Posted on 20 February 2012
America's Cup sailor Iain Percy could only be a yachtsman. Tanned, bearded and possessed of a hybrid international accent that sounds part American, part Australian and only fleetingly English, he could have strolled onto the quay anywhere in the world. Instead, he’s in his adopted home of Weymouth preparing to take on the world on his home surf at the 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics have been the launchpad that have taken the Southampton-born 35-year-old from iconic status in the sailing community to household name among British sports fans.
Introduced to sailing by his family age six, Percy won gold in the Finn class sailing event at the Sydney Games in 2000 and again in the Star class in 2008 in Beijing. He has also raced in the Star class events in the European Championships, taking the title in 2005 and 2009. He’s a World Champion since winning the accolade in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. Olympic victory in 2012 would surely add a knighthood to the OBE he received for his 2008 gold.
Percy first contested the America’s Cup in 2005-07 as the helmsman of the +39 Challenge boat, which finished a disappointing ninth. He also joined TeamOrigin for the Louis Vuitton Trophy and went on to compete with the crew on the TP52 boat circuit in hope it would translate into a Cup team.
But when TeamOrigin failed to challenge, Percy moved to a Swedish team, where he is hoping his latest role as race tactician for Artemis Racing will help him emulate his Olympic success in this illustrious event.
What’s so special about the America’s Cup?
It’s a very technical and tactical type of sailing and uses a lot of skills from my Olympic training, so obviously that appeals to me. If you were going to do something to challenge yourself in a different way, you’d normally think about an ocean race, but I’d need to learn a load of new skills. This way, I get to take part in another event that involves the kind of sailing I’m used to.
Do you think the changes to the event are for the better?
Definitely. The older America’s Cup boats, the monohulls, were very beautiful, but it sometimes felt like there were four of you with nothing much to do. You could have held a coffee morning before it was time to tack. With the new AC45s, there is none of that – it’s full on. We’re running around the boat, making decisions as a crew in the heat of the action. I really like that.
Do the faster boats add to the excitement?
Yes, I think they do. In how many of the old America’s Cup races have we seen just a procession of boats for an hour and no one ever passing anyone else? Now, that just doesn't happen. It fits into the ‘let’s get on with it and race hard’ mentality that I’m used to from my Olympic experience. It also means that the races are long enough for there to be a tactical element, and that really appeals to me.
What do you make of the AC45’s wing sail?
We were all worried about learning how to use it at first. But it’s actually easier to control and use than a soft sail. It doesn’t get manipulated by the wind so much. That said, when you get a 35mph (56km/h) wind out there, you’re really going to be hanging on.
In the Star class you’ve sailed, there’s just you and your racing partner. How do you manage working as part of a far bigger team in the America’s Cup?
It’s all about building new relationships. You need to make sure that there’s a positive mental attitude between everyone, and that you respect and like each other. Get those elements together and you can achieve a hell of a lot. A team with members who work well together and communicate will beat a more talented, but dysfunctional team every time.
The AC45s are designed to prepare you for the bigger AC72 catamarans. How will you cope with them?
When you look at the AC45s, and see how fast they can be and what size they are, you can put two and two together and work out the kind of speeds that the AC72 is capable of. It’s going to be really full on, but really fun as well. And it’s just that bit further to fly if you capsize. In a boat the size of the AC72, you really might want to think about hanging on.
How important will the new-look America’s Cup be in raising the profile of sailing as a spectator sport?
Sailing has a certain image, and I think it’s unfair. People in the Olympic team got started in really cheap dinghies and the entry level to the sport really is much more affordable than people realise. These events are about showing people that you can get a lot out of sailing, no matter who you are. There are technical aspects to it, tactical elements and loads of other things. That’s why you get lifetime yachtsmen, who just keep coming back. And this is an opportunity for us to communicate that to a whole new audience.
- Richard Pendleton