Sailing: Team Percy keep Star in the ascendant

Golden fleet of Sydney on course for a Greek odyssey as the winning habit grows and flows
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's something almost hypnotic about it all: the clunk-clunk of rigging against mast of the dinghies beached below us, the children's cries in the distance as they pursue crabs in sand pools, the hubbub of holidaymakers. A pleasant sun, a cooling breeze. The Solent beyond, busy with windsurfers and yachts. We are on the balcony of Hayling Island Yacht Club. As interview locations go, it's not far from idyllic.

Just a shame that my interviewees, Olympic gold medallist Iain Percy and his crew Steve Mitchell, of whom so much is anticipated in the Star event in Athens, have to go and ruin it all with the suggestion which strikes fear into those who prefer a sedentary occupation: "You are coming for a sail, aren't you?"

Pride goes before rationale on such occasions, and so, within minutes, there I am, bound for a unique perspective of the Solent. But first, a glimpse of the characters involved. In such a training locale, you appreciate why Percy and Mitchell have eschewed the potential rewards of a civvy life. Both, in the distant past, secured economics degrees. As Percy reflects: "If it wasn't for sailing, I would have probably ended up doing a boring job in the City - and be sacked for doing some kind of Nick Leeson act by now."

Yet, in a curious way, such academic backgrounds have proved invaluable in careers which involve delicate balancing acts - and not just out there, hiking (that precarious-looking manoeuvre of leaning out of the boat to keep it stable, of which more later) amid the capricious waters of international competition.

"Unlike many sports, we have complete control of our own destiny," says Mitchell. "We'll be talking to sponsors, doing sail design, constantly working on improvements to the boat, and on top of that we're going to the gym and sailing, and travelling to events and training. You end up managing it all, like a business."

Mitchell adds: "It's a sailing challenge, a business challenge and a technical challenge. We get Lottery funding, but we've also got to fund a proportion of our costs ourselves - from corporate sources. We have to go out and find them. Fortunately, sailing is on an up, after being such a successful sport at the last Olympics. Companies like Skandia who have come in are, I think, really happy with it. We're fortunate enough to have most of our costs covered now. But we're still not rich. You're not going to make any money doing Olympic sailing."

Gold is the currency in which the 28-year-old Percy trades. He did so successfully at Sydney in the single-handed Finn class and, with Mitchell, 34, is attempting to make a triumphant transition to a 30-foot Star-class, two-man keel boat, the largest of the Olympic craft.

So large is the £30,000 vesselit will accommodate three occupants, though it is doubtful whether the manufacturers of this devastating piece of glass-fibre technology, which brings to mind an aquatic equivalent of a Stealth bomber, in which comfort is not part of the blueprint, had an awkward 6ft 4in extra "hand" in mind when it was designed.

Nevertheless, with some persuasion from the engaging and rather droll Percy, I find myself travelling rather more swiftly than I had anticipated, with only ankle straps connecting me to the craft in question, and backside just above the water. Percy offers some comforting words: "Just relax. The keel ensures these don't turn over. Not often..." and: "The masts are very strong. They only snap in half occasionally," - as he then suggests I also take the helm.

"Never mind him - he'll keep out of our way," Percy cries as I motion towards the windsurfer apparently bearing down on us with suicidal intent. Fortunately, the Olympian proves correct.

Initially it is an uncomfortable, not to say intimidating, posture. Just what would be the result if the laws of dynamics were suddenly disobeyed, and the whole contraption flipped over? It is the kind of thought that races through your mind as the cold, grey water flashes underneath. Eventually, after a fashion, with ankle and calf muscles beginning to seize up, you are gripped by a kind of wonderment at the energy which can be harnessed by such a craft. And this on a day when we are only marginally above a state of dead calm.

The Southampton-born Percy, who began sailing in an Optimist dinghy at the age of four, is as benign as the weather. Word has it that he is not always so. "I'm incredibly fired up on the water," he concedes. "Steve has to put up a lot with me really losing my rag. Not with him, but with the situation and the opposition. But once on shore, I put it behind me pretty quickly. If you stayed that stressed for the whole week of the competition, you'd lose it completely."

He adds: "It is harder, though, when you're steering, to stay in control. Every wind shift, every change in the weather is a personal vendetta against you. When you're crewing, it's just something to be dealt with."

After his victory at Sydney, he forged a partnership with the highly experienced, world championship-winning Mitchell in 2001. Within the year, they had triumphed in the world championships.

A gold next month would represent the reward for devoting many hours to preparation. "With all the extra stuff that we have to do with development and the technical side, it's full-on, seven days a week," says Mitchell.

Which presumably provides little time for partners? "Steve's lucky," says Percy. "He's going out with the team physio [Kim Chesterfield]. I'm single. It's hard to keep a relationship going when you're out of the country 40 weeks a year. But it does have its advan-tages as well when you're on the road."

Come next month, there will be no time, no opportunity, for distractions. Percy believes that Great Britain's medal accumulation in sailing at Sydney will be the inspiration for success anew. "There's an aura that emanates from the British team, which simply comes from winning, and that intimidates the opposition," he says. "There's a lot of countries pushing, but we're at the top. We've set a standard of excellence."

A gold standard, and one which Percy and Mitchell are determined to meet.