Interview: Luke Patience, Olympic sailor

COMING from a long line of skippers, Luke Patience has sailing in his blood. Now the Scotsman is going overboard to win gold at this year’s Olympics

If his sailing partner Stuart Bithell should ever take a tumble overboard – perhaps the boom will suddenly and inexplicably swing at great speed across the boat and he just won't be quick enough to get out of its way, rendering him suddenly and inconveniently out of action for the Olympics – Luke Patience could do worse than give me a call.

It could happen.

Team Scotland won gold (well, liquid gold, actually – our prize was a bottle of Lanson White Label) when the pair of us took on groups of journalists and Olympians in a series of races on the Solent recently. The conditions were perfect: blazing sunshine and a nice, gentle breeze to fill our sails. A complete rookie, I had a crash course in tacking, steering, hoisting the mainsail and other sailing-type stuff I've already forgotten the jargon for. But Luke, mate, if you need me, you know where to find me.

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Originally from Aberdeen but growing up in the village of Rhu, near Helensburgh, the 25-year-old was born to sail. “I have pictures of me in a boat at three years old," he says. “All my grandfathers and great grandfathers on both my mum’s and dad's sides were all lifeboatmen or, going way back, Zulu fishermen. These were really ancient, massive, heavy boats in the north-east of Scotland, before the engine was around. They would sail and get their catch around the Moray Firth.

“My dad's also a keen sailor and he passed that on to me. Coming from a long line of skippers, I like to think it's in my blood."

The bug caught early; the mixture of the peace and quiet out on the water, the wind in his hair, the taste of salt on his tongue. “Life's easy on a boat. There are no rules, there are no roads, there are no straight lines – it's you and the ocean."

Of course, that's before you take into consideration his massive competitive streak – the drive to not just come second, but to win. “I don't know where that came from," he says, “because my mum and my dad (both architects) and my sister (a graphic designer) are so far from that. I was always like that, even as a kid. I took part in many other sports as well: I did tennis, gymnastics, every sport under the sun, but give me the water and I'm happy. Sailing just became the thing for me."

Asked once what he might be doing if he wasn't sailing, Patience said at the time that he'd work for Greenpeace, and it’s true, he has a keen ecological conscience. But he adds, “I'm a driven guy, so whatever I put my mind to, I could succeed. I was bright enough at school but I just didn't have much interest in it."

Instead, he would get out of bed at weekends, at just nine years old, in all weathers to train on the boat. “We have it hard in Scotland. It's horribly cold. In the winter there's snow, and the ropes on the boat are frozen and I'm snapping them over my knee to go training for the day. It makes you hard," he says.

What kept him going was the vision: the dream to be the best. He has fallen overboard more times than he can count; been injured over and over again. “But that's easy; taking injury is a piece of cake. The hardest mishaps are when you've failed. It's not a job. We put our hearts and souls into this, and I couldn't even put it into words to describe how hard it is when you fail at something you have worked for. But, do you know what, it's when you fail that the good stuff happens; you regenerate and come out of it better and stronger."

It was in 2009 that his sporting career came to a crossroads. His previous sailing partnership had come to an end and he was twiddling his thumbs, wondering what to do next, when he got a call from Bithell. “It was about two weeks before the world championships and he said, ‘Why don't we give it a go?' I had doubts, we ummed and ahhed about it, but we went there and won a silver medal, having had just five days in the boat together in the lead-up. It was just an explosion of good chemistry and we're a great team."

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The same year they finished second in the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta, and by the end of 2010 they had moved up to fourth in the world rankings. The pair now live in the same street in Portland, near Weymouth – “I can see his house from my bathroom window" – and are the best of friends. But his heart is still in his homeland. “I miss my friends, I miss the country, I miss the scenery, I miss everything about Scotland. But not half as much as I want to win a gold medal."

Patience and Bithell are competing in the men's 470 class – sailing a 4.7m-long monohull dinghy with a centreboard, Bermuda rig and centre sheeting, and equipped with a spinnaker and single trapeze – at the Olympics, though at the first hurdle it looked as though they might not even qualify. “We were second at the regatta that mattered," he recalls, “and only one team can go through. It was one of the hardest things that has ever happened, but it was also one of the best things. It taught us a big lesson as to why we failed. Also, it just made me even hungrier and even more determined that it would never, ever happen again.

“So we went to the world championships in November 2011 and the trials and did what we needed to do. It wasn't about doing our best; it was about getting a job done, and we were ruthless."

They are now focused on just one thing: winning gold at the Olympics. “It's not about the World Cup, it's not about the world championships, it's about Olympic glory – that's the only reason we do it. We are 100 per cent going for gold."

And after that, what then? “I do it all again," says Patience without hesitation. “I'm not doing this for any other reason than to stand on the podium and say, ‘I'm champion of the world.' I'll keep going until the day I don't feel that desire and that passion. It isn't going to be soon, I can tell you that much, and it isn't going to be after these games."

Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell are attending Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, immediately after the Olympic Games, 11 to 18 August