Back in February 2020, when Anna Burnet and her helm John Gimson became Nacra 17 world champions – and gained the #1 world ranking in the class – it was just six months to go until the Olympics and their world was looking good.
The British pair had sent a message to the Nacra 17 fleet that as the Games approached, they were in top form – Olympic medal-winning form, unless something drastic happened.
It did. Over the subsequent six weeks, the spread of Covid-19 laid waste to much of the 2020 regatta schedule, including the Olympics itself.
The day after the postponement announcement, Burnet responded positively, saying she was “just happy that we’ll still get the chance to compete”.
She and Gimson had already made the decision to continue to Paris 2024 and she said: “Luckily for us we love what we do, so another year in this campaign isn’t a bad thing. While we’re in lockdown we’ll start changing plans to peak in 2021. There’s still plenty that we can improve on and we can’t wait to get back on the water and pushing hard.”
Burnet and Gimson’s Worlds victory in February 2020 came shortly after their Team GB selection and was a timely riposte to those who had fancied rival crew Nicola Boniface and Ben Saxton.
Burnet graciously acknowledges that the lengthy trials process was “unbelievably close” and says: “We thought we had done enough, but at the same time they had some amazing results.
“Either of us had the potential to go and win a medal.
“We were happy with how we sailed, but if Ben and Nikki had been selected then we would have been accepting of that.
“They are pretty ferocious competitiors and we have a lot of respect for them as sailors.
“We’ve pushed each other hard and that has been a good thing for the British Nacra team.”
Burnet, 27, from Shandon, on the Gare Loch in Scotland, started in Optimists at the Royal Northern & Clyde Yacht Club, the same club as 470 helm Luke Patience, Laser sailor Lorenzo Brando Chiavarini and 49erFX helm Charlotte Dobson, all now of the British Sailing Team.
“They were the hotshot sailors in Scotland at the time, so it’s funny to be in a team with them now,” Burnet says.
She won the female national Optimist title and was selected for the British worlds team in 2006 at the age of 14.
Back at youth level, she won the 420 nationals with Flora Stuart, before moving onto the 470 and taking silver and bronze at the Junior Worlds in 2012 and 2013. She continued to campaign in the class while doing a BSc in Sports Studies at Southampton University.
Then she met Gimson, a well-travelled sailor with big wins in different classes and a burning desire to win an Olympic medal.
Gimson had settled on the Nacra 17 for his Tokyo campaign and trialled various sailors for the crew spot. With Burnet, things clicked from the start.
“Getting to sail with John was the game-changer,” Burnet says. “I’d had 10 years of 470 training alongside Hannah [Mills] and Saskia [Clark].
“That was eye-opening for me, seeing the way they trained and what’s really required. The kind of things they were doing, I had no idea you needed to being doing.
“I wasn’t very technically minded, particularly on the gear side of it. It’s hard to see that stuff until you’ve got someone to really learn from.
“But sailing with John has got me to this point. I got lucky to team up with him. We have really complementing strengths. He is a very talented sailor and very technical.
“I think I am good at moving around the boat and handling all the boat speed stuff. When we are really on form and in the flow, focussing on our different roles, it really clicks.”
As with any double-handed partnership, communication is key and Burnet says: “We are both very calm people, we never shout at each other on the water and we get on really well.
“I have definitely matured a lot in this campaign. When you’re younger you can be more hot-headed, but there is no space for it on a boat. It has to be 100 per cent trust in the other person.”
Burnet is the niece of Sir Peter Blake, her mother’s sister being Blake’s widow Pippa.
Burnet was nine when Blake was killed in 2001 and says: “He was away a lot but we followed closely what he was doing and he was a massive inspiration. It’s amazing to have that level of inspiration in your family.
“My dad too – his complete passion is sailing. He’d be happy spending his whole life on a boat! My parents gave up a lot of their time driving me down to the south coast from Scotland for training camps and events.”
The Nacra 17 is renowned as a crew-driven boat. Burnet says: “So far 28 knots is our current top speed.
“It’s pretty physical and really rewards a high work rate, especially in waves, so Enoshima [the Olympic venue], which is quite wavey, is going to be full-on.
“As a crew you control the pitch and ride height downwind. We can set the boards and adjust them, but you roughly set those and then use your body weight to keep the boat as steady as possible.
“There’s no point in sailing a boat you’re not suited to, but the Nacra 17 is great as unlike some classes it’s open to a big population. Most teams are around 140kg.”
The plan had been to ship team and boat out to Japan from May onwards, but that plan is now on hold until further notice.
She says: “We were doing our best to keep training but we quickly realised that everything needs to be put into perspective and right now doing our bit to help the world get through the pandemic is most important. Hopefully next year the Olympics can be a real celebration of the world getting through this.”
First published on Yachts and Yachting
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