Double Olympic gold-winning sailor Shirley Robertson OBE has gone from sailing the lochs of Scotland to racing Volvo race boats to helming superyachts. Hired as helmswoman for S/Y Salperton IV last year and S/Y Moonbird this year, she spoke to Angela Audretsch about sailing the biggest boats of her career.

How did you get into sailing?

By today’s standards I was slow to get going. I grew up right in the middle of Scotland, so nowhere near the sea, but my dad had done his national service in the navy, so he loved the water. I sailed various boats, went around some of the clubs in Scotland, then when I was about 14 and I had a laser, I was spotted by the Scottish men’s coach and he invited me that winter to train with the men. We had quite a good team in Scotland then. That was a really big breakthrough for me because I trained all winter with people who were significantly better than me. And I became part of the official system.

Shirley Roberton on board Salperton. (Credit: Carlo Borlenghi)

What do you love about the sport?

I still remember that feeling of sailing by myself. That confidence it gives you. I still have that today. I still very much love being on a boat. I love that feeling when you untie and off you go. I still get great pleasure sailing single-handed on my on a very small dinghy. If you asked other what my skills on a boat are, they would say that I have a good feel of a boat, whether that is on Salperton at 47m or a dinghy at 3m. I love feeling the movement of the boat and the performance of the boat through my bum, through the tiller, through the ropes. I still very much love that.

How did you start racing superyachts?

I’d been on some superyachts with work because I do a monthly show on CNN called Mainsail. That is when I first met Barry Houghton, the owner of Salperton. I’d been to St Barths before but only filming. Barry wanted a new helmsperson and Barry knew me and Ed Dubois, an old friend, recommended me and off I went. I was a bit nervous, it is a big boat 47m, and there are a lot of people. I had sailed bigger boats before, I’d raced TP52s (Transpac 52) and Volvo boats but there is a whole other boat in front of those on a superyacht! I remember my first time kind of thinking ‘right, pretend I know what I am doing’. I had a great team and Cameron Appleton was the tactician who was fantastic. If you have a good bunch of people around you, who you know can pull off anything, you can concentrate on your job. So I concentrated on keeping the boat going fast and doing the manoeuvres well. I can lock on to getting the best out of the boat.

Shirley won a gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

And this year you have been at the helm of Moonbird

I was pleased to get asked to race on Moonbird. It is a good boat; another Dubois. Starting with a whole new is always a bit strange but a few of us came over from Salperton. The first few days are always about getting to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. It always feels a bit like starting again. But it has all worked well.

What do owners need to think about when selecting race crew?

It is important when you are selecting your crew, that it is not just about someone who can get your spinnaker up and down and make sure the bucket line isn’t tangled, things do go wrong. You don’t want someone who is just used to a race boat who can get the kite up and down, you need people who understand how the boat works. The boats are inherently dangerous when people race them: big loads, big gears, big sails, big. It is easy for people to forget how dangerous these boats are because they are so luxurious, but I never do. And I think that is what our strengths are, particularly last year on Salperton. No one on the boat forgot that. People are more important than winning.

What do you love about the St Barths Bucket?

I like the orienteering side of things. That feeling when you are approaching a rock and there are lots of other boats and you have to think ahead. You need a good navigator, that is absolutely crucial! On Moonbird, we have Ian Moore, a Volvo Ocean Race navigator. He is world class, so always have total confidence in him. If he says ‘no higher’ and you are going around a rock, I believe him. A lot of people may look at superyachts and say that they are just big cruisers, but you need a lot of skill to sail them and race them.

If you had the opportunity to buy a superyacht, what would you buy?

I appreciate a boat that sails well and I would be bored if it didn’t. I wouldn’t want a boat that was too big. If look at Salperton now, she has very classic lines and she still looks good. I would want a boat that looked good even when she aged.

A full feature with Shirley Robertson can be found in Issue 13 of The Superyacht Owner. Members can read it online here. To become a full member, click here.