By Matt Majendie, for CNN
For two Olympic campaigns, Sarah Ayton was part of a crew labeled “Three Blondes in a Boat.” Sailing alongside the likes of Shirley Robertson, now CNN’s Main Sail presenter, among others, Ayton won gold in 2004 and 2008 in the Yngling class, and even now, seven years on, the tag created by the British media still resonates.
“When I’m in a room delivering a talk people will say, ‘Who are you?’ I reply, ‘You may remember me as one of the three blondes in a boat,’ and they’re like, ‘Of course you are,’” Ayton says. “But it’s all good. It was fun, and in sailing we need those sorts of role models and people to talk about.”
Ayton is so much more than simply a blonde in a boat. Right now, she’s one of only two females in the entire fleet of the Extreme Sailing Series, a multihull racing championship likened to Formula One by her fellow British Olympic champion Ben Ainslie. But she barely thinks about her gender when operating as tactician on The Wave, Muscat, which leads the series after five of the eight regattas.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m male or female on board,” Ayton says. “We all have our roles in the boat. Everyone is respected and supposed to be the best in that role. If you’re not sailing your best, you won’t win. And the boys will give me a hard time. If I’m not on my game and not feeding information, I know about it. There is no messing around. I know what’s expected of me.
“I’ve learned a lot from sailing with the boys. It’s very honest and upfront. There’s no place to hide, which I really love. We all want to win, so the pressure’s on all the time.”
That is not to say the boat’s skipper Leigh McMillan and the rest of his crew are devoid of chivalry. “The guys sometimes carry my bag!” reveals Ayton. “But being the only female in the year, I don’t really think anything of it. You just crack on and be the best you can be at what you do.”
Ayton says many of her female racing colleagues, fewer in their number than their male counterparts, are either focusing on Olympic campaigns for Rio de Janeiro next year or competing in the Volvo Ocean Race with the all-women Team SCA. Being a mother of two, the series, which has visited Singapore, Oman, China, Wales, Germany and Russia and next goes to Turkey then finally Australia, has brought complications for Ayton that the men might not necessarily experience. The fourth round in Cardiff, where The Wave moved a point ahead after coming out on top in the 32 grueling races held over four days, was the first time Ayton’s young sons Thomas and Oscar had seen her race.