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An interview with Shirley Robertson about her new sailing podcast

by David Schmidt 5 Nov 2019 08:00 PST November 5, 2019
Shirley Robertson OBE © Michael Austen

If you follow Olympic sailing or watch sailing coverage on TV, odds are extremely high that you’re familiar with Shirley Robertson (UK), OBE, a two-time sailing Olympic Gold medalist and internationally recognized sailing journalist. Robertson earned her Gold medals in the Europe class at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and in the Yngling class at the Athens 2004 Olympics before transitioning to a career in television journalism as the presenter of CNN’s Mainsail program from 2006 until the show ended in 2018. Additionally, Robertson serves as a commentator for the SailGP series and is the BBC's sailing correspondent.

Robertson’s next move was to start “Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast”, which debuted in early July of this year with the first of (as of this writing) seven podcasts that dig deep into different corners of our sport. To do some name dropping, her guest list has included Nathan Outteridge (AUS), Francois Gabart (FRA), and Paul Cayard (USA), with many more great interviews in the production pipeline.

I checked in with Robertson, via email, to learn more about her great podcast, how she selects her guests, and the kind of stories that motivate her to keep pushing hard as a world-class, multi-media sailing journalist.

The podcast is fantastic—where did the inspiration come from for this production? Thank you. Well, I’ve been involved in broadcasting the sport of sailing for a longtime and so often in TV, time is of a massive premium-it’s a brutal medium, especially when trying to explain sailing to a wider audience, or really getting to know interview subjects, often there’s just not the time in a television broadcast.

In 2018 we made a profile program about windsurf legend Robby Naish for CNN International-every answer of his hour-long sit down interview was an absolute peach, he’s had a fascinating life, yet only a tiny percentage of the interview ever made it to air. We thought then this was crazy-I have unprecedented access and trust from all the top players in our diverse and fascinating sport…it’s time to hear a lot more from them, and the initial podcast seed was sown.

With this podcast, we’re fanatic about the quality of the audio-about how it sounds, [as] we really want the listener to feel as if they’re sitting there between us, a part of the process, listening in on this personal moment, this discussion, with nothing to detract from the moment, no distractions!

I’ve got to imagine that settling on the first interviewee was not an easy decision—can you walk us through how you selected Nathan Outteridge for this prestigious slot?

The first pod I recorded was actually Paul Cayard although it wasn’t published first. I picked Cayard to be ‘my first’ because he’s a 'gold star’ communicator, he practically invented the revealing, "tell it like it is” sound bites from his Volvo Ocean Race boat, he has well-founded opinions and he's not afraid to share them. I have also been interviewing him for well over a decade, so in essence I knew he would be good, and that he was going to ‘get it,’ he’s a friend so he’d also make an effort. My hope is that the podcasts are not really time stamped that if you come to the series late you’ll be tempted to dip into the back catalogue.

We published Nathan Outteridge first because SailGP was the talk of the town, it was underway and an exciting new direction for the sport, and Nathan was heavily involved in the set up of the boats - he also has a massive following in Australia and in Japan of course.

Can you walk us through your selection process for interview subjects? Has the podcast grown to the point that sailors are reaching out to you, or do you typically approach the sailors? If it’s the latter, do you make your selections based on recent results/accomplishments, or is it based more on a lifetime contribution to the sport of sailing?

Selection process? Well I wouldn’t call it a process as such-[it’s] part opportune (who is around where I am), part who I think (know) will be engaging, all of them have to sit at the top-end of the sport, now or in the past. I want the appeal to be global, so we’re really trying to spread it around the world.

But also, sailing [is] so diverse, we have such a varied bunch of fascinating stories to tell, just look at the interviews we’ve done to date and there’s such a rich diversity of character in there, so we’re trying to do interviews with people from all areas of the sport.

I’m just about to interview the Australian Kyle Langford-when I asked my 13-year-old-sailing-mad son why he wasn’t listening to the podcasts he said he wanted us to do someone cool like Kyle-so I am!

Currently it’s a regular one-a-month [publishing cycle], but [I’m] hoping to up the frequency and also incorporate a few specials and live events.

Of all the questions that you’ve asked during your podcasts, what was the most surprising response, and what was it about the response that you found interesting/unexpected? I know our interviewees really well, so am not sure I’ve been surprised by many answers, but some of their responses really are fascinating.

I absolutely loved Paul Cayard’s account of steering a Volvo boat down a huge wave in the Southern Ocean, with Grant Dalton standing at his side-it’s a funny story. And that’s one of the thing’s we’re really trying to achieve-anecdotes from inside the sport.

Nathan Outteridge is pretty funny as he describes his route into the America’s Cup-he’d won 49er Gold at the London Olympics in 2012, and several Cup teams had come knocking…his assumption that all of them would be building foiling multihulls was soon put to the test on arrival at his team of choice, a stark realization that he hadn’t asked enough questions…an amusing little glimpse into the career of one of the greats!

Of all of the evolutions within sailing that you have seen during your time as an international yachting journalist, what changes do you think will have the biggest and longest lasting impact on the sport? “Why float when you can fly” - It’s extraordinary how quickly foiling technology has punctuated every area of our sport. I’ve been blown away by it. It’s great to hear guys like Chris Draper and offshore record holder Francois Gabart talk about how exciting it is to be at the cutting edge of that development, and where they think the sport can go next.

Russell Coutts takes that tech a step back and talks about putting a wing on their America’s Cup giant in the 2010 Valencia Cup - he details how that moment felt extraordinary, right at the edge of what was possible and as he says in the podcast it was actually this development, making a wing ’sailable’ that has lead to the crazy speeds we see now.

It’s amazing to think that now, foils on kite boards, windsurfing, what Kai Lenny is doing in surfing, so much of that tech has come from the cutting-edge at the high-end of sailing, and now, foiling is widely accessible - it’s great!

If you could put one sailor (or person involved in the sport of sailing, its promotion, or some aspect of sailing)—alive or deceased (we can open this range up to include anyone from Charlie Barr to Greta Thunberg)—in your podcast hotseat, who would it be and why?

Oh so many, that’s not fair! - can’t I have a panel of guests?

It’s a great question, and having really mulled it over, I guess from the past - I’m fascinated by the Golden Globe of 1968. Setting off, it must have felt so daunting-no one had sailed non-stop alone all the way around the world, yet while they were building their yachts for the Golden Globe, the architects of the lunar landing were at NASA preparing Apollo 11! I’d like to [interview] Donald Crowhurst - there are so many questions - if you not familiar with his story, and that of the whole race, look into it-it’s fascinating.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

If you’re new to podcasts I’d really encourage you to give it a go. Put your best noise-cancelling headphones on and I promise you it will feel like you are on the sofa sitting right next to us, it’s scary how intimate it can feel, you will learn more about the stars of our sport than ever before-they are open, relaxed, insightful-and quite often happy to share some real gems from inside their careers-listening to Sir Russell Coutts talk about the atmosphere out on the water in Auckland, 2003 as sailed the Swiss Challenger Alinghi out to the racecourse, a Cup-winning Kiwi helming the boat of the enemy, is absolutely fascinating.

Give the podcasts a try-and of course, let us know what you think!

Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast is available to listen to via the podcast page of Shirley’s own website, at www.shirleyrobertson.com/podcast or via most popular podcast outlets, including iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast and aCast

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