Stuart Bithell laughs quietly at the suggestion that he is seen as one of Team GB’s most naturally gifted sailors, that he is one of those rare talents who quite simply makes boats go faster. “I try,” he replies with a chuckle.
Bithell, 33, originally from Rochdale in Manchester, will crew the 49er at the Tokyo Olympics next summer, with helm Dylan Fletcher.
The two were rivals for years and Fletcher’s team beat Bithell’s to the sole British place at the Rio Games four years ago.
After the Games, he and Bithell were competing against each other in a Moth regatta when they “had a lightbulb moment” and decided to pool their talents.
Their first year saw them win the European and World championships and their form has continued.
The last 12 months, however, has seen the ominous return to the class of Blair Tuke and Peter Burling, who won gold at Rio and then went onto win the America’s Cup in Bermuda for New Zealand [and again in 2021, since this interview – ed].
Bithell acknowledges the pair are “super tough competition” and says: “We’re up against perhaps the most successful sailing team in the world – they are formidable together.
“I like to put a positive spin on things and say it creates an opportunity for us to go out and beat the best team in the world.
“We’ve got a good programme and we’re part of a brilliant team, not just the British Sailing Team but also TeamGB. We’ll be going out there ensuring we’re in a position to put in our best performance and we genuinely believe that if we do that we are capable of winning.”
Talking from his lockdown hideaway in Corfe, Dorset, close to the British Sailing Team’s base on Portland Harbour, Bithell cast his mind back to March and a pre-lockdown RYA Dinghy Show in London.
“I was laughing at people then telling me the Olympics weren’t going to happen!”
He admits the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 was a blow but says: “Once we found out, it became easier. The uncertainty building up that decision was quite stressful to be honest. Obviously it changes our lives quite a bit for the next year or two.
“Being organised athletes we had it all planned out but at least now we know we’ve got a date and we can put a plan in place. Here is an opportunity to learn more and hopefully do things better than anyone else and use the delay to our advantage.”
Bithell and his British Sailing Team colleagues used the time under Covid-19 restrictions to hone their fitness, meeting for Zoom training sessions throughout each week.
“We’ve had a bit of a push with that and out in Palma this year we had our own fitness guy come with us, so we were training each day as well as the sailing,” says Bithell.
“But as you can imagine the specific fitness is done on the water. You can’t get any more specific than being on the boat. We’re certainly missing that but we’re keeping ourselves in a super-good state for when we get back on the water.”
Bithell and Fletcher were at the RYA Dinghy Show in March 2020 fresh from a winter season Down Under.
In December in Auckland they took world championship bronze, despite a dramatic capsize on the final gybe.
This was on the back of becoming European champions earlier in the year, gold at the prestigious Princess Sofia Regatta and being the only crew to finish on the podium at every regatta they entered.
This year started with another worlds in Geelong, where they were disappointed to finish off the pace, but Bithell reflected: “We had some world class racing. We had one good worlds in December and the second one we were seventh.
“It was a little bit disappointing but in the grand scheme of things the venue was very flat water and nothing like the Olympic venue, so we’re not too worried.”
Bithell and Fletcher were also key members of the British SailGP team, Fletcher helm and Bithell flight controller in the first season last year. It was a schedule they fitted in around their Olympic aspirations and which helped pay for their campaign.
That changed almost overnight earlier this year as INEOS TEAM UK bought into the team. Bithell and Fletcher were ousted while Ben Ainslie was made helm and his INEOS colleagues crew.
The changeover looked brutal and Bithell admits: “It was a little bit. But first things first – we got the opportunity to sail in the GBR SailGP team and certainly we learned a hell of a lot in that one year, where we did campaign both SailGP and the 49er.
“This last year Ben and INEOS have come in and that’s put us out of a job in that area. It is a little bit disappointing but we’ve learned a lot from it and hopefullly one day we’ll get invited back.
“We have got that extra time now to put into our Olympic campaign, although I thought we were doing a really good job of managing both.
“We relied quite heavily on the SailGP wage. All that money was going into our Olympic campaign. Sponsorship is getting ever harder to find and with the postponement it’ll be an interesting one…we’ve got another year of campaigning.”
The Covid-19 crisis put a question mark over funding from UK Sport, but Bithell remarks characteristically: “To be honest there’s bigger things happening in the world right now than me and Dylan getting an extra set of sails to test to go to the Olympics.
“So it’s not a priority right now but when things start looking better that’s something we’ll have to approach.”
Bithell has had a varied career. What is his favourite class? “I always say the Merlin Rocket. It’s the class of my sailing club and I raced them there. Often we had 10 or 12 boats out each week.
“I just really connected with the fleet; there are good people there and it’s a really nice boat, with lots of strings to pull which I quite enjoy.
“It always feels different to a 49er or 470 regatta, a bit more fun and relaxed. It’s basically why I got into sailing in the first place. It brings all those good feelings back.”
First published on Yachts and Yachting
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