A mixture of relief and exhilaration came over Brad Gibson as he sailed his radio-controlled yacht over the finish line, concluding a nail-biting race that clinched him a world championship title.
The location was Marseilles, France. It was October, 2007 and some 76 of the world’s best International One Metre (IOM) sailors, hailing from 22 countries, were gathered to fight for the coveted world crown.
The race marked the end of a gruelling week of fierce rivalry between the top competitors and resulted in two Australians taking the podium – Sydney’s Brad Gibson in first and Melbourne’s Craig Smith in third.
“I was over the moon; I had been that nervous all week I couldn’t sleep,” Gibson recalls. It took a little while for realisation of his success to sink in.
While the 36-year-old has been a contender in IOM regattas for many years, this was his first world championship win. He placed fourth at the previous world championship regatta, held on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in 2005, which was won by Craig Smith.
Gibson led the field in Marseilles for 16 of the 25 races, leaving no doubt he was a serious contender. But it still came down to a gripping tussle of a finish in an event where upsets can happen at any moment.
“I led for the first three days and then I had a little stumble before the day off; then I recovered and got back the lead again, and then I had a big stumble. It looked like I might be third,” he says.
But the two front-runners, including Craig Smith, also had major stumbles – and the last race paved the way for Gibson to sail to the lead and savour the sweet taste of victory. After a week of razor’s-edge racing, he was relieved to come out on top.
MISSING THE BOAT
Gibson, who lived in the UK for 18 months prior to the regatta, nearly missed the boat for this competition, when he was unable to return home for the qualifying series. He only secured his place in the Australian team after a few others dropped out. It’s an anomaly that, he says, has since been rectified, and future regattas will allow for wildcard entries.
But the affable Aussie doubts he would have had the same success if he had not been living in the UK and regularly competing against some of the world’s best.
He says the club he was racing with in England had five members who were of a top 10 world standard, and he was racing against them every Saturday afternoon.
It was the preparation he needed to take out the top gong, giving him confidence in his ability to routinely beat the best and honing his skills to get the most out of his yacht.
Sailing is in Gibson’s blood – he was practically born into it and has spent the best part of his life on the water. His father, Kerry has been a sail maker for more than four decades – his dinghy and keelboat sails having been used in more than 250 national and state championships – and his mother’s family runs Riley Marine Fitting in Sydney.
It’s a combination that set the scene for Gibson’s sailing career, first through learning boat building with his grandfather, Len Riley, then rigging and tuning sails and spars with his father.
This experience has formed the basis of his own business, BG Radio Yachts and Sails, and his IOM and Marblehead designs Disco and Boogie have proved to be highly competitive in both national and international regattas.
But it was a reworked version of a UK Widget design that won him the world championship title. “Martin Roberts (an English sailor) and I revisited an older design and made it fast,” he says.
Like many IOM competitors, Gibson began sailing in full-sized boats, competing from the early ’80s in the Flying Ant class.
“I went through normal dinghy sailing as a kid and worked my way up to 18ft skiffs,” says Gibson.
Gibson, who lays claim to getting considerably sea sick when out on the ocean, is no stranger to success. He has a multitude of championship titles to his name, including being the Australian and NSW Flying Ant champion (skipper) in 1983/84 and the Australian 18ft skiff league champion (skipper) in 1996/97. And during the eight years he raced 18ft skiffs, he won the Australian National Championship and was runner-up in the JJ Giltinan World Championship.
But his interest in radio-controlled yachts also began at a young age. He was about 12 when he saved up and bought his first yacht and soon became actively involved in the sport. But it was only after he became disillusioned with the 18-footers that he started seriously competing in the IOMs.
The October 2007 regatta was the seventh IOM world championship, catering to a sailing class that is becoming increasingly popular around the globe.
Gibson says the increased interest has been notable throughout mainland Europe, tipping Croatia, in particular, as the next force. Given the 2008 European Championships and the 2009 World Championship are both to be held in Croatia, that interest is not likely to wane.
While many might not understand the appeal of radio-controlled racing, particularly as an alternative to being on the water sailing full-sized yachts, he says there are many attractions, not least being the technical skill required to compete at world class level.
“They’re quite a technical little boat and as far as radio yachts go, they attract the highest calibre of skippers worldwide,” he explains.
While not all competitors come from a full-sized sailing background, some of them are renowned for their success in a number of classes, including Etchells and skiffs. He says one of the French skippers in the 2007 IOM world championship represented France in the Finn class of yachting at the Athens Olympics.
“It (IOM) is the hardest class to do well in,” he says. “The boats are very even overall in speed and performance because the rules are tightly managed. It’s an open design rule, with restrictions,” he adds.
Relocating from the UK to his home of Kogarah Bay in the southern suburbs of Sydney in November, Gibson had his work cut out for him to meet an onslaught of orders, predominantly from international customers.
“The last 18 months in the UK has given my business a profile throughout Europe. Like a lot of competitive businesses, it’s results-driven, ”he says.
And as such, he is not about to sit back and rest on his laurels. “I’m going to do as much racing as possible, because I plan to defend my championship in 2009,” he adds.
He’s hoping part of that preparation will include competing in the European Championships in Croatia this year.
In the meantime, he will be getting as much practice as possible here in Australia, trying to maintain his skill level and get the most from his boats.