Fire in the belly SailGP – Tash Bryant Q&A

No pressure. Australia SailGP strategist Natasha (Tash) Bryant gets in some helming practice ahead of last year’s Sail Grand Prix in Cadiz. Normally it is Bryant whispering in the ear of SailGP king Tom Slingsby but now she has the world no1 (in our rankings) watching her every move, plus the world’s best F50 wing trimmer Kyle Langford to keep happy. But, in Slingsby’s words, ‘every challenge we throw at her Tash meets it – and apparently with no stress at all!’ It’s not just Aussie F50 blokes who other teams have been trying to lure…

Tash Bryant: I grew up in Newport in Pittwater, right next to the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, where I learned to sail Manly Juniors and Flying 11s and did two seasons sailing with my brother Nathan. Honestly, I wasn’t that competitive and just did it because he was my brother! Then he started sailing Optimists and so I went off to play soccer, which became my sport. Then when I was 12 I had a go at sailing Optis after school; my brother was getting coached by Traks Gordon, so I joined in the sessions for fun and immediately loved it.

TB: I am always up for a new challenge and I had really no idea what I was doing, but I jumped in – as soon as I started I realised there were so many different avenues in sailing and that I had so much to learn. But I was torn, as now I was playing soccer for NSW and loving it. My parents were driving me everywhere so they said that I needed to choose to do one sport well… not two at a lower level. So I called Traks up in tears, saying I didn’t know what to do! He was great and said no pressure – just go with what I wanted. And so I chose sailing. From then on I did as many days as I could, 10 months in the Optimist then straight into the 29er. I couldn’t wait!

SH: The 29er is a pretty cool boat…

TB: It is. Traks was training pretty much every youth sailor in Pittwater, in Optis, 29ers and Lasers. He had an amazing 29er group, eight boats and three of them girl’s teams – which was cool. The switch from Opti to 29er happened when I was 13 when Traks introduced me to my crew Annie Wilmot, who was 15. I was very small – tiny really – so I helmed. At my last Opti Championships my parents gave me five dollars to put down on a 29er! I gave Rob McMillan that $5 and when we got the boat the invoice read less the $5 deposit! We didn’t have a lot of money at home so that from my parents was so great.

SH: Early days there?

TB: Annie and I trained locally for a year before we went to Europe. I was 14 and we did three events, Medemblik for the Europeans, then the Worlds and UK Nationals in Wales. Wales was very cold… This was the path now and since I was so young, I obviously wanted to represent Australia at the Olympics. I had wanted to be a ‘Matilda’, in the national soccer team – then the goal shifted to sailing at the Olympics. So sailing a 29er naturally I thought the 49erFX was my next move. Then at my first 29er Worlds there were about 200 boats, and at the next one there were 260!

SH: So now you’re dealing with much bigger events…

TB: Obviously it was tricky… frankly, it was eye-opening. Qualifying for the Youth Worlds was our goal back then and we used every event to practise for that. We missed selection in our first year as we were just starting out – so a bit of a late charge really. At least it was our older training partners who beat us… So that was the first occasion when I really felt like setting big goals. I now wanted this so badly, and I didn’t realise how badly I wanted to go to the Youth Worlds until I missed selection. That really started the fire in my belly.

SH: Coaches notice this – that drive and energy.

TB: Those conversations came later. There were so many coming through the youth classes – in Lasers or 29ers – yet we were so close and tightly knit. And Traks set up such a high-level training environment we all knew we had to work hard for what we wanted to achieve; the harder you work the closer you will get. We were training four or five days a week when I was 13 or 14. I loved it at the start but then I started getting really competitive and it just felt the natural thing to do. When I look back now it was pretty crazy how lucky I was to have that opportunity. As soon as I realised what I wanted to do it became my life. I would watch training sessions in classes I wasn’t involved with, viewing anything that I could and going out on a coach boat to look at any training sessions. I did three years of that through high school before transitioning into the 49er.

SH: The 49erFX was for you…

TB: I loved the look of it, I loved skiffs and the high-speed sailing, all so much fun. In fact, Annie and I would sail together for almost seven years from aged 13 to 20.

SH: What about setbacks in terms of injury… or results?

TB: The first time I had to deal with that was when we missed World Youth selection; but that just highlighted that things don’t come easy no matter what you do. I just remember working harder than the people around me, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. If you don’t deal correctly with what happens on the day, then that’s it. I knew that I had to work harder – and smarter.

SH: The first big win?

TB: We actually won the first Worlds we went to which was very cool!! In Auckland in 2016 the 29er Youth Worlds. I was 15 – pretty young, but we had set that goal two years out and it happened! We were both pretty shocked – and relieved – that our hard work came through. We then decided to jump into the 49erFX so I was 16 when I started Olympic sailing. It was tricky navigating that at a young age, but Annie and I worked together, conquering it all together and so we were inseparable. But unlike Annie I still had two more years of school to do… the first two years of our Olympic campaign!

SH: Success can sometimes be harder to take than failure…

TB: It can, but we were pretty lucky having Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin living nearby… Jason was my babysitter! They had already been to the Olympics, getting silver in Rio, so they sat us down and talked about the reality of Olympic campaigning – what it really takes. So I wasn’t naive as to how hard it was, but I had to learn the hard way like everyone else. Lisa is amazing at organising and managing – it was great to sit with her and work out how to graduate school plus do all of this. Plus, Jason was very good about how to conquer any type of fear you have on the water. I was super lucky.

SH: Even with amazing resources close by to call on, it’s still tough to keep your feet on the ground?

TB: Maybe a rough opener helped us… Starting with the FX was tricky, we were already on the back foot, racing internationally against people who had been in the class four or five years. That campaign felt very rushed. We were just cramming – and every time we came home from an event we had a longer list than when we left! It was hard, but we had the work ethic. We did get caught up with Olympic trials for Tokyo and all the pressures there having not done that before. We qualified our country for Tokyo at the 2018 Worlds with a great result there, but then when it came to qualifying ourselves I really battled with the pressures that came with it. We were cramming the whole time – all I thought about was how do we make the boat go faster? How do we get around the course first? I threw myself into the sailing so much that I neglected to deal with the worries and mental dynamics that came with racing at that level, and by the time the Olympic trials arrived it was simply overwhelming.

SH: And so a super big test right there…

TB: It was. We narrowly missed selection so now I had choices. That was right before Covid, March 2020 and I was pretty burnt out from seven years’ training and racing, so I decided to take some time out to regroup. It was definitely a tricky time, and I was really battling. It took me a year to get over that. I just didn’t want to go sailing. I was very over it. The emotions were so big. It was my life! It was everything. And then it wasn’t. It was all really hard to deal with. I was very lucky to have family close by supporting me as well as my partner. They reminded me why I loved it, so we got back into sailing for fun and learning something new – how to windsurf on an iQFoil!

SH: You obviously have great ability and stamina to sail the iQ?

TB:Oh my gosh! IQFoil racing is probably some of the hardest racing I have ever done! Your heart rate is at maximum due to the pumping – then you have to make tactical and strategic decisions and your back is in so much pain. It’s insane! I did an event in Palma where we did 15 races in over 25kt over three days! Meanwhile, Annie wanted to continue with the FX so we agreed to split; the new path for me was to windsurf and foil during lockdown.

SH: Lockdown – tough for everyone.

TB: Sure. But we were allowed to exercise here and so I was windsurfing and foiling at home almost every day. Learning to wingfoil and kite foiling and trying every part of the foiling side that I could. Then SailGP put out the women’s pathway programme… I jumped in and did a Waszp trial and some Moth sailing with Tom Slingsby, Nina Curtis and Lisa Darmanin; we ran a three-day camp that allowed them to understand where we were at with foiling. I didn’t get to go in 2021 as they took Nina and Lisa, so I carried on with the iQFoil in Lanzarote, training with the British and Spanish teams – that was cool, and the first time I raced internationally on the foiling board.

SH: But not making selection for the SailGP women’s pathway…

TB: I was pretty frustrated, but I just did my best to stay connected to foiling and keep learning. I am studying mechanical and mechatronic engineering in Sydney so that keeps me busy… But all the time foiling was a powerful lure and I was right in among that, learning so many new skills. I tried and raced as many things as I could. I saved hard during Covid, then coached the 29ers and bought my foiling kit that year from those coaching fees.

SH: How then did you connect with the Australian SailGP team?

TB: When I was in Lanzarote Jason messaged me to stand by, as they needed a second female to join them in the final in San Francisco in March last year – so I should think about what I was doing and was I keen? Then Tom Slingsby called and asked if I would like to come and join them and try out – honestly, how quickly could I say yes! A month later I was with the team at a very cool event.

SH: Joining such a successful and tight-knit team…

TB: I just remember going in, thinking about it really hard. I spoke to Jason before – I am so lucky to have him around as a sounding board. Also I wasn’t there to race, I was there to learn, and they are such a well-oiled machine I just wanted to learn as much as I could. I got the advice to treat it like it was my last event. So I did that, learning from some of the best sailors in the world. After that we had 10 days sailing in San Francisco, then Tom asked me if I could join the team for Bermuda! And that was the start of season 3!!

SH: And you are driving the boat!

TB: Unbelievable. I raced in Singapore, Sydney, New Zealand and San Francisco, and my role as strategist has evolved throughout the season. Figuring out where I can help onboard, plus adding my comms into that loop is tricky. We have been working on our communication for the last four events – it’s a huge factor in these boats.

SH: So how do you process information at 40-50kt?

TB: I am lucky – my job is about painting a picture for Tom, so just trying to live as far into the future as possible, especially with the boundaries. With so many boats around us that has really challenged me, and so in the finals it is pretty nice to have just three on the water to think about, with more space to do what we like to do. I am back now in the 49FX racing in Europe – and everything feels like it is happening in slow motion! Three years ago it was the fastest sailing I had ever done… I could ever imagine.

SH: Key wisdom to share?

TB: To take every single opportunity that I could. I was very lucky with the iQFoil, so the key is really to back yourself and to trust yourself. There are times I really battled with that – as I am sailing with my idols. But they helped me and give me the room to learn. If you ask people for five minutes of their time to ask them a question people are really good and mostly they say yes – and if they don’t say yes, then it is probably not worth your time. Everyone I love and respect in the sailing industry will always make the time to help people when they have that question.

Article written by Blue Robinson for the October 2023 issue of Seahorse International Sailing

Thanks to Andrew Hurst for allowing me to reproduce this article