Vernon Stratton: Yachtsman whose management style transformed British Olympic sailing
Saturday 17 September 2011
With the passing of the Finn sailor Vernon Stratton, the British Olympic Yachting Organisation, the International Finn Association, Bembridge Sailing Club and Vernon Stratton Advertising, among many other organisations, have all lost an exceptional mentor, organiser and inspirational leader.
When Stratton was in his early20s his family bought a summer house at Beaulieu on the Solent in Hampshire. At the age of 22 he used a small inheritance to buy a Firefly on the Hamble River off Southampton Water and in February 1949 he sailed it home in a snowstorm to Bucklers Hard. Experiences like this made him fearless on the water and hardened him for his life to come. Later that year he won the single-handed Firefly Championships at Hayling Island, and later he and his closest Firefly rivals and friends, Charles Currie and Martin Beale, each bought a Finn Dinghy, the new single-hander that had just been adopted for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Over the next two years the three rivals worked as a team to raise each other's performance. Currie narrowly won the 1952 Finn trials and went on to claim a silver medal in Helsinki. Over the next few years Stratton became a fitness fanatic and was unlucky in the 1956 trials for the Melbourne Olympics, narrowly beaten by Richard Creagh-Osborne.
In 1960 Stratton organised the first Finn Gold Cup Regatta in Torquay, with 38 entries. He won, convincingly beating Greagh-Osborne, and the up-and-coming Keith Musto, who went on to gain a silver medal in the Flying Dutchman Class in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Finn Gold Cup became one of the most coveted and prestigious yachting trophies.
Stratton finally got what he deserved when he was selected in the Finn class for the 1960 Rome Games. The sailing was held in the Bay of Naples, well known for its fickle and wispy light winds. Stratton always preferred heavy winds, and though he started well, with an eighth and a fourth place, the winds steadily died and he ended up 12th. He reckoned he would have had a much better chance in the strong winds off Melbourne four years earlier.
Reluctantly accepting that he was unlikely to win an Olympic medal, Stratton concentrated on developing his career in advertising and fashion photography, while keeping his hand in by crewing his wife Pepe, a capable keelboat sailor, at Cowes in Penguin Too, a Dragon loaned them by Bruce Donald, the organiser of Cowes Week. In 1966, following Beeching's Report on British railways, which resulted in nearly all the Isle of Wight stations being closed down, the family bought Bembridge Station, which they carefully converted into a family house with views over the East Wight, Bembridge Down and Brading Marshes.
For the 1968 Mexico Olympics Stratton was appointed sailing team manager, with Pepe, his assistant, the "team nanny". They made an approachable and formidable partnership: with his enthusiasm and energy he transformed training schedules and racing tactics. He also borrowed David Houghton from the Meteorological Office and sent him out to Acapulco Bay in advance to plot daily tides and winds. He also introduced tune-up boats for the Dragon and Flying Dutchman Classes which were shipped out to fine-tune the Olympic boats to perfection. Diets were strictly maintained by the team doctor; the atmosphere of the camp was determined by Stratton's inspiration and dedication to victory.
All this co-ordinated effort led to gold in the Flying Dutchman for Rodney Pattisson and Ian MacDonald-Smith and bronze in the 5.5 metres for Robin Aisher and his crew. The team also came second overall; it was a distinct improvement on Musto's sole silver in 1964. Stratton managed the team in much the same way at Kiel during the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was a happy camp, resulting in Rodney Pattisson's second gold and silver for Alan Warren and David Hunt in the Tempest Class, with the team joint second overall alongside France.
Leading up to the Munich Games, Stratton had fallen out with the RYA National Coach, and so didn't attend the 1976 Games in Kingston, Canada, but he returned to manage the intended 1980 team in Tallinn. The US boycott of the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, led to a demand from Margaret Thatcher for Britain to follow suit, and though many British competitors went to the Soviet Union, the Royal Yachting Association withdrew the sailing team. It took until the 1996 Games that British sailing recovered its Olympic momentum, but the excellent results Britain has enjoyed since are in no small way due to the inspirational attitudes spread by Vernon Stratton more than 40 years ago.
Vernon Stratton, yachtsman: born Sunningdale 26 October 1927; married (three sons, one daughter); died 20 August 2011.
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