson is learning Moth sailing for the first time. Even for a highly accomplished sailor, that's no easy feat.

"It's like learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels," says Hutchinson, lifting his shirt to show bruises on his back from hitting the water.

Despite the steep learning curve, observers expect foiling to move further into the mainstream. More companies have gotten into the business of producing the vessels, which start around $10,500. The cutting-edge, multimillion-dollar foiling technology in the America's Cup has helped stoke interest in the high-speed form of sailing, and the 2020 Olympics will take it to the masses.

For Díaz de León, the endgame is a championship in Moth sailing. But that's just for now.

"I'm sure if he does well in the Moth Worlds," his wife says, "he'll probably look for something else."

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