Interview with Tom Burton in The Hague

The 2023 Allianz Sailing World Championships drew over 1,100 sailors to The Hague in The Netherlands to claim the titles of world champions and secure Olympic qualifications. Australia’s Tom Burton was one such sailor who came to compete in the 49er class, but has a long and legendary career in the ILCA class. Read on to hear more from the 2016 Olympic gold medalist reflecting on his time spent in the ILCA class.

Introduce yourself and tell us why you got into the ILCA class.
I’m Tom Burton, and I’m currently sailing the Olympic 49er class. I guess I spent most of my time sailing Laser and how I got into that was just I guess the end result of the classes I started as a young junior. So I sailed those, OK dinghies, which is a class my dad was sailing at the time, and then into the Laser Radials because I wanted to get into the youth squad programs. Then I guess it was just a natural progression into the Laser class. As a kid, I did a lot of team sports like soccer and football, so I guess I’ve been in a lot of teams. So a double-handed class, I could have done that, but just the complexity of the logistics, when you can train, where do you want to sail, and all that sort of stuff – it’s just much easier and nicer to sail a single-handed boat so you can go when you want and you can do what you want. So yeah, that’s kind of how I ended up in the Laser.

How did winning the gold in 2016 shape you as a sailor moving forward?
I think one of the things that I pride myself on in the Laser class was to just be consistent and always be in the fight no matter what. To be a sailor that someone always thought was gonna be at the front no matter the day they had beforehand or who could bounce back and still just sail well. The results don’t really matter too much as long as you’re sailing well. It was the Olympics, ironically, that was very much how I think my Laser career had gone – not just walking away with it, but always being in the fight, and then just best sailor wins on the last day. It’s obviously a big confidence boost to be an Olympic gold medalist, and since then, I won a Laser Worlds, so pretty happy with my Laser career and in the end, it was a bit of a grind that I’ve done for a decade or so that I was pretty happy to put behind me.

What do you miss most about the class even though it’s behind you?
I guess the ease of it, you know, sailing the 49er at the moment, you spend a lot of time doing boat work, which I do enjoy because I sail the Moth class, I spend a lot of time doing it. But it’s just a lot more difficult, a lot more money, and a bit harder logistically. Obviously a two-person boat learning the specifics of just trying to get along with a teammate for a long period of time. I guess the thing about Lasers I miss is just being able to do it myself and just relying on myself and my ability and how much effort I want to put in. 

So gold medal aside, what was your fondest memory of that class?
I think probably the Ozzie Laser squad really. I was fortunate enough to be involved with a lot of iterations of it, I guess from its beginning in 2008–2009 to basically the guys that are going around now I was still involved with. It was a privilege to be a big part of that.

So what skill set did you take from the ILCA into the 49er?
Not much crosses over really, because the racing is totally different. And obviously, the skill set is massively different, and it’s why you don’t really see much crossover these days with guys switching either from the Laser to the 49er or the 49er to the Laser. But, you know, probably the biggest thing is just the confidence of knowing what to do on the race course when you’re in a certain position. Once you learn the little key differences at the end of the day, you still want to get a boat around a course fast and in front of other people. So there’s a lot of things that are kind of the same, but there’s kind of a little twist on it.

Why did you decide on the 49er?
At the Olympic level, you need to be a certain body shape for a lot of these classes. The 49er was always a little like – not a bucket list, but something that I wanted to have a try at. I actually did sail a Nacra for little periods and the 49er as well, and just thought that the 49er was a little closer to the style of racing the Laser, even though it’s not close at all. It’s a little bit closer than Nacra because Nacra is completely different again. The biggest hurdle was that I never trapezed as a kid. So a lot of kids would be 29er-ing or whatever class it might be, and slowly stepping up through the ranks, and I was basically just learning to trapeze while sailing 49er, which is a pretty difficult boat to sail. I didn’t really have the respect for the class, just watching it from a Laser standpoint – if there are Laser sailors listening, I’m sure that 90% of them would be in the same boat where you have to go out in 30 knots and big seas, and 49er guys are just constantly on the beach just because the conditions aren’t sailable, and I’m thinking, “Do you guys even train or what are you doing?” But now that I do it, it’s a completely different side of it. The conditions are just so dependent for these boats, and it’s super difficult to sail, but the good guys just make it look easy, which is why you think it’s easy.

So on that then, hiking or trapezing?
Trapezing now, but [I do miss a good hiking session]. I think the one bad thing about trapezing is that anyone can do it. There’s not really much you can do to improve your trapezing or go faster or go slower. You just stand there. Whereas [with] hiking, you can put a lot of effort in and get fitter and get better. It’d be like cycling, you know, the more effort and more determination and motivation that you put into it, you’re gonna get better. Whereas trapezing, you can’t really do that. So it’s kind of “lazy me” saying trapezing, but if I was 18 again, I’d say hiking.

What is the best advice you would give to someone who is just starting out in the ILCA class?
Put everything you have into it. I think it’s like all sports – as soon as you start to see improvement, you get more confidence, and you get more motivation to push hard so there’s no excuse to not push hard to start that process off. Give yourself every chance and then see how you go.


Interview recorded by Suellen Hurling with Live Sail Die