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Charlotte Dobson: how she fell in love with sailing again

Written by 17th July 2021 Featured-post, Tokyo 2020

While most people using Zoom have been enjoying neighbour-hood drinks parties, business meetings and daily chats with isolated relatives, the reality for the British Sailing Team is somewhat different.

“We have a Zoom turbo sessions, Tuesdays and Thursdays,” says 49erFX helm Charlotte Dobson with a laugh. “Somehow seeing the screen filled with the faces of your gurning teammates makes it easier.”

Dobson and the other sailors selected for the Tokyo Olympics next year may be in lockdown like the rest of us, but they have a packed week.

“We have Workout Wednesday as well as yoga and pilates every day, core sessions and some weights and specific conditioning sessions. They’re keeping us busy, but suffering in a group is somehow easier.”

Charlotte Dobson Saskia Tidey

Meeting Dobson back in March at the RYA Dinghy Show 2020, it was five months to go until the Olympics and she and crew Saskia Tidey appeared calmly confident.

Their results over the previous three years had put them on or near the podium and they arrived at the show fresh from a silver medal at the 49erFX worlds, only losing gold after a dramatic capsize in the medal race.

Then the world changed and amid the Covid-19 pandemic Tokyo 2020 was put back a year to the summer of 2021.

Dobson admits the decision threw her: “You get so used to thinking, this is a performance you need to deliver on this day at this venue. For that to move, to be candid, we were gutted.

“It is all put into context with the horrible situation that we all find ourselves in. We fully back the decision to postpone the Games.

“But within our little Olympic bubble, and personally for me since I feel I am moving towards the end of my career, it was hard to refocus and think about living at this level of intensity for another 15 months.

“As strange as it sounds, I felt I needed to grieve the loss of the opportunity. It probably took two weeks to fully accept: ‘Okay, this is actually happening, this is one of those unmoveable things in life that can’t change’.”

Dobson praises 49erFX coach Steve Morrison and his colleagues for the effort they’ve put in to make lockdown a positive experience and says: “The postponement feels like a really motivational thing now. What could we have achieved if we’d had a five-year cycle? There is a whole bunch of new aspirations and goals.”

Charlotte Dobson Saskia Tidey

One goal, however, has not changed. It was a spring regatta in Miami last year that persuaded Dobson and Tidey that they stood a real chance of winning gold at Tokyo.

“We had a weakness in the lighter winds and over the winter we’d really tried to fix it. Miami was a very light wind event and we went into the medal race on equal terms with two other crews.

“We ended up finishing third, which to us at that stage, in a sub six knot venue, was literally like winning a gold medal.

“It was the piece in the puzzle that really made me believe that as a campaign we were going to be able to deliver a gold medal.”

Tokyo will be Dobson’s second Olympics, but she’s known the disappointment of missing out on selection too, having twice been overlooked in the Laser Radial for the Beijing and London Games.

“It’s a strange moment,” she recalls. “You look at the work you’ve put in and it’s very easy to feel it was all a waste of time.

“It was really disappointing to not get selected for Beijing because I felt I had a real chance of winning a medal. But I was young and learning loads.”

Four years later, when she missed Olympic selection again for London, she considered giving up the sport.

“I had put so much time and effort into the whole thing and I was a bit fed up, bit dark really!” she recalls.

“As a bit of a joy ride, my boyfriend Dylan [Fletcher, helm of the 49er, also in Team GB] took me out in the 49er for a bit of fun. I hadn’t sailed boats like the skiffs before.

“It was just the most amazing fun, I felt like I was 15 and I totally fell in love with the sport again. I haven’t really looked back since.”

She teamed up with Sophie Ainsworth for the 49erFX’s Olympic debut cycle and after three successful years together they were sixth overall in Rio.

After the Games, Dobson joined the British Sailing Team on a recce of the next Olympic venue, Enoshima, near Tokyo. They were presented with a windy bay and a huge swell rolling in off the Pacific. It was clear what was needed.

Photo by Karl Bridgeman/Getty Images for British Olympic Association

Dobson says: “Having watched the previous cycle play out, it showed again and again that if you’ve got a superstrength, how powerful that is.

“If you can deliver on that superstrength on just one day where you can knock out the 1s, 2s or 3s, that really separates you. Tokyo was obviously a max power venue. High leverage was top of the agenda.”

Enter 6ft 2in Saskia Tidey, a gifted sportswoman who had competed at Rio in the 49erFX for Ireland, and was eligible to sail for Team GB through her English father.

Dobson calls her “an absolute weapon” and says: “Sas is the most amazing athlete. She’s really modest about it but she is just so fit. I had the experience of doing a bit more of this kind of sailing, so together we moulded into quite a good team.

“It has been about getting the most out of each other, building robust processes that stand up under pressure and generally having quite a clinical approach.

“I don’t think our performance has really changed once we’ve come under pressure and I take a huge amount of confidence in that.

“The class has come on a lot in the last four years. What is noticeable is the depth of the fleet. There are a lot more boats that can finish in the top 10 and the top 20 is solid. It means that in our Gold Fleet racing small mistakes are punished that much harder.”

“But at the same time,” Dobson says, glancing at Tidey, “if you have that superstrength then the people behind are just battling more…”

First published on Yachts and Yachting

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