Since the 1952 Olympic debut of the Finn in Helsinki, the British Sailing Team has been a force to be reckoned with in the class. Particularly in recent decades, it has dominated the gold medal position, being undefeated as a nation since 2000.
As such, it’s a class from which much of our major sailing talent has emerged, and the links to the world of America’s Cup racing are undeniable. Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie are two of Britain’s ex-Finn sailors who have gone on to be two of the biggest names in the America’s Cup and hot on their heels in terms of both Finn dominance and AC crossover is 2016 Finn gold medallist, Giles Scott.
Scott, now 31, is determined to ensure that, after the final Finn class Olympic regatta at Tokyo 2021, historians will record Britain’s run as seven gold medals from 18 competitions – and over 20 years of class dominance.
Like those who went before him, Scott is currently negotiating the fine balance of competing at the highest level on the Olympic circuit alongside America’s Cup duties which see him preparing for a tactician role on the AC75 – a similar role to that which he took on in Bermuda for the 35th America’s Cup. He is also involved in mentoring the INEOS Rebels team, where younger sailors are being given the chance to prove their worth and put a hand up for one of the 11 crew spots (plus room for a guest sailor) on the AC75 in 2021.
It is not entirely new ground for the Brit, however, having taken on the dual AC cycle and Olympic circuit last time around. After the disappointment of losing selection for London 2012, he dominated the Olympic cycle prior to the Rio games, winning all but two of the regattas he sailed, and taking silver in those. In Rio itself he won gold with a day to spare.
Thereafter, Scott was able to dive full-on into the America’s Cup with Land Rover BAR and made an early commitment to going again with INEOS Team UK for what will be an exciting Auckland 2021 and a world series ahead of that. Given this, there were some rumours that he might not even race in Tokyo.
However, Scott was back in the Finn at the 2018 Miami World Cup, taking the familiar top podium step. He then won the Trofeo SAR Princesa Sofía Iberostar in Palma in April and took silver at the Tokyo 2020 venue regatta last September.
This time around, the America’s Cup and Olympics are a little closer in terms of timescale and there is much to be done for the AC team in the development of the programme. So just what is Scott’s role in INEOS Team UK, which is ramping up, and how does that compare to the Finn campaign for Tokyo 2020?
“It’s tricky because there is a lot to be done in both areas and both schedules are fluid,” Scott explains.
“I have an agreement with Ben [Ainslie] and Grant [Simmer] at INEOS TEAM UK, recognising that I am pursuing a Tokyo campaign. I put together a balanced program and presented it to them, and we try our hardest to make it work. The conflicts are minimal.
“My role with the team on the AC program this time around is much more hands-on at an early stage, in terms of strategy and helping with design and simulations and that kind of thing. So, I need to make sure I am around here (Portsmouth) a bit more than I was this time four years ago. The time balance is undoubtedly harder than it was four years ago.”
Given this slightly bigger commitment to the AC, it might be easy to think that Scott’s Olympic commitments have to be scaled back. To a degree this may be true, but he also argues that there is some crossover benefit in having the two campaigns running side by side.
“The biggest thing that America’s Cup has taught me is what to question; it builds technical knowledge and teaches you a technical way of thinking.
“From the Olympic side its very raw, it’s skill-based, so they complement each other well, but you still must be a master in both worlds. It’s not as if you can step across from being an Olympic sailor to be an amazing America’s Cup sailor or vice versa. There is still heavy learning on both sides. But the lessons you learn in each area are precious.
“For instance, when you operate at the sailing speeds you do in the Cup, it certainly helps to put perspective back in the Finn – the critical decisions you need to make seem easier when you have relatively more time to think about them…
“Also, you learn in a professional team environment how other people operate, from designers to shore crew, to other sailors. It’s quite easy when you are locked into an Olympic cycle, especially if you are a young sailor, to think that you are approaching everything the way you should and you are doing all that you need to do.
“Certainly, learning what can be achieved in a given day changed my approach. When coming from an Olympic campaign to being thrown into the professional world, where everyone was working at 100 miles an hour, changed my ability to manage my time and that certainly has helped a great deal.”
Does this professionalism transfer to the Olympics in other areas? Specifically, when out in Australia recently I had been chatting to Emirates Team New Zealand’s winning skipper and wing trimmer from AC35, Glen Ashby, about the use of drones in America’s Cup development and training, something he feels is now essential.
Glenn felt it could have a place in assisting coaches for Olympic class training and development too, but Scott has yet to see this making a major appearance in the Olympic sphere.
“Drones are something we relied on heavily in America’s Cup world in Bermuda. And for this [36th] America’s Cup, I have no doubt that we will be flying a drone every single day and relying on it heavily as a training tool, for crew movement and boat handling.
“I can see it could have applications in addressing some specific issues for the Olympic class training. A little bit is happening, but I’ve not gone out with our Finn training group with a coach with a drone yet.”
The British Sailing Team Finn squad has been out in Australia over the winter, training as a unit in preparation for a significant year, which will include Olympic selection for the single British team slot. But why did they choose this location particularly, even though it meant missing the recent World Cup event in Miami?
“The squad made two trips out to Australia before and after Christmas. It’s mid-summer down there and we had a good collection of top Finn sailors, from around the world, so it made the sailing very much worthwhile.
“We did Sail Melbourne before Christmas. I was up there, but picked up an OCS on the last day and that ruined things for me [Scott was fourth, behind Heiner, Lilley and Maloney, who have all won World Cup events].
“Then after Christmas, we had the Australian Nationals which went much better for me [he won]. It was just great to get sunshine and wind and good competition and to get back into it again and get some solid days in and sweep away the cobwebs.
“We’d changed quite a few things. We were able to validate the changes that we’d made, of course. It’s a boat that you need to sail well to get the results. All in all, it was a very productive period. We did not have the whole Finn fleet there but a good representation of the top of the fleet.”
Given World Sailing’s decision to drop the Finn from the 2024 Olympics, it would be understandable if some Finn sailors were feeling a little disenchanted, particularly those younger sailors targeting future games.
“Well, day-to-day morale doesn’t feel different, but of course, there is an undercurrent of discord. The people I feel sorry for are the younger guys coming through who were looking towards 2024, especially the bigger guys. There is nowhere they can go now in the Olympic classes.
“But times change, and I am sure the Star guys felt the same thing when they were dropped after London 2012.”
Certainly, you can see that the younger squad guys stand to lose the most with the dropping of the heavy weight singlehander. Assuming Scott makes it to Tokyo 2020 that will be his second consecutive Olympics after a fairly full career racing the singlehander. With a major role in the America’s Cup world, I wonder if Scott was planning on another Olympic campaign anyway…
“I would have been 37 in 2024, so realistically I will finish in Tokyo. So, you’re right, the decision does not affect me. Again, I feel sorry for the younger guys. 98 per cent of them are too big for any other Olympic classes.”
The Rule 42 change made before Athens 2004 which permitted rocking in winds above 15 knots increased the physicality of the Finn sailors. Has this pushed the size of the sailors in the class into the corner in which they currently find themselves?
“Interestingly, while sailors in the class are taller, their weight has actually decreased over the last ten years. The top of the fleet particularly is taller, leaner and stronger than they were 15 years ago,” Scott argues – the Brit is, himself, a wiry 6ft 6in.
Having dominated the class over the Rio Olympiad, I wonder if Scott considers this the result of hard work or talent or a combination of the two.
“I’d like to think it’s a combination but times change, there is a whole new batch of very competitive young sailors coming through. There is always someone trying a new idea, a new technique and you must keep an eye on what is working and what is not. Everyone is doing that all the time and I guess I am no different.”
It may still be a long way out but now, as we approach the sharper end of the Olympic calendar, who does Scott think will be challenging for a medal in Tokyo?
“If you look at the results over the last couple of years, countries that are going well besides us are Sweden, Hungary, Netherlands, New Zealand, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, and Australia for a start.
“There are quite a few nations working hard. There has been a bit of a split this winter. There were quite a few nations training down in Athens including the Greeks, Brazilians, Swedes, French. Then there was the group with GBR in Australia – the Dutch, the Aussies, the Kiwis and there were a few guys out to the World Cup in Miami as well. Everyone will come together in Palma [for the Princesa Sofía] and we’ll see who has been using their training time most effectively.
“We chose to go to Australia, rather than to Miami, because that would mean we’d get to Palma a bit earlier. But it’s also logistics. To campaign in Europe and go to both Australia and Miami you need three good sets of kit, which not a lot of people have.”
Realistically, a betting person would have to put their money on Scott to win the gold in Tokyo, but first he needs to gain selection for the British spot, and then beat a fleet that will be absolutely desperate to win what will be the last ever Finn gold medal in the Olympics.
But at the same time as he will be facing those pressures, he has his role trying to help INEOS TEAM UK achieve something that has never been done by Britain – win the America’s Cup.
You wouldn’t bet against Scott, but he knows it’s a long way from a sure thing. Should he take victory in either, though, his legacy will be confirmed.