Onwards and Upwards in the 470 

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This time last year Sarah Ayton was rubbing shoulders with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at Disney World in Orlando, still unsure of what her sailing future held.  

Out of a boat since Beijing 2008 and with the Yngling, the boat in which she had won two Olympic gold medals, axed in favour of Women’s match racing for London 2012, Ayton was enjoying concentrating on being a first-time mum to Thomas, who was born in the summer of 2009.  

Then a call came out of the blue from Skandia Team GBR’s leading 470 crew Saskia Clark; she needed a helm at short notice for the 2010 Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta at the end of January and wondered if Sarah would be interested in helping her out.  

Fast forward 12 months and Ayton now has 2012 firmly in her sights again and she could not be more excited.  

She explains: “It has been a full-on year but I am just so pleased to be in this position. I was loving being a full-time mum but 2012 was always in the back of my mind and I realised during this period just how much I enjoyed racing and wouldn’t want to give that up. Sailing is what makes me me.  

“When the call came from Sas I could not turn that opportunity down. We went into Miami with absolutely no pressure on us and I just had fun and enjoyed racing again. But there were so many positives which came out of that regatta that made us think there could be the basis for a strong, solid team that we decided to put a programme together and give it a go.  

“Between myself, Saskia, Nick (Dempsey, Sarah’s Olympic windsurfer husband) and our coach Joe (Glanfield) we have managed to get the right balance that works for us all over this last year.  Now we are looking forward to what is going to be a big year.”  

Despite having never sailed together, and with Ayton having limited experience in the 470, the duo finished a hugely-encouraging 13th in the 26-strong fleet at Miami. Ayton admits there was something exhilarating about getting to grips with a new boat while she describes having someone of Clark’s experience and ability showing her the ropes as “a massive deal.”   

In the wake of Miami, the girls drew up a thorough list of all the boxes they needed to tick to start functioning as a competitive 470 team and one-by-one as the 2010 season progressed so the boxes were ticked off.   For Sarah that meant doing a hardcore, quick-fire apprenticeship at the back of the 470 while also developing her physical fitness to a level beyond anything she ever required to race the Yngling so successfully. Meanwhile for the partnership, communication and the racing side of things needed to really start being nailed down.   

There were some positive results along the way, most notably at Kiel in June when the pair picked up their first regatta win together in June.  

But Ayton revealed it was their performance in finishing fifth at the 470 Worlds in the Netherlands in July which really gave them confidence they were heading in the right direction.  

“I was aware there would be interest in how we were getting on but we never let it feel like pressure. We had absolutely no pressure on us because the whole thing was such a massive change for us both. We were able to just play about and experiment with the boat to see what worked for us and what didn’t without worrying about results.  

“As a sailor you know that ultimately it is all about the Olympics. No-one will care who won the Worlds last year or this year by the time London 2012 comes around and that means you can stay pretty grounded throughout the season.  

“The Worlds was a big deal for us because when it comes to performing under pressure you have either got it or you have not. We showed in some of the decisions we made and moves we pulled off during the Worlds that we have got it.  

“Now it is about taking everything up another notch. For me that is being a ‘proper’ 470 sailor not half a Yngling sailor, half a 470 helm, and really developing the physical side of my sailing, while for us as a pair it is about keeping improving on our communication and our racing skills to be the solid, indestructible team we want to be.”  

Having spent the whole of January training in Miami Ayton and Clark will compete at the 470 North America Championships which start on Friday (14 January) before returning to the event where they made their debut together at the 2011 Miami Olympic Classes Regatta from Monday 24 January.  

With 2011 set to be a pivotal year in terms of 2012 Olympics selections Ayton knows that consistency and results will become increasingly important as the season progresses.  

But having not been able to envisage even being in this position 12 months ago, there is absolutely nothing in her control that will stop Ayton from giving 2012 her everything.  

She added: “When you start sailing a new boat you can make excuses as to why mistakes happen. The next phase is no excuses; having the necessary attention to detail when you are sailing and racing under pressure to really be able to gauge where your campaign is at and making decisions based on that.  

“This has been such a different campaign for us both. It has been all about me learning how to sail the 470 and us learning how to sail together. It is full on now all the way through the season and we are just looking forward to keeping the mojo we have found while we are out on the water!”