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49er Champions on a mission: We speak to Dylan Fletcher & Stu Bithell

by Mark Jardine 11 Apr 09:30 BST
Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell in their 49er © British Sailing Team

2017 was a huge year for the British Sailing Team's Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell. Winning the 49er World Championship was a milestone in their career. We spoke to them both to hear their plans, aspirations, how they came together as a team, and their relationship with Marlow Ropes.

Winning any open meeting, regatta or championship is a huge achievement, but a World Championship in an Olympic class is massive. Dylan and Stu explain what the feeling was like at the time:

"That was something special," said Dylan, "It was something I only dreamed about for a long time and, after teaming up with Stu, it was a goal; but it was a distant goal that we didn't think we'd be achieving so quickly in our campaign together. So, to first win the Europeans and then the Worlds was fantastic."

Stu echoed Dylan's comments: "Winning the Worlds was pretty special. I've done quite a lot of sailing in my life in different classes, and have come second a lot - including at the Olympics - and a few times at the 470 Worlds, but I'd never actually won a World Championship before. To win it with Dylan, as a new team and ahead of our targets, was brilliant. It was a brilliant year and hopefully same again this year!"

In previous Olympic quadrennial cycles, we've seen that if a team gets it together early on then they are often the ones who achieve success in the Olympics itself, and this is clearly the aim of Dylan and Stu.

"For sure. We've looked at the likes of Ben Ainslie, Giles Scott, Nathan (Outteridge) & Gooby (Iain Jensen), Peter Burling & Blair Tuke and they all dominated relatively early in a cycle," said Dylan. "We put a gold medal at the top of our campaign and we knew to do that we didn't want to just go to Tokyo and have a chance of a gold medal, we wanted to be the team that people said, 'Oh yes, the 49er class, Dylan & Stu are the favourites'. To do that we've got to be dominating early. We've got some of the best sailors in the world in our class and we want to show that when they come back we can beat them."

Stu agreed that dominating early is a key stepping-stone to the Olympics: "We've had a great start and history has proven that those who win the medals are the ones who are winning throughout the cycle."

Dylan and Stu gelled as a team incredibly quickly and their individual skills have proved to be complimentary as Dylan explained:
"As soon as we got in the boat we were fast and seemed to make good decisions. There's a lot of banter in the boat and it's good fun, but it's also serious and professional. I think we have a very good balance. He's very good at making a boat go fast and the way he moves the mainsheet complements how I steer the boat and that makes a huge difference. Our communication on the boat helps me make the right decisions and it all just works."

The British Sailing Team are lucky to have partners like Marlow Ropes. This support means a lot to the sailors:
"Marlow have been a huge supporter for not just the British Sailing Team but myself personally for a number of years," said Dylan. "It's been awesome to work with them and develop new rope with them and it's something which is really important on the 49er. We want the fastest kit, we want the lightest and strongest rope – pushing with Marlow has helped us achieve our goals."

"We've very fortunate to have great suppliers and Marlow share the same vision as the British Sailing Team," said Stu, "They are at the top of their game and we're just lucky that we can use their products which deliver world-class performance."

Reliability at events is key. One lost race due to gear failure can mean a championship is over.

"Reliability is everything," explained Dylan, "We do a huge amount of boat work and we're meticulous with all three of our boats, ensuring they are all ready for the Olympics at any one time. All the Marlow Ropes are perfect, and we have confidence that when we need it, we can rely on it."

"The old saying of 'control the controllables' is more relevant than ever before," said Stu. "You just can't afford to lose events from kit failure or rope failure so a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of expertise goes into everything so that, come a World Championship or Olympic Games or any big regatta, no reliability issues will affect our result. We can then let our sailing do the talking."

Dylan and Stu are both keen International Moth sailors and we asked them what the draw of the class is.

Dylan: "It is just the best boat to sail: the feeling of foiling, flying, the speed, the sensitivity and you feel so in tune with everything and you're pinging past nearly everything else on the water. It's fantastic fun, good racing and I'm just disappointed that the 49er racing gets in the way sometimes!"

Stu: "It is just such a cool boat to sail. When I got in the boat, the foiling experience was something else – stepping from a fast boat like the 49er into something even faster is really exhilarating. A lot of people got into foiling because of the America's Cup and the way that was going, building experience for that, so you saw a lot of the professional sailors come to the Moths, or come back to the class, and keep their foiling experience fresh. All of that brings high quality racing, high quality boats, opportunities to develop your kit and it's just a really healthy class. You can buy kit off the shelf and be really quick and have a really good time – it's a really intriguing class in my opinion."

The highlight for the 2018 season is the Sailing World Championship in Aarhus, Denmark, when Dylan and Stu will be defending their 49er title.

Dylan: "This year we have two big events and the main importance of Aarhus is qualifying Great Britain for Tokyo 2020. That's first and foremost and then we'll be looking to defend our title. We're also putting a lot of emphasis on Japan, where the Sailing World Cup event is at the Olympic venue in September, and for us this will be our first real opportunity to race in Games-like conditions. We'll be taking our best kit from Aarhus to Japan, so we can really test ourselves out there and see how we're getting on."

Stu: "The Worlds in Aarhus is our main event, but we need to get out in Japan and experience the sea breeze conditions. We've been out there twice already, but not in the wind conditions we're likely to get at the Olympics."

Lastly, we asked Stu what advice he'd give to an aspiring young sailor trying to get into the sport: "The thing which hooked me on sailing early on was going down to my local sailing club, going out in a club-owned Optimist and having fun on the water. If you get out on the water, have fun and spend time with your mates, all the rest of the stuff builds around it; you start to get better, you start to go racing, you want to race your mates, but the core of all that is getting out there and having fun. At some point go racing and that then becomes the fun. Just get out there, get involved, stay warm and have fun! The fun part isn't just limited to being on the water – you get to meet new friends, the club environment is great and family-orientated, it's a great sport and hobby to be a part of."

The team have a plan and the focus is clearly on Tokyo 2020. We wish them all the best in their preparations throughout this year and beyond.

Find out more about Marlow Ropes at www.marlowropes.com and more about Dylan and Stu at www.teamfletcherbithell.com

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