A year ago today, me and my guitar (and a lot of sailing kit) boarded a plane to Miami. It was not a particularly well-thought-through plan. I had been hoodwinked into the idea by a certain John Bertrand, who had somehow convinced me that a month of training and racing in Florida would be a good idea, and that it may well persuade me to return to full-time sailing.
It was not a well-thought-through plan because not only had I not done any proper training for over two years, but I had no funding, limited savings, and absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I returned home, other than go back to work. My guitar came with me on the basis that if everything went bad and I ran out of money, I could revert to the back-up plan of busking on South Beach until I could pay for things again. What could possibly go wrong?
At the time I was working at the New Milton Advertiser & Lymington Times, and doing some sailing coaching on the side, plus a spot of busking and playing folk music in pubs. As you do. If you had told that version of me that 12 months later I would be a full time sailor, back in the British Sailing Team, with a few international top tens under my belt, along with a PB at the World Cup at the next Olympic venue, I would have laughed at you.
Anyway, I arrived in Miami. John picked me up from the airport and delivered me to the friend of a friend’s house to stay in for a couple of nights. The kindness of friends and strangers has been a seriously recurrent theme this year, and I have lost count of how many times I have said how humbling it has been.
It would be fair to say that the first day of my ish-sailing-campaign was not an auspicious start. It began with attempting to hurdle the two gates between the annexe that my room was in and the dogs’ room and the kitchen, trying to not let said dogs out before anyone else was up. The result was a successful clearance of gate one, and a spectacular faceplant into the kitchen with an ill-judged attempt at gate two in a perfect illustration of why I am a sailor and not a track athlete.
Later that day I went out sailing with my American training partners – Paige, Erika and Haddon – and Pernelle from France. It was windy when we launched. An hour later a huge squall came through and it was REALLY windy. I hadn’t sailed in conditions like that for years and I looked around thinking that Steve would be sending us in – but no – there he was laying marks to do some short course boat handling. Uh oh. As I steeled myself for the baptism of fire, I reached for my water bottle, promptly capsized to leeward, and as my brand new Australian top section (kindly chartered from Canadian Laser sailor Forrest) hit the water, it snapped in two and ripped my sail apart. Things could only get better.
I was staying with Canadian sailor Sarah Douglas for my first training block in Miami. We had never met before I got in off the water that day – with half a mast, a written off sail, and all of my life and baggage back at the friend of a friend’s house on the other side of town and no way of retrieving it. As I wrote in my ‘retirement’ blog Messing About in Boats… “the solidness of a friendship is often proportional to the level of ridiculousness and calamity the friendship has faced.” Sarah drove me to the other side of town to retrieve my life and luggage, drove me to our new apartment, and then cooked me dinner. And I’m still grateful!
Things were already getting better. I had an awesome breezy training camp with the girls in Miami trying to locate my old hiking legs, and then went up to Lauderdale to do the Olympic classes regatta, where I finished 5th. It was great to be back racing again. One particularly hair-raising highlight was when the race course was miles away and I had no tow back in, but somehow accidentally hitched a lift in behind a superyacht, thinking it was the pin end race committee boat and giving it my towrope, before looking up (and up… and up… and up) and realising it definitely wasn’t. Oops.
Back to Miami, and the World Cup, being coached by John. There were some shiny moments, some less shiny moments, and some excitement on my part that I was starting to show glimpses of my old form in the breeze. I finished 22nd, but my results were improving through the week, and I was back playing in the top 10 in the windier conditions.
It was enough for John to convince me that I should give sailing a second chance. Not that I had any idea how to go about it. I left Miami, returned home, and went back to work. I was in the gym at 6.30am, doing my nine to five, sending e-mails and sorting logistics through my lunch break, and then hitting the gym again on the way home. One of my folk music friends said to me: “Doesn’t it feel like you’re bashing your head against a brick wall?” I begrudgingly agreed that it did. “You know that when you’re bashing your head against a brick wall you’re meant to stop doing it?” No, you keep doing it until the wall falls down, I said.
A couple of weeks later…
There was something quite terrifying about clicking ‘go live’ on a crowdfunding campaign for a new boat to kickstart my season. Firstly, despite my new-found proficiency at it, asking for people to give you money is not an easy thing to do. Secondly, there is the pressure that with so many people investing in you, you have to deliver the goods! Lastly, and by no means least, once the first person has contributed, you are fully committed.
It crossed my mind on many, many occasions what on earth I was going to do if we didn’t make the target. There was no plan B. There could only ever be a new plan A. I had to find the money.
A manic three weeks later, we had not only made the £6,000 target but surpassed it and made nearly £7,000. It was quite incredible, really. I think the most humbling part was the amount of people who contributed – from the sailing world, from my folk music friends, from my university, from the Lymington Times. It was amazing.
There were definitely points in time when I was convinced it wasn’t going to work. It was at one of those points halfway through the crowdfunder that an old friend accidentally pocket-called me. He asked me what I was up to in life, I explained, and he said: “You’ll have an extra £2,000 on the board by the end of the day.” It was a lesson, that I would have to re-learn several times during the year, that something almost always turns up… if you hold your nerve for long enough!
So The Whole of the Moon was purchased, and sent off to Palma (thanks Neil for doing the drive while I was working!) and launched with great pomp and ceremony (a cheap bottle of Spanish prosecco). Someone commented that she was ‘the people’s boat’. I decided that was rather good, so it stuck.
Two weeks of training in Palma went well, and the Princess Sofia regatta went better than I could ever have expected. In fact, I had to rebook my flight home, as I had booked it for the night before the medal race to make it to my school friend’s wedding. I shall have to do that more often, as I sailed a great week in a whole range of conditions, made the top 10, and then won the medal race on the water before finding out I was disqualified for being over at the start. Nonetheless, it was a huge confidence boost and a great way to start the season. We were on a roll…
…or not. A bout of severe food poisoning (or at least that’s what we think it was) for 10 days immediately post-Palma put paid to that. I learned a few harsh lessons in the weeks that followed about how long it takes to recover properly from something that nasty. I tried to go out to Hyères and compete a couple of days after I started eating normally. It didn’t work, and as soon as there was any breeze or any length of time on the water I just couldn’t function. My results in the first two days were abysmal, and for the first time in my life, I retired from a regatta and came home. It didn’t feel good. But I had the Europeans only a week later, and I wanted to try to be at my best for that championships. The first couple of days out in La Rochelle I was sailing really well, but three days in I started feeling poorly again, and notched up another stomach upset, and another hospital visit. I missed the penultimate day of the regatta, and crawled around the race course on the final day to try and keep my result where it needed to be to qualify for the World Cup in Japan.
One of the things all of this taught me was that burning the candle at both ends and the middle is not sustainable. I had been getting the weekly leisure page out from Palma, including during the regatta, and was working whenever I was back in the UK. Deciding I couldn’t do that any more was hard. I loved my job, and giving up a regular source of income felt frankly terrifying, but it had to be done.
Fast forward a month or so and John was coming over to Kiel to coach me for the regatta there, it was five days before I was due to leave, and I couldn’t afford the ferry ticket. I also needed a boat to ship out to Japan for the World Cup.
In a three day flurry of campaign-salvation, the Beaulieu Beaufort Foundation came on board, Sailboats.co.uk provided me with a new boat, and the Worlds fundraiser at the Lymington Town Sailing Club was an amazing success as a result of the hard work, generosity and good sport of a large number of awesome people (special thanks to Tony aka the superstar for organising it). Quote of the night had to be: “Any advances on £60 for the £50 meat voucher?!”
Everything was going smashingly in the build up to the Worlds, with a 6th at Kiel, and a 4th at the pre-Worlds coaches’ regatta out at the venue in Aarhus. The goal was to finish top ten, and I was on track after the qualifying series, in 8th place with the best discard of the fleet. But it all went wrong in the first two races of finals, and I was devastated, ending the championships in 21st.
I knew I had to turn it around at the World Cup in Japan, and a bit of downtime at home meant I was able to clear my head and do just that, finishing 4th and just missing the podium in the medal race. I allowed myself 15 minutes of disappointment, but you are never allowed to be too disappointed with a PB, and I returned home to the news that I would be continuing my campaign as part of the British Sailing Team.
I am loving being back in the team, and being able to pay more attention to detail on all aspects of my sailing, and I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings.
Before I finish up, I want to say the hugest thank you. To my fab parents, to my sponsors and suppliers, to John for convincing me to give sailing a second chance, to all the coaches who I have been lucky enough to work with this year, to all my supporters – from Team Lymo sailors Keith, Julie and Karl who drove miles down to Miami to come and give me my trolley and take me out to dinner to Nigel and Richard for coming out in horrendous weather to help load my boat – and everyone in between. You are all brilliant. Happy New Year everyone, and may 2019 be shiny for you in every way.
So there we have it. In 2018, I learned that saying “I’m not sure that will work” to a blatantly crazy idea but going along with it anyway is actually quite fun and can produce surprising results, that if you bash your head against a brick wall for long enough sometimes the wall falls down, and – most importantly – that you can get away with taking a travel guitar on a plane as hand luggage if you offer to play it in the security queue.