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Shirley Robertson on her aspirations to compete in the Paris 2024 Olympics

by David Schmidt 23 Sep 2020 08:00 PDT September 23, 2020
Double Olympic gold medalist Shirley Robertson and Volvo Ocean Race vetern Henry Bomby hope to represent the UK in the new Mixed Two Person Offshore Keelboat event at the Paris 2024 Olympics © Image courtesy of Tim Butt—www.vertigo-films.com

When the conversation turns to Women’s Olympic sailing champions, Shirley Robertson (UK), OBE, is a name that’s often hoisted to the top of the spar. Robertson, who lives with her partner and her two children in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, came to international fame at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, where she earned a coveted gold medal in the singlehanded Europe class. Impressively, she followed this up at the Athens 2004 Olympics by earning a second gold medal in the three-person Yngling keelboat.

A successful career as a TV broadcaster followed, both with the BBC, where she covered the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the London 2012 Olympics, and the Rio 2016 Olympics (N.B., Robertson was also slated to cover the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which have been postponed), and with CNN, where she hosted the network’s monthly Mainsail program from 2006 until the show’s conclusion in 2018.

Robertson then began work creating her “Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast” following the end of Mainsail, and her most recent media endeavor has seen a star-studded group of interviewees sitting on the business end of her microphone.

While the podcasts have been successful, old competitive spirits die hard, and Robertson recently got involved in doublehanded racing aboard a Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300 with Volvo Ocean Race veteran Henry Bomby (UK). It didn’t take long for this interest in shorthanded sailing to catch the international sailing media’s attention, especially when the team's interest in representing Great Britain in the new Mixed Two Person Offshore Keelboat event at the Paris 2024 Olympics was revealed.

I checked in with Robertson, via email, to learn more about her latest Olympic endeavor and her newfound interest in open-water swimming.

How did you get interested in double-handed offshore racing? Also, was this something that you’ve always been keen on trying?

Historically I’ve not been a massive fan of offshore sailing—I’ve enjoyed reporting on the big races but the thought of hanging out in a boat for weeks on end especially with all those other people… [I’m] just not that keen.

A friend piqued my interest in the [doublehanded] thing, 'come on, we’d be great' he said, 'we can both make a boat go fast and it’s not even offshore….it’s just coastal racing’.

A few months later the very talented Henry Bomby called me up to gauge my interest and I could instantly tell [he’s] an exceptional talent, a new breed of young, smart offshore sailor. He’s good at the long game and could see that despite my lack of any significant offshore experience we could, in time, become a real force.

How did you and Henry join forces? Have you guys known each other for a while, or are you building this entire campaign ground-up?

I’d never met Henry before this year but I knew of him. He competed in the Figaro four times as a real youngster and then did a lap of the planet in the last edition of the Ocean Race. As a teenager he worked all summer to save up enough money to buy a small keelboat and then sailed it around Britain, he’s spent his life making things happen, he’s self-reliant and tenacious, both qualities you need to sustain you through the ups and downs of Olympic campaigning.

So, while I didn’t know him, we’ve sailed a bit this summer and it’s been great forming the basis of our team.

How would you describe your team’s learning curve so far?

My learning curve's been steep, Henry’s…not so, although together we’ve been learning the nuances of the boat and also how to work in tandem.

It’s an unusual challenge—the level of exhaustion, the very basic living, the constant decision making, the honesty required to keep the boat trucking at optimum speed, it’s always going to be a work in progress.

What events and practice sessions have you and Henry made so far this summer? Also, what sailing plans do you have for the fall and beyond?

Well-that’s tricky to answer, we had lots of plans but both the uncertainty around Covid and our shortage of funding means that for next year at least we will be racing and training domestically, with a big push for the Fastnet.

There’s a blooming and talented doublehanded fleet in the UK so there’s plenty of competition, which is great.

This will be by far the most expensive discipline at the Paris Games, our budget is in excess of anything even the top Star Class campaigns spent back in 2012. It’s going to be a challenge to raise the money commercially and even in the UK, where the Olympic sailors are well-supported by the government, this will be a real challenge.

Is your team’s goal specifically the Paris 2024 Olympics, or are you also potentially interested in getting involved with events such as the TJV or other double-handed offshore events?

Ha! One step at a time. I’m really at home in a 30-something-foot boat, I can still ‘feel’ it well and generally, I’m a fast driver, and you spend a lot of time driving.

From my limited experience of [doublehanded sailing]-it’s very different to solo sailing, you can push the boat hard, and you can sleep knowing that there is someone on deck, the intensity of it is really compelling, it’s great to know there’s just the two of you making the boat go fast in the right direction. There’s already a bit of competitive spirit regarding boat speed between us, and learning each other’s strengths onboard in racing situations, in even the limited racing this summer, has been inspiring.

What’s been your best moments of sailing the Sun Fast 3300 so far?

The 3300 is a really fun boat. In the breeze it’s fast like a sports boat, it will rip along at 18 knots, but I’ve not yet felt out of control in it.

We did a RORC race [last month] out of the Solent to the East and as we left the shelter of the Isle of Wight it just got windier and windier—30kts plus—we won by miles, and the 3300 was properly lit-up.

Next season we will have 12 boats racing in the UK so it should be a great scene to be a part of.

Where does open-water swimming fit into this new program? Or, is this more of a personal interest/challenge?

Well, swimming is great for stamina, but really, it got me through [the COVID-19] lockdown. I can’t recommend it enough, it’s good for body and mind, and in quite a short period of time it's become my happy place.

Like sailing, every day is different and you just have to take it on. I [recently] swam across the Solent with Volvo Ocean Race winner and my old coach and great friend Ian Walker, he’s also completely captivated by it.

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

I always want to talk about our podcast! We really enjoy making it, each pod is so different, but equally compelling.

We’ve had our challenges with restricted travel but have had some great guests in Season 2, and are gearing up for a super 2021. The last six months may have been a bit of a challenge across the sporting world, but in sailing, we’ve got an incredible year ahead of us: The Vendee Globe, the America's Cup and the Olympics, all within months of each other. So, we’ve got an awful lot to talk about!

[Editor’s Note: To listen to Robertson’s full library of podcasts, follow this link: shirleyrobertson.com/podcast]

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