Shirley Robertson: Life on the Ocean Wave

You can sunbathe naked, leave your hair unbrushed, rock up wherever you fancy... Olympic double gold medallist Shirley Robertson reveals why sailing is a liberating way to work and play. Interview by Simone Kane
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The Independent Travel

For me, sailing and travel are intrinsically linked. Competitive sailing first took me abroad at 18 and a holiday spent cruising is my favourite way to relax. I love the social aspect of sailing too; wherever I sail I always find there's a bond between boat people. For practical reasons, most of my travelling tends to be tagged on to competitions, practice periods or my television presenting work for CNN - why pay extra to go on a holiday if you're already in a great location?

Even though I race and spend an average of 200 days a year competing, I still enjoy sailing in my spare time. I love being on a boat - nothing beats the sense of liberation. You can go wherever you want, whenever you want. I love the fact that breakfast isn't seven till nine, especially when you're jetlagged and you wake up at the crack of dawn. My husband, Jamie, and I tend to lift anchor and head off somewhere else. I'm still in my pyjamas, I haven't brushed my hair, I have a bowl of cornflakes on the way, I can sunbathe in the nude, it doesn't matter. That's freedom.

But it's just as much about the places you can access. In April, while I was in Antigua covering the big boat regatta for TV, I was invited on a trip to a beautiful little island surrounded by reefs and its own tiny beach - we could never have reached it except by boat.

To most people chartering a boat seems prohibitively expensive. But if you compare it with the cost of a full-board resort package for a family in the school holidays, you could probably do it for the same price.

I own Olympic boats for competition, but I don't have a cruiser. You have to use a boat an awful lot to make it worthwhile buying one. And why would you want the grief? The charter industry is so well set up now, there are quite a few yacht-share schemes, and the standard of boats has really improved. The first time Jamie and I chartered through Sunsail, I was gobsmacked by the luxury. I'd done it years before with my parents in Scotland and I remembered it being like primitive camping.

One of our favourite cruising destinations is the British Virgin Islands. It's almost as if these islands have been designed for cruising: there's one big island surrounded by lots of little ones. It's easy to work your way around them in a week and you don't have to be that experienced a sailor, you could easily do it after a day's skipper course. Or you could take part in a flotilla - where you don't have to have a skipper on your boat and you just follow the boat leading the way.

My earliest travel memories are worlds away from cruising in the Caribbean. I grew up in a small village outside Stirling in Scotland, and the first holiday I can recall is travelling up the west coast of Scotland with my parents in a rented two-person caravan - all I can remember are the midges. But it must have gone well because they then bought a caravan and we regularly visited Arisaig in the Highlands for our holidays. Every year we stayed on this site, right by the sea, with no facilities. It was great - you didn't have to wash for the two weeks, except for swimming in the sea! There were three families and we would eat together and play together - and as an only child that was really enjoyable.

Although I started sailing as a hobby at around the age of six, I didn't race alone until I was 13. And I didn't go abroad until I was 18, which is extraordinary when you think about how much people travel today, especially young sportspeople, who often compete abroad from a very young age. These days they race in places such as Argentina at the age of ten.

My first trip abroad was in 1986. A group of us from Scotland went to Switzerland to take part in the regatta. Five of us squashed into this saloon car which pulled a trailer that we'd made out of a caravan chassis to carry the boats and kit. On the way back, we jack-knifed on the French motorway, the wheel of the trailer flew past us and the trailer turned over and hit the car. We ended up with everything strewn across the motorway's lanes. Scary, but quite an adventure.

One year, a group of us set off to Europe together to save costs. We had to get from the Netherlands to Sweden in a van, with a motorboat, some smaller boats and other stuff. The adult chaperoning us decided we should take a ferry from East Germany to Sweden because it was cheap.

But we spent half a day at customs trying to get all the gear into East Germany. Then, as we drove on in the dark, the wheel came off the trailer. We had to camp in the van on the side of the road until the East German police came to tow us. We waited around while a new bearing was made and our chaperone was escorted to a bank to draw dollars to pay. We got to the port three days later to catch the ferry.

But that's how we travelled to competitions then: we would spend weeks making our way from event to event. We had to do everything ourselves - it was hard work. It's different now. The way sport is organised is more professional and flights are so cheap. We do a lot less driving: one person brings the gear and the rest of us fly.

But now I have newborn twins I suppose at least I'm well practised at hauling lots of stuff around. Having children - especially twins - we go to Scotland, my trips are rarely to do with boats.

I love the west coast and can easily spend a week driving around. I've often been competing in hot destinations for the summer, so the last thing I want to do when it's over is get back on a plane to somewhere sweltering. I like the contrasting weather and am happy to put a jumper on.

My next trip will be for our team's winter training in Palma, Mallorca, in October. We've been going there to train for the past three winters, so I feel quite an affinity with the island. We sail at the cheap end of Palma bay, in El Arenal. It's easy to get to, we're 10 minutes from the airport, it's quiet and the temperature is pleasant and, most importantly, there is a variety of conditions for sailing. The region has a lovely yacht club, where everyone knows us and we've made quite a few friends there. Competitive sailing requires you to spend most of your time at the competition venue, because each place has its own character and you have to be able to feel really comfortable, both afloat and on-shore.

We usually begin to visit a venue a year in advance of the competition and as the year progresses, we'll practise more and more there. Sydney, where I competed in the 2000 Olympics, became like a home from home. For the Beijing games we'll be in Qingdao, quite a long way from Beijing. There is no wind and lots of tides, so the sailing is quite challenging - that's why we need all the practice.

Olympic sailing consists of short races, although they can take place over a long period, such as a week. But I've done offshore sailing too. Last year, I raced a 52ft boat with 15 other guys in the Fastnet race. We were on board for five days - with no toilet.

I also did a nice offshore race from Dublin to Dingle in Ireland. We were first and had to follow the instructions about how to come in at the finish as we were told we'd be escorted in by the resident dolphin. Sure enough, up he popped, went under the boat a few times and then led us into the harbour. A couple of Irish guys sailing with us phoned ahead to the local pub - we were welcomed with a big Irish stew and a few pints of Guinness.

Shirley Robertson is a mentor on the annual Inspire Round the Island Race High School Challenge on the Isle of Wight, an initiative that introduces young people to business skills in the context of competitive sport and was initiated as part of the national Start Talking Ideas campaign (inspirehighschoolchallenge.com)

My top place to sail

I loved sailing in Sydney Harbour when we practised there every day in the run-up to the 2000 Olympic Games - it felt really special. It was a hard venue for us in competitive sailing terms, but it was such a spectacular amphitheatre for our sport. The memories of those Games will stay with me, not least because it was where I won my first gold medal. It's a special place.

My most memorable views

I love the view of The Solent from my house in Cowes; it's constantly changing. There is always some action - racing, ferries, ships, cruise liners. And I always love my first sight of land from the sea. My favourite approaches by boat are the entrance to Tarbert, in Scotland, and the villages of West Cork, in Ireland, which are spectacular and always a welcome sight after a long time at sea.

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