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From Mallorca Optis to Figaro star: We speak to #TeamCrewsaver's Alan Roberts

by Mark Jardine 3 Sep 2018 12:00 BST
Alan Roberts's Figaro yacht © Thomas Deregnieaux / Alan Roberts Racing

We spoke to #TeamCrewsaver sailor Alan Roberts during a lifejacket training day at the Crewsaver head office. Alan discussed his route into sailing, his first racing, how he got into offshore sailing, the skills and mindset needed when singlehanded sailing, and also about the Crewsaver #LifejacketSafe campaign.

Mark Jardine: When did you first start sailing?

Alan Roberts: I started competitively sailing in the year 2000 in Mallorca, when I was living out there and sailing Optimists. Before that I did a little bit of Mirror sailing with my father down in Salcombe, mainly as a bit of fun, going out and eating picnics on the water and doing a bit of racing on the side.

Mark: You rose up the ranks pretty quickly on the racing side. Do you remember your first ever race?

Alan: I remember the Mirror racing down at Salcombe Youth Week, and I remember my first year of Optimist sailing in Mallorca was fun. I went to a summer camp at the local club and got into racing there, wanting to do more. I got given a boat and my sailing kit from the club, and went along to my first sailing event in Minorca, and there were 150 Optimists on the start line, all speaking Spanish! It was great fun, I absolutely loved it and couldn't get enough of it.

I then moved back to the UK and started sailing in the youth scene, first Toppers and then 29ers, and quickly progressed into adult boats, including RS200s, International 14s, Merlin Rockets and Moths. Then keelboats such as the XOD, SB20 and whatever else I could get my hands on.

Mark: As a top dinghy sailor and small keelboat sailor, what was it that attracted you to offshore sailing?

Alan: I've always been interested in offshore sailing, mainly because I'm very lucky to come from a family where my father was heavily involved in it, building masts for race boats. So I've always had that connection and my heroes are from offshore sailing, such as Ian Walker and Neal McDonald. Seeing the projects and people my Dad was involved with - such as Ellen MacArthur, Sam Davies and Tony Bullimore - inspired me to be involved in the offshore world, and the two races I've most wanted to do are the Vendée Globe and the Volvo Ocean Race.

I got into Figaro sailing through friends of mine who were doing Figaro racing and invited me on for a delivery trip, and I instantly loved it, as it meant I could sail all the way through the night as well as the day. I then had the opportunity to be involved in the Artemis Offshore Academy, which brought me in and launched me on the road I'm now on.

Mark: What is it you enjoy most about being alone on a boat?

Alan: No-one to contradict your decisions! I just love that you're involved in every aspect of it; you're trimming the sails, you're racing the boat, you're doing the tactics and you have to know everything on board. If you're lacking or forget one part, then it very quickly shows. I love being wholly involved and for me it's about every detail; I enjoy being part of a crew, and historically I am a team player, but I like doing it all and learning about it all.

Mark: So, you really have to be a rounded sailor to be able to sail alone offshore?

Alan: I think so, and that's always been my goal. I've never really been a specialist helm, and even down to my professional life beforehand as a Naval Architect I was quite an all-rounder. If something goes wrong offshore you need to be able to deal with it on every level, whether that's the technical side, the trimming of the sails, the steering, or dealing with the electronics – you have to have that all-round knowledge.

Mark: Your safety sponsor, Crewsaver, have been very active over the last couple of years with their #LifejacketSafe campaign, which is in everybody's interests. What do you think you can do to help spread that message and get the necessity of lifejacket servicing out to lifejacket users?

Alan: What they've done is the right thing and is helping move safety at sea forward massively. I can lead by example as I spend a lot of time on the water and wearing a lifejacket has to become second nature. As soon as you take your lifejacket off and feel too relaxed, that's when the problems will happen – whether you're singlehanded, on a crewed boat, or going out for a blast in a RIB across the Solent. Showing people that firstly they have to wear it, and secondly, they have to look after it.

Mark: We're here at Crewsaver and you've been learning directly about the different features of the lifejackets you use and giving your feedback from the racing you do into future ideas which could be incorporated. How often do you check your lifejacket?

Alan: I have two lifejackets that I use whilst racing and training – the Crewsaver ErgoFit 290N Extreme and Crewfit 180N Pro. Approximately monthly I take my lifejacket apart. Before any race we go through a measurement process and opening up the lifejacket with an official is part of the process and there are standard checks on the cylinder, trigger, light and hood. I know that when I start my race, I've got a piece of equipment that works and the race authorities know that as well. In addition, Crewsaver also strongly recommend that all lifejackets should be professionally serviced at an approved lifejacket service station every year.

Mark: While a lot of modern lifejackets do have the visual indicators for the inflation mechanism, is it only when you burst it open and take a look that you really see that everything is in the shape it should be?

Alan: Yes, the main thing is that it's so easy to do. You can blow it up as well and things can look good, but it only takes one small nick in it or a bit of corrosion and you're trusting your life to something that's not going to do the job. For ten minutes of your life to check a lifejacket, washing it after a week of sailing, it's time very well spent.

Mark: As part of the #LifejacketSafe campaign, Crewsaver encourage people to get to know their lifejacket and check it is action-ready. Is it easier than people might first imagine?

Alan: Yes, it's so easy. It's probably not being daunted, it's more laziness, and we're all guilty of it - you finish sailing, go hang your kit up, and go and have a beer. That's fine, but later on that week just open it up, rinse it, and check it out. There aren't that many components, but they need to be checked and they're there to save your life.

Mark: What other sports and activities do you enjoy out on the water apart from your sailing?

Alan: I like to windsurf, I like to paddleboard, I like to swim. I just love to be in, on, or around the water, experiencing all these different activities and I feel I learn something different from each of them. I used to go kayaking at low tide around Hayling, learning all the banks, it all adds up and has helped me do well in races.

Mark: What are your goals for the 2018 season?

Alan: I'm out there to learn and progress, but I'd like to aim for a top ten in La Solitaire du Figaro - I've been there before and I know I can do it again, and I can push the top five on my day. It's the last year of the Figaro 2 design and I'll be giving it all I can on every level of the campaign. I know I've got the speed from racing against the top sailors all through the winter in training and in the first two races of the year and I've just got to keep that going towards the Solitaire at the end of August.

Mark: Have you had time for some dinghy sailing as well?

Alan: I sailed in the RS200s at Carnac and Salcombe Merlin Rocket Week, but no International 14 sailing because the Solitaire has been my focus.

Mark: What's your ultimate ambition in sailing?

Alan: The main aim and project that I am working on is the Vendée Globe. The push in the Figaro is to keep learning and keep sailing amongst the right people and in the right areas, so that when I am ready to move into the IMOCA 60, I'm not lacking on the sailing side.

Mark: If you were to give a young sailor one piece of advice when they're starting out in sailing, what would you tell them to do?

Alan: Enjoy it. Enjoy every moment, because if you're not having fun on the water then I don't think there's much point in being there, but I think that expands across your whole life. Enjoy the sailing and there isn't one defined route you have to go. Sailing is such a diverse sport with so many different areas, from cruising, sailing the North West Passage to cruising the Caribbean, to racing in high-performance dinghies in Sydney Harbour, to offshore races around the world, to sailing a Topper in Hamble River; there's such a vast array of options. If you don't enjoy one area then try another area – don't force it, enjoy whatever you do, experiment with different areas and you may find your tastes change as you get older. But mainly just enjoy it and if you want to take it further then put the work in and spend as much time on the water as possible.

Mark: It's been great to get an insight into your thoughts and campaign, thank you very much for your time.

Alan: Cheers Mark.

Find out more about lifejacket servicing at

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