A disparity in age, experience and physical ability is no barrier to Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell forming a successful partnership in the Paralympic SKUD 18 class. Matthew Sheahan finds out how they tick
When Alexandra Rickham describes the distribution of duties between herself and her Paralympic SKUD team mate Niki Birrell as ‘playing to our strengths’, her words carry extra meaning. Confined to a wheelchair following a diving accident when she was 13 years old, Rickham, now 30, is severely limited in her ability to help out with physical tasks. Yet, despite having the least experience in sailing in Team GBR, she has helmed the British SKUD 18 to an impressive list of podium results and brings plenty to the partnership.
Birrell, meanwhile, who has cerebral palsy and is five years younger, has been racing competitively for as long as he can remember. While his education delivered a degree in business studies and an ambition to set up his own business at some point in the future, the reality is that he is a competitive sailor to the core. When asked what he does to relax, he simply lists other regattas such as the Fireball Nationals.
Before launching his Paralympic career, he sailed with his brother and the pair won the Mirror Youth European championships before moving on to 420s and 470s, qualifying for the worlds in both classes. A spell as training partners for the 470 Olympic squad gave him a taste of life at this rarefied end of the sport.
At first, the contrast between these two in terms of background and sailing experience would not suggest a perfect partnership. But while Rickham acknowledges the gulf between them in some areas, she is quick to point out why the pairing works.
“It’s hard on Niki because he has to take on a lot in the sailing partnership, including the tactics,” she says.”But in other ways it’s good because the decisions get made rather than being debated between the two of us. Although the overlap between our abilities gets greater as I learn more, there is still a clear definition between our roles when sailing.
“It’s also about age. When we were put together, Niki had only just left university, had never had to live on his own or pay any bills, so the management aspects of our campaign were quite a lot for him to be taking on. The division of labour quickly became a natural one.
“So when it comes to the campaign overall I’m less able to help out with the physical aspects of the boat work so Niki is more focused on that, while I take care of the logistics, finances and management side of the partnership. It’s a better use of myabilities.”
Despite starting competitive sailing only in 2006, Rickham’s results clearly suggest that she is both a talented sailor and a fast learner. Less than a year after teaming up with Birrell, the pair had started in explosive fashion, winning the Paralympic test event in Qingdao, (officially known as the IFDS Qingdao International Regatta), only to come 5th at the Games themselves.
“Looking back, we had too much to do in too little time and when we got to Qingdao we were both pretty exhausted,” says Rickham. “This time we will have had a full run-up.
“In some ways not medalling last time has made it easier to work that bit harder.”
Class sailed – Skud 18
Paralympic track record – 5th 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, Qingdao
Racing track record – 1st 2011 IFDS disabled Sailing World Championships
1st 2011 Semaine Olympique Française disabled
1st 2011 Sail Melbourne Int Regatta disabled
2nd 2011 Sail for Gold Weymouth
1st 2010 IFDS disabled Sailing World Championships
2nd 2009 Sail for Gold Weymouth
1st 2008 IFDS Qingdao Int Regatta disabled
Coach – Marcus Lynch
Training partners – Christian Birrell, Ben Ainsworth, Team Funky Starfish(Jonny McGovern/Sarah Williams)
Main competition – AUS, USA, dark horses (CAN, ITA)
Sailing days per year – 170
Typical training Day
0830 – Gym/physio
0915 – Briefing/day plan
1000 – Boat work/set up
1130 – On the water training
1430 – Off the water
1530 – Ashore/debrief/boat work
1630 – Physio/massage therapy/gym
1730 – Boat work/prep
1830 – Home
2000 – Paperwork/admin
2130 – Finish
Paralympic competition in the SKUD
New to the Paralympics in 2008, the SKUD 18 (Skiff of Universal Design) was designed by Julian Bethwaite and Martin Billoch to cater for both able-bodied and disabled sailors. The flared side decks, retractable bowsprit, carbon rig and transparent fully battened sails give the boat a modern racing appearance somewhere between a 49er and a modern sportsboat.
The SKUD is 19ft LOA and carries an asymmetric spinnaker. When sailed in the Paralympics, the crew should include a Class 1 disabled sailor and at least one woman.
The cockpit layout can be configured for a wide variety of disabilities.