By Mark Chisnell
“I'm from a small town in Northern Spain called Ibarra which is 30 kilometres inland, so we're not on the coast. No one in my town sails or used to sail – even now, actually, no one sails.”
It’s a remarkable statement from a man with an Olympic gold and silver medal in sailing; a three time world and European champion in the Olympic 49er class, with five racing circumnavigations of the planet under his belt, including a second place in the double-handed Barcelona World Race.
When it comes to sailboat racing experience, there are very few people with a CV like Xabi Fernandez, which is why he’s on the Land Rover BAR sailing team. But how did he get from a small town in the Basque country – where the expertise was all about making paper, and no one went sailing – to become one of the world’s top sail racers?
It began with family summer holidays by a lake in the Pyrenees. Fernandez’s father was interested in sailing, and had already taken lessons at a school on the coast. “They had a small sailing school at the lake, they were very nice people, and that's where we started sailing; my brother and I in the Optimist. We started sailing there just in the summer.”
The family bought a Vaurien, a French design of two-person dinghy with a spinnaker, and Fernandez soon progressed to sailing that with his dad. “We began just in the summer holiday for fun, but then we started to do more. My brother is three years older than me, so when he started racing, I started as well. I was six or seven, I think. We started travelling around the Basque country to different events.”
Dinghy sailing was new to the region; most of the sailing in Spain was on the Mediterranean coast, with Barcelona the powerhouse. Things started to change in the mid-1970s as more people took up the sport around the country. By 1992, the Basque country had its first Optimist National champion in Iker Martinez, and sailing started to grow even faster.
“Iker is one year younger than me but he sailed all the way to 15-years-old in the Optimists. When I was 12 or 13, I think, I couldn't sail the Optimist any more, I was too big.” It was only when the brothers moved into the bigger Vaurien that the results started to come, winning national championships.
“We were lucky because my father was a teacher, and there was a big area behind the school. It used to be the gym a long time ago, but it was empty then, no one used it. We could keep all the boats there, if you don't live near the coast, you have nowhere to leave the boat.”
It was the inspiration of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, with Spanish sailors winning four golds and a silver, that pushed the Fernandez brothers into the 470 Olympic dinghy – one of the 1992 gold medal winning classes. They were soon picked up by the Spanish Federation and put into a development squad with training camps and racing. It lasted for a couple of years from 1993 to 1995, and with most of it happening in Barcelona, it meant a lot of travelling.
“At the end we left the boat in Barcelona and took the overnight train to stay there a week or four days, but we never had very good results in the 470. And then my brother went to another city to study at university, so we were split up and could sail less and less. We stopped sailing in the 470 in '96 I think.”
Without his brother, Xabi Fernandez’s interest in sailing waned, he went trekking and climbing in the nearby Pyrenees and turned to road cycling to get his competitive fix. He started racing bikes in 1996, and did it for three years while he was at university in his home town. This was the era of Miguel Indurain, five times winner of the Tour de France and a huge Spanish hero; cycling was massive in the country as a result.
The sailing had given him an extra 4 or 5kgs of upper body muscle that was just extra weight on a bike, and he never looked like making it as a professional, but he raced at the top amateur level in Spain, right below the pros. “The first year was a disaster, the second year was better,” said Fernandez. He finished most of his races in the top 50, but that was as good as it got.
“I planned to keep going in cycling,” he continued eventually, “but during the winter I did one race with Iker Martinez, my friend.” Iker Martinez, the Basque country’s first Optimist National Champion, had developed into a top Olympic prospect. He now had support from the national authority for an Olympic campaign in the 49er, but he was struggling to find a crew.
“I tried sailing with Iker and we ended up training for a week or 10 days and straight away I liked the boat, the 49er. Then we had a very interesting chat, I knew that I was going nowhere with cycling, despite doing it 100%. I had just finished my studies, and could decide what to do next – work or sail or what to do? We decided to do one year, or maybe go all the way to Sydney, we'd see – but we do it 100%. Although you don't need to convince Iker to do anything 100%. So I went back to sailing, sailed twice a day and everything, the right preparation.”
The Spanish Sailing Federation provided the support for the sailing, and the Basque community provided enough for the boys to live on. “In those days it had just started to be professional. I remember that when I started sailing, when I talked to my parents I would say that if I could one day buy a house through sailing then it will be enough, I would be happy with that. I wasn’t thinking that this was going to be my life forever.”
The next few years were a whirlwind. They didn’t qualify for Sydney, but in 2001 they got sponsorship from Telefonica through a very influential figure in Spanish professional sailing, Pedro Campos. It was the beginning of a very long and successful commercial relationship. A year later they repaid the confidence with a win at the 49er Worlds, they won again in 2004 before taking the gold medal at the Athens Olympics the same year.
Over the next ten years the pair – almost always with commercial backing, support and organisation from Campos – competed in that unbelievable roster of events; two more Olympics, five circumnavigations and finally an America’s Cup with Luna Rossa in 2013.
There are far too many stories to tell from this epic bucket list, but one stands out: the spectacular error they made in provisioning for the Barcelona double-handed round the world race. Sailing an older generation boat, they were very concerned that they would be a lot heavier, and decided to try to even it up by cutting back as much as possible on fuel and food.
“We went way too far. The food we had for both of us probably wouldn't be enough for one. The same with the gas. I had my last coffee in the Cook Strait in New Zealand. The guys [actually he called them something different, but this is a family show] in the shore team, they put aboard one sachet of coffee a day. In the Med for the first week, I was drinking five or six a day, then I realised there was only enough for one. The last hot drink we had was at Cape Horn.
“We were so close to stopping to take on food, but we didn’t. I lost about 23kgs, Iker about the same. But there are many more good things than bad things involved in offshore sailing. People always talk about the cold, the lack of sleep, the storms, but it's not always like this.”
The other thing that it’s important to understand is the intensity of his schedule, particularly in the years from 2008 to 2015, just before he joined Land Rover BAR. “I did six major events in seven years; two Olympics, three round the world races and one America’s Cup. You will be lucky to find people who have these six things in their whole life. And in that time, in a year, I’d be home less than 20 or 25 days. It’s too much sailing, when I have two kids at home.”
Xabi Fernandez left his family in Spain, as his wife works there in a bank. “The problem is I realise that I'm getting old, not just because of my age but it’s also harder to be away from the family. You see your kids growing so fast. In some ways I think I have to start slowing down but when opportunities are coming like this one, you can't say no, right?
“I know so many people that have slowed down or made the step to coaching or something and there's no way back. I mean, it's going to happen to all of us one day, right? At this stage, I feel that if I can just contribute something that’s a positive.”
Xabi Fernandez had known Ben Ainslie for a long while, their stellar Olympic careers had overlapped. “We never sailed against each other because he was in the Laser or Finn and we were in the 49er. And I also knew Freddie [David Carr], CJ [Paul Campbell-James], Giles [Scott] and Nick [Hutton] as they were with me at Luna Rossa.”
Originally, Fernandez had planned to return to Luna Rossa for the 2017 America’s Cup after another lap of the planet in 2014-15. But by the time he had crossed the finish line of that race, the Italian team had withdrawn from the competition.
Ainslie got in touch, and Fernandez was soon on his way to join the British team. When pushed to define what’s led to his remarkably successful career, Fernandez puts it mostly down to hard work.
“I don't know, but I think a lot of people would find it hard to believe how much we worked and sailed in those years at the beginning. I think that's the good thing we did all those years. Then we had the opportunity of being in a team with Pedro managing it, which gave us a lot of opportunities. The sport still fascinates me, all of it does.” And the hard work goes on.