About this time two years ago, Jonathan Ladha and Dan Inkpen set sail on an ambitious quest to represent Canada in the 49er sailing class at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.
At the time, the pair had little to no experience in the vessel, a two-person 14-foot craft with a mast reaching 27 feet in height. But with a 2005 Canada Games bronze medal in the smaller 29er class, and gold at the national under-23 championship to their credit, along with ample faith in their own ability as hearty sailors, they set a course towards an end that would hopefully see them stand atop an Olympic podium.
And while it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, they recently won the Canadian championship in Kingston, Ont., besting the 2008 Beijing Olympians Gordon Cook and Hunter Lowden, and followed it up with a second victory at a training regatta.
“After 14 events over two years in the World Cup, it was only in the Canadian championship did we really see dramatic improvement,” says Ladha, the skipper.
“Now the people who said we might be spending a little too much time in Europe, doing it a bit overkill, are coming back and saying it looks like it really paid off.”
In truth, the wins at home are Ladha and Inkpen’s first since they embarked on the Newfoundland for Gold mission, which ultimately requires reaching, “the top of the world class in a fraction of the time that anybody else has,” according to Ladha.
They describe their first six months on the European circuit — competing against Brits, Danes and Italians, all practically born in sailboats — as, “baptism by fire.”
“Sailing against the best in the world, we were getting our asses kicked for a little while,” Inkpen recounts.
Undaunted, they stuck to their plan and trained twice as hard and competed in more events than any other boat on the circuit. Only into their second stint across the pond did they begin to see results that indicated a marked improvement, punctuated by their recent win at home.
“This is where we make the steps, so let’s make them and be more aware of them this time and make them show up, for God’s sake,” insists Ladha of their intent to return to Europe for a third tour.
“Now, even from a few months ago, we’re definitely not second guessing ourselves. We really believe we can do this.”
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The renewed and strengthened confidence is a result of the experience they have gained — collectively and individually — after two years of competition and training.
“When we started, we were young and inexperienced, we didn’t have routines. We just sailed,” admits Inkpen. “As we’ve progressed through the campaign, everything we do starts to become more routine and efficient.”
In the boat, Ladha handles the steering and handling the jib upwind, while working the main sail downwind. Inkpen controls the main sail upwind and the spinnaker (third sail) downwind.
Their roles outside the boat as just as clearly defined. Ladha deals primarily with the logistics end of things, everything from arranging freight for their vessels, seeking out accommodations, even researching their destinations to know where the closest gyms are located.
Boat maintenance is Inkpen’s bag.
“He likes that because it’s an opportunity for him to finally yell at me and order me around,” Ladha chides, adding that his partner is considered one of the best in the boat parks, including among the elite veterans, preparing a boat.
“He’s always thinking of new ways to kit out this little tiny thing. In this vessel, it’s all exponential, a little change goes a long way.”
Two years in, the cousins feel their partnership had become perfectly symbiotic.
“When stuff has to be done that doesn’t have to do directly with sailing, we know our roles.”
One chore they handle together is budgeting the funds received through Sport Canada and their sponsors — Newfoundland Liquor Corporation, Oceanex, Christopher Pratt, and Screech (“everybody loves the fact we are Newfoundlanders sponsored by Screech,” says Ladha).
Like many other 49er teams on the circuit, they’ve hired coaches for weeks at a time, but Ladha says it was only ever a, “quick bang of absorbing as much information as possible.”
Early this year, their fortunes improved when the Canadian Yacht Association hired Brit Steve Mitchell, a former world champ in another class, to work with Canada’s sailing teams. Both agree that having a consistent coach, an objective eye, is necessary.
“You have to fine tune. The top teams in the world all have the best coaches and they always have good results. That’s gotta tell you something. You can’t go it alone,” insists Ladha.
While Mitchell isn’t a 49er sailor, he’s able to offer a competitive sailors’ insight into a sport where split-second decision-making can mean the difference between finishing third or 30th.
“He’s more about what you need to make the boat do,” adds Inkpen.
The Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s natives have also benefited from working with local sports psychologist John Rowe, who has helped them talk over the various situations that can arise on the water.
“In performance, it’s not reacting to a situation, it’s acting and anticipating the situation that’s about the happen,” explains Ladha.
After a quick trip home for Thanksgiving, Inkpen and Ladha are headed back to Miami for a training camp, followed by a national team camp in December. After Christmas, it’s back down south for the Miami Olympic Class Regatta, which also serves as the team Canada 49er qualifier for the season and for the World Championships in Perth, Australia next December.
If they meet their goals in Miami — “very high personal goals… well within that qualification system Canada deems necessary,” explains Ladha — they’ll get the max funding, half their annual budget, from Sport Canada.
Regardless of what happens in Florida, the plan is to continue on to Europe in the New Year where a boat awaits them in storage in Weymouth, England, making this season much cheaper and easier to navigate.