It has been a grey, windy, rainy October day and Dylan Fletcher has spent most of it trying to keep a 49er upright in Weymouth Bay.
The 31-year-old, who has recently been selected for the British Olympic sailing team in Tokyo, probably had a hot shower in mind when he got back to the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy, but instead he is straight on duty for a scheduled chat with Yachts & Yachting.
“It’s nice to get back into that autumnal, windy, wet thing, bring us back down to earth a bit,” he says with a smile. “It makes us realise this is where it actually happens.”
The ‘it’ Fletcher refers to is the goal that he and crew Stu Bithell set themselves three-and-a-half years ago – Olympic gold.
“We sat down in 2016 and said, ‘What does that look like?’ We would not be going there for the T-shirt. This is a different way of campaigning.”
Fletcher and Bithell sailed in rival 49ers in the run-up to Rio, a nail-biting selection battle that eventually went the way of Fletcher and his then partner Alain Sign, who sailed well at the Games and finished sixth.
“I loved going to Rio, even though it was incredibly disappointing,” says Fletcher. “This time we feel like we’re strong medal contenders and we’re one of the few teams that could beat Pete and Blair.”
New Zealanders Peter Burling and Blair Tuke won silver at Weymouth, gold in Rio, and after taking time out to win the America’s Cup and sail the Volvo Ocean Race, are now back in ominous form.
To the casual observer, they’re favourites for gold in Tokyo, but Fletcher and Bithell have made a convincing argument to the contrary.
In March, they won gold at the prestigious Princess Sofia Trophy in Palma with a day to spare. The Kiwis were a distant seventh.
In May they took silver behind Burling and Tuke at the Europeans, with Fletcher saying: “We initially played it very safe, and only started to apply the pressure once we were in the gold fleet.”
In August, at the Olympic Test Event, the Brits and New Zealanders shared silver and gold again, but Fletcher says: “We had selection in mind and the main goal was to medal. The important thing is that we’ve taken a big step forward in how we manage how we race.”
Fletcher says he thrives on pressure and even ramps up the mental pressure he puts on himself in order to sail better.
“Stu and myself are similar in the way that we handle pressure and the way that we like to talk about it.
“We are both very vocal and we don’t shy away from it. Some people pretend it’s not there, but we like to say: ‘This is it, this matters’.”
The pressure has come from inside the GB 49er squad, too, as rival crew James Peters and Fynn Sterritt made a strong case for Olympic selection themselves.
“We were very lucky that James and Fynn raised their game for this cycle, no more so than in 2017 when we were first and second in the world championships.
“They made us work exceptionally hard, even to the point that we had to change the way we campaigned because of how strong they were. It became about qualifying effectively.”
What would surprise people about the day-to-day reality of an Olympic campaign?
“Probably the amount of planning that goes on before a training camp,” says Fletcher.
“We don’t just go sailing. We will have had a meeting and discussed, for example, what part of the tack we’ll be working on, in what wind strength and so on. Like a lot of sports it’s about marginal gains.
“We’ve been busy planning our calendar right up to the day of the Olympics, so we know exactly what we’ll be doing on every day. We had some time off after the [selection] announcement and have come to terms with it. Now we’re just super-keen and excited to be back on the water.”
Fletcher found time over the summer to become Moth national champion, beating hot US Moth sailor Brad Funk to boot. He’s been sailing the Moth since 2012 and hopes to do the worlds in Weymouth and Portland next year.
And meanwhile he has led a high profile life as helm of the GB SailGP crew, up against some of the best in the world including Tom Slingsby, Nathan Outteridge and Taylor Canfield on the foiling F50.
Fletcher was the first to take the boat to 50 knots, prior to the Cowes round of SailGP where the British boat later retired after a dramatic nosedive.
He is open about the fact that he and Bithell, who is also in the SailGP crew, have largely funded their 49er campaign through SailGP.
“As part of the British Sailing Team we’re incredibly lucky to have the National Lottery to help fund elite sport, but one thing you learn is that it isn’t possible to perform at the highest level without additional support. It’s all about finding sponsors.
“We went into a lot of debt to get the kit we needed and we still don’t have any cash sponsors now.”
There are other benefits to the SailGP experience: “The speed. You just learn what fast is. It’s about how quick you have to be at making decisions. Everything happens in slow motion in a 49er!”
The SailGP calendar fits with Olympic commitments, so in February he’ll be at the 49er worlds in Geelong, then 10 days later SailGP kicks off again in Sydney Harbour.
The Olympic regatta opens on 26 July on the waters of Enoshima Bay, which after multiple visits over the past three years, Fletcher and Bithell know well.
“The best thing the onshore days you get – 12 to 15 knots, warm water, big waves – exceptional sailing. We love it there and hope we get lots of that at the Olympics.”
Back to our October day in the UK and driving rain. Does Fletcher ever wish he had an office job?
“Absolutely not, although I’m sure having an office job is wicked fun! We’ve had difficult times, but whenever we’ve had a tough day on the water we’ve been able to think, ‘things could be worse’.
“We tell ourselves how incredibly lucky we are to be pursuing our dream.”
First published on Yachts and Yachting
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