World 49er and Moth World Champion Nathan Outteridge’s battle back from the brink of permanent disability to experience the pinnacle of sailing achievement with world titles is a gutsy and remarkable journey on many levels.
If anything its retelling to a group of Sabot sailors at his old home club of Wangi on the western shores of Lake Macquarie in NSW Australia served as a lesson in never giving up, a characteristic that newcomers to the sport of sailing could find inspirational when they face their own lesser daunting challenges.
Asked by one of the kids what made him sail faster than others Nathan had quite a bit to say, such as the fact he never liked losing and always listened closely to his teachers and experimented to make the boat go faster .
But the most important thing, he thought, was concentration. ``It’s always about trying to think of ways to do things a bit better.’’
As special surprise guest at a Sabot the skills development camp at Wangi, Nathan managed to get the kids to concentrate as he described first his meteoric rise through the ranks as a teenager. His shocking car accident in 2005 and his courageous recovery ordeal. And his awesome achievements since then, including his most recent Moth worlds title at Belmont, on the same lake and just up the road from Wangi. Not surprisingly today the high-flying Moths remain his favourite class.
It all started back in Wangi when he was about five years old, learning to sail in a Sabot, a class he spent eight years in.
At the same time he started learning the ropes of F11s, in which he also sailed for five years. His competitive streak led him to race at State or National titles in all states except Northern Territory and in 2000 aged 13 he became the senior national Sabot champion in Yepoon, Queensland.
``Three days later I started racing in and won the F11 title and I realised I was pretty good,’’ he said, musing that while school was important his heart was set on becoming a fulltime sailor.
``After the F11 I went to a 29er, the smaller version of the 49er. It’s an awesome boat, goes double the speed of the F11. You have really good racing and really good crashes.’’
This class put him on the pathway to World Youth title events and he went on to win titles in 29ers and 420s. He told the kids he loved the travel opportunities high level sailing presented such as his campaign in Canada, Portugal and Poland.
``I’m someone who likes travelling and as a professional sailor you get to do a lot, you always go to nice places on the water near the beach.’’
Nathan started to sail in 470s which are used for Olympic training and were the class in which Australia won gold in at Beijing. ``I realised I was getting a bit big so started steering a 49er and after racing for some years in Europe was selected for the Olympics where I ended up fifth overall. ``In the final I went from being in a gold medal position to fifth due to a capsize in 20knots,’’ he said.
Recalling the car accident on the way to Sail Melbourne in 2005, Nathan said he was sharing driving duties in the team car towing boats when as sole occupant he fell asleep at the wheel and ran into a tree.
Spinal damage included shattered vertebrae and by the time he was cut out of the wreckage and underwent a nine-hour operation he had lost six litres of blood. ``At one point I was completely dead and had to be resuscitated,’’ he said. The operation involved getting rid of bone fragments and inserting metal joins to make the spine work again.
He had a few kids squirming when describing it as like being opened up and having someone move some of his guts out of the way while they worked on the spine and then put it all back inside before stitching him back up again.
When he awoke visiting relatives found it amusing when he suffered hiccups after the operation but each hiccup was a little bit of torture.
He spent 10 days with no food, surviving on a drip and went from 75 kilos to 57 kilos. To allow bone healing he was placed in a brace from shoulder to hips. While initial fears were that he may never walk again, it took him a week to learn to walk again after the operation but he would wear the brace for a further three months, then spend another three months rebuilding lost muscle tissue with physio.
Eventually he recovered fully but says his spine will constantly have to be monitored to ensure there are no problems arising.
Fielding questions from the young Sabot sailors Nathan was asked what were his best experiences in sailing. He said his first world title in 49ers was right up there but he also cherished the memory of his first time sailing in a Moth.
`It’s a cross between windsurfing sailing and flying you go fast enough get the hull out of the water, you suddenly go from 6knots to 15knots in three seconds and then you have silence.’’
An exciting video of the Moth racing had plenty of kids clamouring to get mum and dad to rush out and rush out and buy one but at $25,000 that was unlikely.
Nathan’s advice was to sail all the rest of the classes first, ``by then you should be old enough to buy one yourself.’’
Nathan is now campaigning for the Olympics in London in the 49er class and that involves months of training and competition on Europe.