“I'm from a small town in Northern Spain called Ibarra which is 30 kilometres inland, so we're not on the coast. No one in my town sails or used to sail – even now, actually, no one sails.”
Xabi began sailing at the age of seven - inspired by his parents - and has gone on to have a remarkably successful career. He won consecutive Olympic medals with Iker Martinez; a gold in Athens in 2004 followed by a silver in Beijing four years later and has competed in five Volvo Ocean Races, as part of every Spanish campaign since 2005-06. He has also competed in the BWR double handed nonstop around the world race.
In the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (2017/18) he came within minutes of winning the trophy for the first time in Spain's history, heading into the final leg as one of three teams with a chance of victory. But, after a nail-biting sprint to the line, the team were beaten by Dongfeng Race Team and finished runner up. He also has two previous Cup campaigns to his name, the AC36 will be his second with a British entry.
Who inspired you to start sailing?
My father and brother
First sailing club?
Club Vela Navarra
What do you love most about sailing?
I think we are very lucky our sport being so complicated and complete. Being involved with the design, technology and racing in general is the most exciting of our sport!
What has sailing taught you?
It’s given me a professional career. I’ve seen a lot of places and known a lot of people, and had incredible experiences
Favourite ever sailing race?
Sailing at the Olympic Games
How do you know when you have good form?
When things happen by themselves on board with very little communication
How do you keep going when you're on the limit?
Thinking that the others will keep pushing so we have to push harder
Winning the Olympic gold medal in the 49er in Athens 2004. For sure the beginning of everything in my career.
If you weren't a sailor, what would you be?
No idea, probably working in a factory!
What other sports did you play as a child?
Cycling, I did three years of competition until 1998, just before going full time sailing in the 49er
What other sports do you play now?
Cycling and trekking. (pretty average…)
How do you spend your time when you are not sailing (if it’s not other sports)?
I try to spend as much time as possible with my family. The only bad side of sailing is that we spend way too much time away.
Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
Linked to the sailing world for sure, coaching young people and why not still sailing!
How did Xabi Fernandez go from a small town in the Basque country – where the expertise was all about making paper, and no one went sailing – to become one of the world’s top sail racers? There are very few people with a sailing CV like Xabi’s but it all began with family summer holidays by a lake in the Pyrenees. Fernandez’s father was interested in sailing and he had already taken lessons at a school on the coast. “They had a small sailing school at the lake, they were very nice people, and that's where we started sailing; my brother and I in the Optimist.”
The family bought a Vaurien, a French design of two-person dinghy with a spinnaker, and Fernandez soon progressed to sailing that with his dad. “We began just in the summer holiday for fun, but then we started to do more. My brother is three years older than me, so when he started racing, I started as well. I was six or seven, I think. We started travelling around the Basque country to different events.”
Dinghy sailing was new to the region; most of the sailing in Spain was on the Mediterranean coast, with Barcelona the powerhouse. Things started to change in the mid-1970s as more people took up the sport around the country. By 1992, the Basque country had its first Optimist National champion in Iker Martinez, and sailing started to grow even faster.
“Iker is one year younger than me but he sailed all the way to 15-years-old in the Optimists. When I was 12 or 13, I think, I couldn't sail the Optimist any more, I was too big.” It was only when the brothers moved into the bigger Vaurien that the results started to come, winning national championships.
“We were lucky because my father was a teacher, and there was a big area behind the school. It used to be the gym a long time ago, but it was empty then, no one used it. We could keep all the boats there, if you don't live near the coast, you have nowhere to leave the boat.”
It was the inspiration of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, with Spanish sailors winning four golds and a silver, that pushed the Fernandez brothers into the 470 Olympic dinghy – one of the 1992 gold medal winning classes. They were soon picked up by the Spanish Federation and put into a development squad with training camps and racing. It lasted for a couple of years from 1993 to 1995, and with most of it happening in Barcelona, it meant a lot of travelling.
“At the end we left the boat in Barcelona and took the overnight train to stay there a week or four days, but we never had very good results in the 470. And then my brother went to another city to study at university, so we were split up and could sail less and less. We stopped sailing in the 470 in '96 I think.”
Without his brother, Xabi’s interest in sailing waned, he went trekking and climbing in the nearby Pyrenees and turned to road cycling to get his competitive fix. He started racing bikes in 1996, and did it for three years while he was at university in his home town. This was the era of Miguel Indurain, five times winner of the Tour de France and a huge Spanish hero; cycling was massive in the country as a result.
The sailing had given him an extra 4 or 5kgs of upper body muscle that was just extra weight on a bike, and he never looked like making it as a professional, but he raced at the top amateur level in Spain, right below the pros. “The first year was a disaster, the second year was better,” said Fernandez. He finished most of his races, but that was as good as it got.
“I planned to keep going in cycling,” he continued eventually, “but during the winter I did one race with Iker Martinez, my friend.” Iker Martinez, the Basque country’s first Optimist National Champion, had developed into a top Olympic prospect. He now had support from the national authority for an Olympic campaign in the 49er, but he was struggling to find a crew.
“I tried sailing with Iker and we ended up training for a week or 10 days and straight away I liked the boat, the 49er. Then we had a very interesting chat, I knew that I was going nowhere with cycling, despite doing it 100%. I had just finished my studies, and could decide what to do next – work or sail or what to do? We decided to do one year, or maybe go all the way to Sydney, we'd see – but we do it 100%. Although you don't need to convince Iker to do anything 100%. So I went back to sailing, sailed twice a day and everything, the right preparation.”
The Spanish Sailing Federation provided the support for the sailing, and the Basque community provided enough for the boys to live on. “In those days it had just started to be professional. I remember that when I started sailing, when I talked to my parents I would say that if I could one day buy a house through sailing then it will be enough, I would be happy with that. I wasn’t thinking that this was going to be my life forever.”
The next few years were a whirlwind. They didn’t qualify for Sydney, but in 2001 they got sponsorship from Telefonica through a very influential figure in Spanish professional sailing, Pedro Campos. It was the beginning of a very long and successful commercial relationship. A year later they repaid the confidence with a win at the 49er Worlds, they won again in 2004 before taking the gold medal at the Athens Olympics the same year.
Over the next ten years the pair – almost always with commercial backing, support and organisation from Campos – competed in that unbelievable roster of events; two more Olympics, five circumnavigations and finally an America’s Cup with Luna Rossa in 2013.
There are far too many stories to tell from this epic bucket list, but one stands out: the spectacular error they made in provisioning for the Barcelona double-handed round the world race. Sailing an older generation boat, they were very concerned that they would be a lot heavier and decided to try to even it up by cutting back as much as possible on fuel and food.
“We went way too far. The food we had for both of us probably wouldn't be enough for one. The same with the gas. I had my last coffee in the Cook Strait in New Zealand. The guys in the shore team, they put aboard one sachet of coffee a day. In the Med for the first week, I was drinking five or six a day, then I realised there was only enough for one. The last hot drink we had was at Cape Horn.
“We were so close to stopping to take on food, but we didn’t. I lost about 23kgs, Iker about the same. But there are many more good things than bad things involved in offshore sailing. People always talk about the cold, the lack of sleep, the storms, but it's not always like this.”
He has run an incredibly intense schedule, particularly in the years from 2008 to 2018. “I did eight major events in ten years; two Olympics, four round the world races and two America’s Cup campaigns. You will be lucky to find people who have done these things in their whole life. And in that time, in a year, I’d be home less than 20 or 25 days. At times it can be too much, especially when I have two kids at home.”
“I know so many people that have slowed down or made the step to coaching or something and there's no way back. I mean, it's going to happen to all of us one day, right? At this stage though, I feel that if I can just contribute something that’s a positive. The sport still fascinates me, all of it does and so the hard work goes on. This new class of boat, the AC75, is pretty out there and from here the boats will only continue to get more radial and more extreme.”
Xabi isn’t looking to slow down either, following the 36th America’s Cup there’s talk of competing in another edition of the Ocean Race - just like the Cup, there’s unfinished business.