Not All Plain Sailing For Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern

Meet the Irish 49er team aiming for Olympic glory

The Carrickfergus and Bangor harbours are 20 miles apart by road, or by six miles of water if you go across Belfast Lough. It is about the same distance between the Weymouth and Portland harbours in England.

Those are the Olympic sailing venues where rowers Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern, who make up the Irish 49er class entry at the London 2012 Games, will be competing this August.

'We only got together about three years ago,' explains McGovern, who is a member of Ballyholme Sailing Club. 'I was aware of Ryan, but had never raced against him. He was a junior at the time of my previous Olympics campaign.'

'Matt and I were brought together for the 2012 Olympics bid by the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland,' adds Seaton, who belongs to Carrickfergus Sailing Club. At 25 years of age he is three years younger than his competitive partner.

'It was quite a challenge to begin with, because I was so used to sailing on my own. It was difficult at times learning to communicate around the course. Hopefully Matt and I have nailed it.'

The 49er vessel is a double-handed trapeze skiff sailing dinghy, which made its first appearance at the Sydney Games in 2000.

'It’s the fastest of the Olympic classes and you can recognize it with its big colourful sails,' says Seaton. 'It’s like a two-man wind surfer. We hang over the side, strapped in to harnesses that are attached to the mast by wire. We’re always standing and it is very physical.'

In competition, the 49ers have three races a day, with each lasting about half an hour. The object is to get the boat to go as fast as possible three times around the course.

'That seems quite simple, but there is a great deal more to it,' explains McGovern. 'We go upwind to begin with using the elements as best we can to go faster than the other sailors, with me trimming the sails and Ryan steering the boat.

'When we get to the marker we have to turn. Once we are downwind we use the big sail to double the speed of the boat. It’s a combination of skills, tactics, boat speed and handling, trying not to capsize the boat and playing the weather better than the other sailors.'

Seaton says that he and McGovern share the responsibility for how they finish in the race. Each has a specific role to play. While McGovern is trimming the sails to increase or reduce the boat’s speed, Seaton is steering the best course.

'We usually have a plan before the race in which we discuss what the wind is likely to do. It really is about team work, too, as we try to help each other, because either of us can make a mistake or fall over.'

And according to McGovern, success or failure is built on friendship as well. 'We have the same ambitions, drive and motivation to win. As you can imagine, given the time we spend together, if you don’t have a good relationship with the other person, it is very hard to survive as a team.

'You see a lot of teams that come and go. Great individuals who don’t gel as a team, maybe because of the pressures of the training and the competition and how that leads into the home life. You really do have to be able to get along. It wouldn’t work otherwise.'

'If we have issues on the water,' adds Seaton, 'we need to forget about it when we come ashore. Sometimes that is very difficult to do. At dinner time I might be annoyed with him or he is angry with me, but you try your best to brush it aside and get on with it. That is the best way to cope.'

Seaton and McGovern gained qualification for London 2012 at an ISAF World Championship event in Perth, Australia in December 2011, where they finished 10th overall and managed two fifth-place finishes during the six days of competition.

'It was a big relief,' says Seaton. 'We qualified on day three, with another three days to go. It was a terrific feeling, but we had still a job to do. Our aim was to finish in the top ten, not just to qualify, and we achieved that.

'There was immense satisfaction at having delivered after all the hard work and the years of training, and it takes the pressure off us. The next Olympic qualifier was in Croatia in May, but we can concentrate our preparations on the Games themselves.'

'While that pressure is off us now, we are able to put others things on ourselves just to make sure that we continue to perform well,' concludes McGovern, who narrowly missed out on competing in Beijing after failing to get through qualification with his brother Russell.

'We feel that while we have overcome the obstacle of qualification, it is only one small part of it all. We’ve a decent break at home now, and we are able to look at other areas of what we have to do to be better sailors, such as our racing skills and our boat handling skills.

'We have lots of regattas to take part in between now and August, so we will be able to hone down our skills to be in the best shape possible. At the end of the day we don’t want to go to Weymouth for a holiday and to get a nice tee shirt.'