Sarah Ayton – Olympic gold yachtswoman

Heading for gold
Heading for gold

Competitive sailing has been likened to standing in a cold shower, tearing up £50 notes – so how did “an average kid” from an ordinary background become a world-beater? Sandra Fraser found out.

Blonde hair and a slight frame may be the first things you notice about Sarah Ayton, the second is the steely determination behind those good looks.
Nothing is going to get in the way of her quest for a third Olympic gold medal – not even the prospect of a baby with new husband Nick Dempsey, the British Olympic windsurfer. The timing for the couple, who met as junior sailors more than 10 years ago, and who married last year, is perfect, they feel. The baby is due in June and Sarah expects to be back on the Olympic trail in November, giving her a little short of three years to gain a third gold, this time on home waters in Weymouth, where the couple have a house on the harbour.

No sentiment
Being a world-class performer means there’s no room for sentiment when choosing the best team to be in. Friendships and partnerships have had to be set aside in the quests for gold. Too sensible a personality to worry about being labelled a “blonde in a boat” when it identifies her as a double Olympic gold medallist, Sarah’s quite prepared to acknowledge the title as a bit of fun, though she says:
“We’re very serious about our goals and what we want to achieve.”

Try sailing
Born in 1980, Sarah was six when she and her 10-year-old brother, Daniel, discovered sailing.
“My parents wanted my brother and I to have a hobby and we tried loads of different sports,” she explains. It was a family friend, Phil Hubbard, who suggested they all try sailing at Queen Mary’s Sailing Club, Staines, which was, as Sarah puts it, at the bottom of the road.
“Once we discovered that we liked it the whole family became involved – Queen Mary’s became like a second home,” she says.
“At Queen Mary’s you could hire a boat – an Optimist – for 50 pence for an hour. I think we were very lucky at the sailing club because they knew they wouldn’t get the boat back for the rest of the day – we relied on that generosity up at the club, they were bit flexible!” remembers Sarah.

Pretty average
Learning to be self-reliant in a boat, then learning to crew for other people were life lessons.
“I spent the first 10 years of my sailing crewing for other poeple,” Sarah says.
She enjoyed netball and competitive sports at school though she says she was only “pretty average” at them. Her eyes were opened to the pleasure of winning at a world class level when she watched television footage of Sally Gunnell winning gold in the Olympic 400m hurdles.
“I was 12 at the time, it was amazing to see her win a gold medal – that was my inspiration to try to get to the Olympics,” says Sarah. “I was lucky that I was involved in a sport that was in the Olympics,” she says.

Not cheap

Not, by her own admission, that the sport is cheap at its uppermost levels. The cost of buying a boat is enough to put a black hole into most families’ household budgets and her parents had to work long hours to ensure their children had the right equipment to keep sailing.
“Sailing at that standard can be technical and expensive,” she says, but adds that the advantages of learning to sail go beyond physical activity. She urges youngsters to try it, since even if there’s no past family experience clubs and organisations welcome newcomers and novices.
“There are always water activities going on – even inland. You can have a look at a website and just have a go. Be prepared to be wet!” she says. “It’s like any environment that you’re not really used to, or familiar with, but you get an experience of fresh air and water and you learn so much,” she says.
“Getting wet, capsizing, playing around in the water – it’s easy to forget those days…” she says a little ruefully, then states that sailing took her to competitions around Europe and she learnt a lot about life, how to be competitive and how to work as a team.
“I was an average kid at school who was little bit overweight but I loved sport,” she says, thinking back.

Determination and a huge competitive streak separate Sarah and her ilk from casual sailors.
“It takes a lot of time being part of a sailing team. It’s like a marriage – you’re away a lot of the year with each other,” she says.
“I think it does take 100 per cent dedication, you have to keep trying to be better,” she says.

The 470 class
It’s ironic that after achieving her dreams of gold twice in a Yngling boat, that class has now been withdrawn from the Olympics, leaving Sarah and her fellow medallists, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson, looking for alternative craft. Ayton and Wilson have teamed up to set their sights on the two-person 470 class. This boat is bigger than the Yngling and is considered one of the hardest Olympic crafts to master. The speed differences between boats is small and the fleets they sail in are large. Nevertheless Sarah relishes the challenges that lay ahead.
“It’s just the two of us, looking forward and pushing towards 2012,” she says. “I think the next Olympics is going to be amazing. My biggest goal afterwards is to inspire kids to get active and be part of an Olympic sport. I hope I can also inspire them to go to the 2016 games,” she says.

Sarah’s inspirations

Coleen and Brian Ayton (her parents)

Chris Harris at Queen Mary’s

Phil Hubbard (who first suggested the family tried sailing)

Olympic gold medallist, world record and world champion 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell

Phil Owen – who bought her a boat

Sailor Johnny Merrick

Coach Paul Brotherton

Sarah Ayton OBE
Date of Birth: April 9, 1980
Born: Ashford, Middlesex
Lives: Weymouth
Started sailing: Age 6
Double Olympic gold medallist
Double world champion

You can keep up with Sarah’s Olympic campaign by visiting


British talent for innovation in engineering can come into its own in sports where winning margins can be hundredths and even thousandths of seconds. Head of Research and Innovation Programmes at UK Sport Dr Scott Drawer says a strategic decision was made at the beginning of the programme to harness the strength of the British marine, aeronautical and automotive industries. He points out to critics who claim that UK Sport’s recent successes have been gained mainly in high-cost, equipment-orientated sports, like sailing, canoeing and cycling, that massive improvements in results have been delivered on a £1.5million annual budget – a fraction of what some nations spend. But he stresses having innovative equipment is only part of the story. Training like a champion and having a champion’s skills and attitude are pre-requisite to winning.
“Giving the best bike in the world to someone who is only one-hundredth in the world doesn’t have an impact,” he explains.
Before they can start to deliver technological advances, research boffins also need to tap into sportsmen and women’s experiences and ideas.
“They know their sport, we listen to them and say, ‘Have you seen what’s going on in Formula One racing, or with BAE Systems,’ but we don’t know the day-to-day nature of their sport,” he says.
“Sailing is way ahead in its thinking, in the development of the boats. One role that we can play is sharing ideas – but I can’t tell you the outcomes!” he says. “It’s pretty much the case that initially, we look under every stone to understand what they need. That principle applies with every sport we do,” he says.
In the last programme cycle, 2004-08, 75 projects were delivered in various sports. UK Sport has an Ideas 4 Innovation programme to encourage students of engineering, science medicine, technology and the arts to consider if their research projects might have an impact on Olympic and Paralympic sport.

The 470
The 470 is an Olympic class dinghy sailed by both men and women. Designed in 1963, it was given international status in 1969 and first featured in the Olympics in 1976 at Montreal. It became an Olympic women’s sailing event in 1988.

The Sea Cadets
The Sea Cadets is a nationwide voluntary youth organisation, open to young people aged 12 to 18, Marine Cadets is for young people aged 13 to 18, with junior sections open to 10 to 12-year-olds. Fun, friendship and adventure based on waterborne activities form the basis of the organisation, along with learning new skills.

Royal Yachting Association
RYA House
Ensign Way
SO31 4YA
Tel: 0845 345 0400

International Sailing Federation (UK)
Ariadne House,
Town Quay
SO14 2AQ
Tel: 02380 635111

For more information about Seafarer Magazine, click here.

This article first appeared in Seafarer Magazine Summer 2009
This article first appeared in Seafarer Magazine Summer 2009

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