Sarah Douglas knows acceleration. Not so long ago, she was toiling in the trenches of an Olympic campaign, training to achieve precision of movement in a small sailboat to rival the movements and endurance of a prima ballerina, but without choreographed predictability.
Now, as one of Canada’s most capable sailors, she has been launched into a strategist role for the Canada SailGP team. She went from cruising at race speeds to cruising at highway speeds. She also went from navigating solo to centralizing a team’s communications in a high-profile danger zone. SailGP training includes practice in using an emergency oxygen supply in case you are stuck underwater after a crash.
“I spent two days on a simulator, two days of training, then I raced,” she said. “I was blown away the whole way.”
Flying into a high-speed turn mark, Douglas’s challenges are the same as they would be at a slower pace in an Olympic dinghy. She must inhabit the wind, see and feel where it is strongest, or bend, and know how that affects the next move. The difference is that “instead of talking to myself, I have to talk out loud effectively, so the team can understand what I’m seeing,” she said.
“SailGP’s strategy is about Formula 1 on a track,” Douglas said. “Every track and every corner has its challenges. Put the track on the water and you add currents moving under you and a constantly changing wind.
With more practice, Douglas’s role could expand to briefly driving after a turning maneuver, while the skipper scrambles across the deck to the other helm station.
What may not be obvious is the level of conditioning required to hold and stay aboard a hydrofoil catamaran in fast turns. As an Olympic small boat sailor, Douglas brings extreme physical fitness with her.
“I train four to six times a week, a mix of strength and endurance,” she said. “In a 45-minute Olympic race, you have to keep going while the pain builds up, and your mind has to stay clear and not think about the pain.”
At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Douglas finished sixth, the highest Canadian ever, in the laser radial event, and today holds the 2024 Olympics podium as his highest goal. But a diversion to SailGP glamor was irresistible.
“It’s a big mouthful, but SailGP has created this pathway for women that is educational in the extreme,” she said, referring to the Women’s Pathway program. “In Canada, we lack women with professional sailing experience, and I had a hard time getting my foot in the door. Here I find a massive effort to support the women coming up, and everyone is working together to figure out how to do it as a team.
“When I was younger I never thought of being a professional sailor because I had never seen a role model. With SailGP girls can see a way.
And it is impossible to ignore the color of his skin.
“I look around,” said Douglas, who is black, “and there aren’t a lot of people who look like me. It’s no secret that sailing is not a diverse sport, so I feel responsible for showing that people of color can be where I am.
Born in Toronto with family ties to Barbados, Douglas has lived in both. “In Barbados I could sail all year round and come to Canada in the summer to compete,” she said. “I am lucky to be supported by both communities.
Douglas wouldn’t be with Canada SailGP if she hadn’t proven her worth at the Olympics. The next matches will take place in the south of France, in Marseille, and Douglas plans to be there.
She adopts a pointed tone when she declares: “I spent most of last summer in Marseilles. Next summer I will be back.
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