There’s a new crew member in Paralympic sailor John McRoberts’ boat.
Or, one could say, Jackie Gay has found herself a new skip.
Either way you look at it, the partnership of McRoberts, a three-time Paralympian, and Gay, a promising crew member, is a boon for Canada.
Saanich’s McRoberts won bronze with Stacy Louttit in the Skud 18 at the Beijing Paralympic Games. They competed in London 2012 but fell just short, finishing fourth.
Now McRoberts has teamed up with Gay in a campaign for the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in 2016. Their partnership in the boat was something the duo put off until they were sure it was a safe to test their other partnership, marriage.
They’re on the right track, having won gold against elite American boats at the Claggett Regatta in Rhode Island recently and are preparing for the world championships in Halifax, in August. A top-five spot will qualify them for Rio de Janeiro.
“On paper, we’re the right mix, I have a lot of sailing experience and she’s able to do the work, but then we have the marriage,” McRoberts said. “Our potential is huge. We didn’t know if the dynamic was going to work until the World Championships last year in Ireland when we finished third.
“The joke is we win a gold medal or divorce. But I’m kidding, we’d stop racing before that.”
McRoberts and Gay met sailing against each other in Miami, Fla., in 2007. McRoberts makes light of the fact it took some friends to point it out before he got the hint, but once he did, the couple entered into a successful long distance that led Gay relocate to Saanich.
“We didn’t want to compete in sailing (as a team) until we were sure it could work and we waited to develop our marriage first. You don’t see a lot of husband and wife teams,” McRoberts said.
Gay lost her left leg in a 1994 car accident. She had sailed as a youth but was timid about racing until the sport’s popularity and ease of access in Birmingham drew her back in, just prior to meeting McRoberts in 2007.
“I raced single-handed boats until I started with John,” Gay said. “In sailing terms I’m still a learner. It’s one of those sports you only begin to realize what you don’t know until five years in.”
As a creative and non-fiction writer, Gay is able to continue her work here, though sailing at the high performance level “basically takes over your life,” she said.
“We joke that the waters off Cadboro Bay and Oak Bay are our office now, we can’t complain about that.”
The dynamic in their two-person boat is based on each of their abilities. A quad C6-7, McRoberts is limited to piloting the rudder. He uses a modified seat on which he can swing back on forth at the stern.
“(Gay) is the braun, she does all the sails and I point the boat in the right direction,” he said.
Together they come up with decisions but ultimately it falls on John’s experience to makes the calls.
“Things can go south really fast when you’re sailing and communication is key, so we are constantly working on that. And it actually improves our marriage at the same time, we’re learning lots about each other,” McRoberts added.
Sailing together isn’t the only mission the team has taken on. They are keen to see their sport grow.
There is too great a vacuum between them, and the beginner levels of competitive para-sailors in Canada, said Gay, who raced for Great Britain as a result of benefiting from its strong sailing and parasailing infrastructure.
Locally they train individually with a group in a small fleet of single-handed boats known simply by its size as a ‘2.4-meter.’
“John and I are heavily involved in trying to bring up the base in Canada but it has some ways to go. There’s ambition and movement to build what we need to build but nothing is quick or easy.”
For more information on the campaign, visit johnandjackieontheroadtorio2016.ca.