By Mark Chisnell
It’s often said that sailing is an exclusive sport, the sole preserve of wealthy home counties types who drink gin and tonic and mutter about inside overlaps and the like at the yacht club bar. There are many challenges to this stereotype within Land Rover BAR, a couple of which are embodied by the two youngest members of the sailing team, Neil Hunter and Bleddyn Môn. Both hail from beautiful islands off the wild western coastline of the UK – very remote from the home counties. In the case of design team and sailing team member Bleddyn Môn it’s Anglesey, at the north-western tip of Wales.
“I grew up on Anglesey and as a family, we spent a lot of time going down the beach during summer holidays. My dad did a little bit of sailing at school when he was younger but not much. My mum didn’t do any sailing. We’re not a sailing family in any way. Essentially, we went to this beach and there was a sailing club there. Before we knew it, we’d had a go on a boat.
“Then my granddad got a Skipper 14. He did buy a lot of random stuff. He would bring it along and we’d go sailing at Traeth Bychan, a holiday beach, there are campsites all around it. We did some cruising around and had a picnic and what have you. I must have been five or six.”
It didn’t take long to get past the picnic stage. The Mirror dinghy was popular at the local sailing club, Red Wharf Bay Sailing and Water Sports Club. The home-build (initially at least), plywood family dinghy had been developed and promoted by the Mirror newspaper in the 1960s. “I have a couple of older brothers, there are two years between us and we got one or two Mirrors to start with; my two brothers would sail together in one Mirror and then I would sail with my dad in the other. We’d do a bit of sailing at the club, my brothers were probably getting a bit more competitive at that point because they would have been 10 and 12 years old. Essentially, I just followed them. I guess, being the little brother, I always wanted to do what they did.”
The three boys followed a trend at the club; as the children got older they moved out of Mirrors and into the single-handed Topper dinghy – a very popular class for juniors – and started to travel further afield to events. Then Dyfrig got selected from his performance at a Topper National Championships into the national junior squad. “I guess that’s when my parents realised, ‘Holy s**t, what have we done here?’”
The younger brothers soon followed and the whole family embarked on a circuit of events around the country. “We had bought this Volkswagen van, and had it converted into a camper van. We had that and we had a triple stacker trailer, we’d put all the Toppers in the back of it and we’d just go around the country.” Often the brothers would be at different events, hundreds of miles apart. “It was a bit of a logistical nightmare, particularly with my parents not having a sailing background, they wouldn’t have expected what was going to happen, I don’t think. They took it on. The whole competitive thing, national and international, it was all new.”
Life in the Môn’s household sounded particularly frantic in this period, because there wasn’t just the sailing. “I used to play cricket for the county too, I think when I was 13 or 14 I dropped most other sports and focused on sailing but, up until that point, I was playing cricket for the county, rugby for school, a lot of athletics. What else did I do? I played the trumpet, piano, there were family cycling holidays...”
In the end, it all got dropped in favour of the sailing. “l was probably 13 or 14 when I started realising I didn’t have the time and, for the rugby stuff, it was, ‘I'm going to get hurt, these lads are getting quite big now.’ I was serious about the cricket, but it was just that I knew I wasn’t as good at it. I could look at top cricket players and I couldn’t see the link between where I was and where they were.”
“In sailing, although I was just dreaming at that stage, I could see where the link was – I was part of a national squad when I was ten. There were people, coaches or whoever, that you could look at and see a bit of a route. I decided I was going to focus on sailing.” It was a win at the Topper National Championships in Largs in 2005 against 270 competitors that convinced him that he might have a future in the sport. The potential was confirmed a year later when he won it again at Weymouth, this time against 288 other boats. He was just 14 years old.
The designated pathway within the sport is to move from the Topper to the Laser, but Môn was much too light. “I was still 55kgs and no way was I going to go into a Laser. I was nowhere near big enough for it.” Bleddyn Môn started to look at his options. “I got drawn to a 29er (the youth skiff class). I remember sailing that for the first time and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is quick’. And then I found someone who had a boat and was an experienced crew. It was win-win.... We then did quite a bit of sailing out of Traeth Bychan – the beach on Anglesey – on our own, basically; me learning how to sail the thing. Lots of hours out there.
“We won two national championships in that boat as well. I think the first one may have been in the first year. It was quite a rapid learning curve. By the time I was in the 29ers I knew it was what I wanted to do. I guess that’s when I was starting to bug my parents a little bit and say, ‘I know what I'm going to do, I'm going to be a professional sailor.’ Mum’s a career’s adviser, so you can imagine, it was like, ‘Okay but maybe you should keep working at school as well.’”
By the time he finished in the 29er, Môn was in the second year of study for his A-levels, and once again the question was being asked about what to do next. “In the end, I went and did a year in a Laser Radial, went back to my singlehanded roots.” Logistically, it was a lot easier to have all three brothers in the same boat again, and he still needed to get his weight up to 70kgs to move up to the Olympic skiff, the 49er.
Meanwhile, with A* in Maths, Physics and Design Technology (STEM subjects) at A-level, Môn applied to Southampton University to study Mechanical Engineering with aerospace as a speciality. “It was mainly for the sailing, but it was one of the best places for engineering too. I considered Ship Science, but at the time I wasn’t sure what field of engineering I wanted to pursue, so opted to start studying MechEng and then specialise later. Also, at the time, I didn’t want to be overrun by sailing.” He also started to prepare for the move to the 49er, buying a boat with a friend from 29er racing who would be at Portsmouth University. They joined the RYA’s transitional squad for the move up to the Olympic class and started to train hard in Weymouth.
“I sailed for a year and a bit in the 49er but the hard thing was trying to get the partnership right. I'd been quite lucky up until that point. Whereas in that first year and second year of university, there was a lot of things going on and I think it becomes hard to nail down a good relationship and a good partnership with whoever you're sailing with. At the end of that first year, we stopped sailing together on the 49er.” And this was despite a top ten position at the 49er Youth World Championships.
Môn’s Olympic ambitions started to drift. He sailed in other classes, and new openings outside the Olympic pathway started to arise. He raced in a couple of rounds of the Extreme Sailing Series with Leigh McMillan. And then a very different opportunity came up. “I applied for an internship at Red Bull Racing. I got an interview, and to my surprise I managed to get a job with the aerodynamics team for a year. When I got there, I learned so much. It was cool to see an organisation like that which has been around for a while, and to see how it all worked.”
Môn moved to Milton Keynes, sharing a house with two friends from Southampton who also had internships there. He had accepted that for now he had to put his Olympic sailing ambitions on hold, and bought a foiling single-hander, the International Moth. He sailed it at a big local club (Grafham Water), and was also going to international events crewing in a three-person keelboat, the Etchells. Life wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the Olympic dream.
It was at this point that the America’s Cup in San Francisco caught his attention. “To be honest, that was the first time that I properly followed it, I knew about it but it was never really on my radar. I was Olympics, Olympics, Olympics. But when I saw the racing, I was like ‘S**t, that’s cool’. And I’d walk into the office at Red Bull and there were people who probably knew nothing about sailing who would talk about it. Something was going on, and that’s what I wanted to get into.”
Môn started to talk to people and see where there might be an opening. In the early part of the summer of 2014, while he was still at Red Bull, Alex Hopson called him. Hopson had been on the coaching staff at the RYA, and had subsequently joined Land Rover BAR’s strength and conditioning team. “He told me to contact Jono (Jono Macbeth, Sailing Team Manager), and I did, and they wanted someone to fill the slot for an Under-25 person on the boat for Cardiff (Extreme Sailing Series or ESS event), so I did that. I went to Cardiff and sailed with them there and I sailed the rest of that year with them.”
The year with Red Bull ended, and he returned to Southampton to finish his MEng, still sailing with Land Rover BAR at the ESS events. Macbeth knew about the Red Bull internship, and put him in touch with Andy Claughton, the team’s Chief Technology Officer. Môn came into the office in Fareham (as it was then) and did some work for the design team. “It was still very much, ‘We’ll see what happens’.”
The autumn was a busy period, with three events on the Extreme Sailing Series, all while Môn had to finish his MEng dissertation, and get ready for exams in January. “I knew they weren’t going to carry on with the Extremes the following year. So I approached Jono and we had a chat when I got back from Sydney, rather jet-lagged, about what to expect from here and the fact that, once I finished, I was keen to join. It must have been the early part of 2015 when it all got ticked off at the end. Then I finished my degree. I went to Bermuda for a training camp, and then I started officially the 1st July 2015.”
“The things that stand out as being the right doors to open were probably going into 29ers at the beginning. Then I think the first call I got to sail an Extreme 40 with Leigh [McMillan] was, obviously, a big one but I guess the reason for that is someone had seen that I was probably far too fit to be a 49er helm. And then the Red Bull internship leads into the fact that I've always tried to push on the academic side alongside sailing. I've always had that there as a back-up.”
It’s an unusual mix; Môn is one of the fittest members of the sailing team, but also one of only two (Andy McLean is the other) that hold official positions with the design team. “I thought that if I do want to get to the Olympics, I’ll need to be as fit as I can. Even when I didn’t have a crew or I didn’t have anybody to sail with or I didn’t have a boat, I could still go to the gym and train. I could control that bit. At least I’d feel like I was doing something and I was making some progress. Now is the time when all that work is paying off.”