Tom Burton ran away with victory at the Sailing’s World Cup event in Miami at the end of January, a result which surprised even the reigning Olympic Champion himself. “I was using a charter boat in Miami,” says the Australian sailor. “I guess a lot of the other guys were using charter boats too, but this definitely wasn’t the world’s best boat and I was getting my arse handed to me in the training sessions leading up to the regatta. So I was surprised that I ended up winning the event the way I did.”
The regatta started out light, and Burton wonders whether having a slow boat forced him to take more risks than he’d usually be comfortable with. “I was definitely doing some things that I probably normally wouldn't do, but it paid off. I guess it forced me into trying a few things that maybe other people do every day.”
That learning experience might feed into Burton’s quest to win a first world title. He’s won the big one, the Olympic Games at Rio 2016, he’s won numerous World Cup events, but for 2018 the big goal is to top the podium at the World Championships this August in Aarhus, Denmark. “I've been pretty consistent at the Worlds. I think I've got eight results in the top ten and four in the top three, but never the number one spot so that'll be the goal for 2018.”
Asked what he’s going to do differently, Burton thinks for a while before answering. “More mental than anything. Normally I'm pretty well dialled in for knowing what my body needs, to make sure I’m fit enough to be fast enough to go well at the Worlds. But being mentally prepared enough to make the big decisions when it matters the most, I guess. The World Cup events happen every few months, and the Olympics happens every four years, so the events that are further apart, there’s an added pressure that goes with that because you’ve got fewer shots at getting it right. That’s what the Worlds feels like, because it only comes around once a year.” The key to doing well in these high-pressure regattas is knowing when to sail within your limits, race conservatively for small gains and minimise the losses; and then there are those other times when you have to go with your gut and take a few risks. That’s what racing the slow charter boat in Miami might have taught Burton. “As long as I can turn that on sometimes and then know when to dial it back again, that could be the key to doing well.”
The first month after winning gold at the Olympics was a green and gold blur of a celebration tour around Australia with medal winners from other sports. When Burton finally got home to Sydney, it was time to relax and grab some hard-earned rest, and a break from campaigning the Laser. Only now, with two and a half years go to Tokyo 2020, is he really winding back up to full campaign speed along with the other world-class Aussies that he’ll have to beat for national selection, including the very quick Matt Wearn.
Taking a bit of time out from full-on campaigning has given Burton the chance to try a few other things like competing at the International Moth World Championships in a 220-boat fleet at Lake Garda. “I was 13th, and I was pretty happy with that because I didn’t put a lot of time into it,” says Burton. Fellow Laser Olympic Champion Paul Goodison dominated those Worlds, and Laser Olympic Champions generally seem to do pretty well in the Moth despite the obvious differences between the two boats. But Burton has put aside any plans to follow in Goodison’s footsteps for the time being. “It’s not a cheap boat, and I can’t afford the time and the money to do it properly,” says Burton.
Where Burton would like to emulate Goodison is in his success at the Star Sailors League, the Finals of which the British sailor won last December in the Bahamas. “I got asked to do it quite a few years in a row but it always clashed with Sail Melbourne in the Laser, which I had to do as my home regatta on the Olympic circuit. But then in 2016 I decided I was going to do it, no matter what.”
Burton had sailed a Star just a few times before. “My dad bought one back in about 2010 from Iain Murray and Dog [Andrew Palfrey], and I sailed it maybe five times with my dad until he sold it a few years later. Because of that connection, I decided to get in touch with Dog to see if he’d crew for me at the Star Sailors League. He’s pretty accomplished in his own right so it was great to be teaming up with Dog, but what I sort of forgot about was how much the weight mattered in the Star.” Together, Burton and Palfrey weighed in some way under the Star’s crew weight limit. “So we struggled for pace and we didn’t get any time for practice but still had a great time at the event, racing against all those legends.”
Burton definitely caught the bug for the Star Sailors League. “After seeing what Paul did last year I’d really like to come back, probably with a bit of practice and probably with a heavier crew.” He loves the sudden death format too although not enough to want to see it adopted for the Olympic Games. “I loved watching it online all through the week last year. But the four-boat final is brutal, especially how Paul got a bad start off the line and was forced into an early tack to clear his breeze. The other three were tacking on each other while Paul lucked in and found some better wind by himself on the far side. Fair play to him, he won the race and won the regatta, but I wouldn’t want to see the gold medal decided that way in the Olympics.”
Meanwhile Burton is working hard on improving his already world-class Laser skills. The 27-year-old is pulling out all the stops to win that elusive first World title in Denmark later this summer. “My goal is to put in a decent performance and be standing on that top step. That’s the plan, so if it doesn't happen then I'll be upset.”
Andy Rice, SailingIntelligence.co