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Donkin on Sailing

March 2010 - Olympic match racing women

Needles of rain are falling from a slate grey sky as a crane lowers the white-hulled Elliot 6m in to the water and three young women scramble aboard. The slipway and dockside are as bare as the shingle bank of Chesil Beach rising beyond the shore. A cold front has brought some welcome wind.

Out on the water the trio engage with an all-male crew sailing an identical yacht, bobbing, weaving and circling like shadow boxers shaping up for a fight. But there's a grace too about these boats as they pirouette deftly, avoiding each other sometimes by fractions of an inch.

Our motorized RIB is part of the mix, weaving in and out of the fray, just at it would in the heat of competition. This is match racing and those in the umpiring boat must keep a sharp eye on manoeuvres. One of the dark arts in this game of sailing chess is to force an infringement, attracting a penalty.

Three or four races later it's my turn and Annie Lush steps out to pass me the main sheet. I'm sandwiched between too of the UK 's most promising women sailors, going through their daily routines, putting in the hard hours, searching for Olympic glory.

This is the front-running crew competing to represent Britain in the 2012 Olympic women's matching racing event. If Lucy Macgregor, Ally Martin and Annie Lush find themselves standing on the Olympic rostrum in two-and-half years' time, they might recall the countless hours of limb-numbing practice in freezing seas away from the limelight where medals are forged in sweat.  

Settling in the boat I'm acutely aware that I'm sailing not just with the best in Britain but the best in the world. Already world champions in their discipline, the pressure is building for the trio. But a lot of water must wash over the foredeck before this stretch of Dorsetshire coastline will be the focus for thousands of spectators and the world's media converging on Weymouth for the Olympic sailing events.

Just now the brand new facility in the former Royal Navy dockyard in Portland , built with national lottery donations and sponsorship from Scandia , the financial services company, is looking quite spartan. The giant blue shed that can house a small fleet is almost empty. A few of the elite squad huddle around a table in the canteen. There's no Ben Ainslie or Ian Percy. They're in Singapore this week, losing the final of the Monsoon Cup, the culmination of the international match racing tour.

Back on the water we start the dial-up - the pre-race sequence where both boats manoeuvre to gain an advantage as they approach the line. Six minutes. As skipper and helm, Lucy calls the tacks and I do as I'm told. No steady cruising here - every few seconds we shift position as each boat shadows the other.

I'm enjoying every second. The women are just as aggressive as the men, but without any testosterone-fuelled macho posturing. They don't make me feel three feet tall when I stumble amidships. "Come on let's really hang out there," says Lucy as we lean back, shoulders skimming the waves. We lose but not by much in spite of the obvious handicap and I stay dry, which makes a change. But coming second is nowhere in match racing. This really is a dual with sails.

I hand back to Annie whose tall frame seems to add stability to the crew. She has seen it all before, a top flight sailing veteran yet still to compete in her first Olympics. This is the reality of British Olympic sailing. In some disciplines the UK can field the top two or three sailors or crews in the world yet only one can represent their country in each discipline.

To lose out in Olympic selection means four years of waiting.   There are no special deals for the biggest names. When Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson took time out to have children after winning a second gold in the Yngling at Athens in 2004, her former team mates, Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb formed a new crew with Pippa Wilson.

Robertson built a rival Yngling crew with Lucy Macgregor on bow and Annie Lush on main; but they narrowly failed to dislodge the Ayton team who confirmed their status in the Yngling, taking gold in Beijing . The Yngling class, however, has been scrapped for the London Olympics; Ayton and Wilson have moved over to the 470 class while Robertson has moved on to Extreme 40 sailing, leaving the way clear for Macgregor, Lush and Martin in the new women's match racing discipline.

The intense competition for places before Beijing means that the match racing team already has a breadth of Olympic squad and championship-winning experience behind them. Lucy Macgregor has made the transition from bow to skippering helm; Ally Martin, meanwhile, who competed for years against Lucy at youth level, has slotted slickly in to her role on mast.

The team gelled so quickly in the Elliott 6m after taking delivery in August that the following month they came second in their event at the Scandia Sail for Gold regatta off Portland , enough to win the ISAF World Cup series. Little wonder, therefore, at the growing buzz around British women's match racing.

But there's no brashness about this team, no over-confidence and no recriminations or "what ifs" about past Olympics; instead there is a quiet commitment to improve. "We know we can get better the more we sail together and there's still a lot to learn in terms of match racing tactics," says Lucy. There's a jauntiness about this crew, a sense of camaraderie you find in most good teams. In top flight competition where racing is a serious business they seem to be having fun.

Annie Lush, at 29, was a Cambridge University racing blue before switching to competitive sailing after university. Like the rest of the team she sailed as a youngster. "My first dinghy was called Annie's Ark ," she says. Six year's older than her crew mates, she is a former winner of the ISAF Women's World Match Race Championship title as crew for Sally Barkow, a US-based sailor.

Lucy and Ally share similar backgrounds, both encouraged in to the sport by their parents and coming through the ranks in rival Poole clubs. Ally embarked on an environmental engineering degree at Southampton University before entering professional sailing. She had been helming in the 470 class before switching to match racing. Lucy comes from a sailing family. Her two sisters, Nicky and Kate are also accomplished sailors, learning the ropes under the guidance of their father, Jim, a regular competitor in UK sail racing.

Added to the strong family influence is the support they're getting in the Olympic programme. The crew moved to winter sailing quarters in Palma , Majorca, in the new year (2010) to prepare for their next world match racing campaign that started in Miami at the end of January. Final Olympic selection is more than a year away but this crew are in the driving seat. "We know we have a way to go but we think we've made a good start. Hopefully the best is yet to come," says Lucy. 

 

For more information on Skandia Team GBR visit www.skandiateamgbr.com

See also: Cardinal Points - Richard Donkin on sailing

   
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