Twins near their peak

Teenager's four world championships herald a golden future as a Cambridge scientist plots the quickest way to Rio; Andrew Baker meets one half of a yachting partnership setting sail for Sydney
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The Royal Yachting Association youth squad coach, Jim Saltonstall, is not short of good words for the Cuthbert twins, Sally and Jessie. "Ferrets", "Rock stars" and "nothing but trouble" are among the epithets delivered with a smile in his near-impenetrable Bridlington brogue.

But then he recalls what the twins have achieved - world youth champions in the Laser II class - and talks of what they may yet achieve - Olympic gold in Sydney - and other qualities spring to mind. "The girls are a good example to others," Saltonstall said. "They are highly motivated, highly charged. Gorgeous."

The 18-year-old twins, identical only in ambition and drive, are based in Southampton, where Jessie is studying at the University and Sally at the Institute. On the water, Jessie, the more cerebral of the two, takes the helm. Sally, marginally fitter and more energetic, balances the boat by leaning out on the trapeze, and trims the spinnaker.

In yachting partnerships it is normally the helm who attracts the most attention. But Sally, who has four world titles to her sister's two, has also been nominated, for the second year running, for the World Sailor of the Year Award. "To be nominated two years running is just great. Three of the five women nominated are Olympic gold medallists and one has sailed around the world, so I'm in good company."

Sally is good company herself, a one-person party over a capuccino in a pub by the Hamble, the south-coast estuary where the sisters train. The division of labour in the boat, she explained, is entirely voluntary. "I always crewed when I could," she said. "My sister enjoys being at the helm but it's not for me. I like playing with the spinnaker and I get bored unless I have something to do. When I get out on the trapeze it is just the best feeling in the world. I don't see why anyone would want to steer when they could be out on the side having all the fun."

But there is more to her job than acting as human ballast: there is mental work to do as well. "The main thing that I have to concentrate on, as well as keeping the boat balanced, is feeding information back to the helm: what the other people in the race are doing, where the wind is. Then when we sail downwind and get the spinny [spinnaker] out, it's my job to keep that trimmed. There is plenty to do: at the end of a day's racing I am wiped out."

A rare feeling for a woman with more energy than a Duracell warehouse. She runs, she swims, she works out, she'll arm wrestle anyone - and usually win. "A lot of it is psychological," Sally said. "If you know you have done a lot of fitness work you just feel like you can do anything." Jessie, however, prefers the life of the mind or, as her sister cruelly puts it: "She'd rather stay in and have a pizza."

"Jessie is more the thinker of the two," Saltonstall confirmed. "She is quieter, but you wouldn't think so when they have a go at each other." But communication afloat is not always verbal and high-volume. "Being twins, there is a degree of telepathy about them," Saltonstall said. Sally agreed. "We're always trying to say the same thing at the same time. We each know what the other is thinking." So why all the yelling? "It's better to shout than to fight", she laughed.

The twins started sailing at the age of six, encouraged by their father. "We were basically told that we were going to enjoy it,' Sally recalled. "And luckily we did." They made rapid progress, from club and local competitions to open regattas, national trials and ultimately the world junior championships, where Sally's record has eclipsed the hat-trick of world titles held by the New Zealander Chris Dickson, set in the Seventies.

Whether she will go on to emulate Dickson as an adult, earning world- wide acclaim and pots of money, she cannot say. The 2000 Olympics are the future - what happens after that will be determined by success or failure in Sydney.

In the meantime, the twins will not be short of work, getting to know the new 470 boat that is likely to be nominated for double-handed women's racing at the Games. "It's bigger than what we have been racing," Sally said. "And there are more gadgets, lots of little cleats and so on to get to know. We have to get to the stage where we do things by instinct." Twin telepathy is all very well: the Cuthberts still have to learn their ropes.