Interview with Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias 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. American Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias was one such sailor, competing in the 49er FX class, who previously won the gold medal in the ILCA 6 at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Read on to hear more from Tobias on her time spent in the ILCA class.

Introduce yourself and tell us why you got into the ILCA class.
I’m Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias, from the U.S. I first became an ILCA sailor because, really, money. I was just finishing up university when they changed the class from the Europe dinghy to the ILCAs. And I really wanted to do an Olympic campaign but didn’t really have any money being a college student. My dad actually had an ILCA that I permanently borrowed from him. And I just started sailing from there, and it was within my budget and fun to do. I liked at the time only having to depend on myself to make it, to force myself to go practice and not have a team. So this was an easy way to transition from university into Olympic sailing for me.

How did winning gold in 2008 shape you as a sailor?
As a sailor, I think it gave me the confidence that I was good enough to be at the top of the fleet. But I think more than just that one moment of winning the gold is everything that I learned along the way, like how to work with a team. So even though I was the only one on the boat, I had my team with coaches, my support team, my family and friends, and everyone behind me – how to get all of that interacting and understanding that it’s not just a one-person show, that it really is a big team behind you all the way. Understanding that and appreciating that helped build the confidence and build the maturity and understanding of what it takes to achieve your goal, whether it be in sailing, or business, or whatever in life. But that whole path to developing what’s needed to get to that one spot. 

What do you miss most about the class?
I do miss all the girls that were there that we sailed against downwind. So downwind was so much fun, especially when it’s windy and wavy. Do not miss the upwinds, but for sure I miss the downwinds. 

What was your fondest memory of the class?
I have so many good ones. We had so many fun training sessions. I think probably my fondest memories come from fun places that we sailed. We had a Worlds in 2009 in Japan, and that was just fun because it was the year after the Olympics, everyone had relaxed a little bit, and we just had a really fun World Championships. Those conditions were brilliant. It was just good to race and have fun with everybody, but at a high level.

Do you have a favorite place to race?
My favorite place to race ever is here. My favorite place to sail is probably Cabarete in the Dominican Republic.

What skill set do you think you’ve taken from the ILCA class into the 49er FX that you’re now sailing?
So it’s a little bit different strategically upwind, but I think that because you can get yourself in so many tactical situations in the ILCA, you can kind of see situations setting up and kind of plan ahead as to what you think is going to happen. But also, I think understanding the waves downwind. I don’t think it’s as terrifying as sometimes it can be… But having an understanding of where the boats are gonna go and what you’re looking for, and I think it allows me to get on the same page as Paris really quickly and easily as to where we’re gonna go on the waves – just like you would in an ILCA.

You’ve gone from helming the boat to now crewing in the boat. How can you compare the differences there?
So the most difficult part of transitioning from skipper to crew is the control factor. It’s really hard not being the one in control. But I learned a lot and we’ve worked on that, so we’re all on the same page all the time with everything, but the physical aspect of hiking on an ILCA definitely translates into the physical aspect of crewing on a 49er… I like the physical aspect of the 49er.

You have all these other classes to choose from – why did you choose the 49er FX class?
I chose the FX because originally, I retired from sailing after the London Olympics. I took the loss of the Olympics quite, quite hard. So I took a break from sailing for four years and then I was ready to come back into it. So I started to come back into the ILCA, but unretired a little too late, so when I went to do the Miami Sailing World Cup, I wasn’t allowed to race because I wasn’t in the drug-testing pool long enough. So on race day, they told me I couldn’t sail, so I was gutted again. So I was like, “Fine, I’m done.” Then the team started talking to me like, “Hey, we need a crew. We don’t need ILCA sailors. We have a solid team and we need crews in 470 and 49er.” And I was like, “There’s no way I’m sailing a 470, but I’ll give the 49er a go.” So I hopped on the boat. I was terrible. But Paris was really really good and had patience, and because she was such a good talented skipper, it made transitioning and learning the boat very easy. And so I hopped on it and just loved how physical and hard it was. So yeah, that’s really why I got into that.

So then the big question is hiking or trapezing?
I don’t know – now, because I’m trapezing, I’d say trapezing. I tried to hop in a Laser the other day and did some small stints upwind, and I was like, no. But I didn’t have pads on or anything, so I don’t know if it would be different if I had the actual proper equipment on. I think this is what you train for, right? They’re both grueling in their own way. So I just like the pain of whatever.

So what is your best advice for someone who is just starting out in the ILCA class?
Best advice is find a rig that fits your size. Because you’re not going to learn that much, I don’t think, if you try and jump in a rig that’s too big for you. And then ask questions – ask where to set your vang, where to set your outhaul, how to tie your hiking strap. Get fit because sailing an ILCA not fit is not pleasant at all. So just getting fit and understanding that you have to get to a certain weight and just committing to that – if you want to race. If you’re just having fun with it, it’s a great boat just to go sailing and have fun with too.


Interview recorded by Suellen Hurling with Live Sail Die