Last Tuesday I spent the day in a boat with one or other of the 3 gold medal winners from Athens at the 2004 Olympics. Sarah, Sarah and Shirley (a 2 time gold medal winner – once as a solo racer) taught me how to sail again. Last time I sailed with any degree of seriousness I was around 9 and I’m sure it was a lot easier then – I’m convinced that someone else always hauled the sails up and down so that I didn’t have to. This time, we put everything up ourselves – pretty easy on a boat that’s no more than 14 feet long I guess. Sailing with people who really know how to do it is a completely different thing – an obvious statement, but until you’re up close with professionals, you just don’t realise the degree of additional knowledge that they have over you.
These three girls are enormously competitive – as you’d expect; you don’t win gold without that aspect to your character – and although we were only racing around a couple of markers off the coast at Cowes, we were really flying, with every available tactic put into use. I learnt a huge amount about watching for the wind ahead, using tell-tales, making tiny adjustments to the jib and the main sail, via little ropes that I’d seen on boats before but never touched. The focus and discipline that experts bring means you can get going from scratch with zero knowledge.
Around 9 or 10 months ago, I met the two Sarahs – at a big event – and got talking to them about how they were going to go about fund raising for the next couple of Olympics and, for that matter, other competitions. I thought I could help out and so made an offer to get some funding together in return for a day on the water. Seemed a fair exchange – I’d pay better than market rate, they’d teach me and a few others to sail and we’d all have a bit of fun. It turns out that it’s tough to get something like this together – multiple diaries, one company or another making a promise and then stepping back from it, but in the end it came together.
Over the following months, I put together a programme with Pete Rhodes at the British Olympic Association, for a day out on some boats. It’s pretty much a template now that can be used with any set of Olympians from any sport – and the BOA will be happy to talk to you about such an event. It happens that I was sailing, but if you fancied some rowing with Steve Redgrave or curling with Rhona Martin (not my sport, but there are folks who would enjoy it), then the BOA can now put together a package for you, whether it’s a personal thing, a corporate marketing event with clients in tow or a team building session with your own folks. I can put you in touch with the right people, so let me know if you’re interested.
Nine of us went out for the day – 3 boats, each with 3 non-sailors and one Olympian in charge of tuition and important things like avoiding other boats (especially the enormous container ships that move through the channel). The weather moved from a bit grey, cold and cloudy first thing to 25 degrees and no clouds before lunch. Wind was pretty light, but plenty enough for us beginners to get used to tactics in a race.
It was a blast. There’ll be some photos coming soon and I’ll post them here as soon as I have them. Thanks to Microsoft, EMC and Vertex for making it happen and thanks to the BOA, especially Pete and, of course, Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Shirley Robertson for providing so much entertainment and education on the day.