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The sailor Made for Water - we speak to Alan Roberts Zhik

Alan Roberts is a wide-ranging watersports enthusiast, offshore sailor, dinghy sailor, SUP-er and kayaker - someone who uses a diverse range of kit while out on the water. His main campaign for 2018 has been in the Figaro with La Solitaire and concentrating on his offshore sailing.

The kit he's been using is the Zhik Isotak X jacket which has been highly developed during the Volvo Ocean Race both with Team AkzoNobel and Dongfeng Race Team. Alan has really seen the benefits of this product.

Mark Jardine: What difference has it made to you and your sailing?

Alan Roberts: The kit you wear is essential: there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad kit, to steal that from other people! But it really is true. Zhik are a company that's keen to develop and enthusiastic about it, not scared to try new products without going down the standard routes or buying into the Goretex label. It's great to see and ties in well with me. I'm an engineer, newly into it all and keen to advance in all areas. When I started with Zhik they had a range but it was minimalistic and very quickly I was asking for a mid-layer; obviously it's not as warm here in the winter as it is in Australia. They started doing some development on that and worked a lot with the Volvo guys and now have quite a rounded range, which I see the benefits of. The nice thing is that they do listen to what you say, and they have done - whether it's zips on pockets, Velcro here, this material wears out too quick - they do listen and improve, and are advancing all the time. It's massively key to have the right kit out there. If you can stay dryer and warmer then you use less energy, especially in what I'm doing which is single handed sailing. It's all about energy management meaning you can go on longer and harder in the right kit.

Alan Roberts aboard his Figaro yacht - photo © Thomas Deregnieaux Photography

Mark: What was it that drew you as a dinghy sailor to this offshore world that you're now in?

Alan: Good question! Ever since I was little I have been lucky enough, thanks to my parents, to be in this world. I've grown up seeing the likes of Ellen MacArthur, Neil Macdonald and those guys, and I was never really sure if I could make it into that world. I started off dinghy sailing, then went to study Naval Architecture, worked as a Naval architect for a few years, and then had the opportunity with the Offshore Academy to jump in the Figaros, which I saw as the quickest route to learning as much as I could about offshore sailing, with the aim of doing the Volvo Ocean race at the time. Having spoken a lot to the likes of Ian Walker and Neil Macdonald, they said I had a good dinghy sailing CV but what I was lacking was offshore experience. Going into the Figaro was the obvious move to see if I liked offshore sailing and to see if I liked offshore sailing by myself, which you're never sure if you would like or not. I loved it and that fully launched me down the route of the Figaro and working towards the Vendee Globe.

Alan Roberts aboard his Figaro yacht - photo © Thomas Deregnieaux Photography

Mark: It's not just the pace of change in products like you've seen with Zhik, there's a lot of change in sailing itself, most recently on an Olympic level, as Offshore sailing is going to be part of the Olympics in Paris 2024. What's your view on that, and the fact that Olympic sailing offers such a diverse group of ways you can use the wind and the water?

Alan: I think that's what it's about. There's a lot of argument when people say, "That's not sailing - that doesn't fit in with the sport," but fundamentally what sailing is, is going from A to B on the water using the wind. If that means using a kite and a foiling board, that for me still is sailing. If it means sailing in a keelboat then that's a different level again. The beauty of our sport is that it's so diverse, and that means it can accommodate a lot of different people, from very young sailors competitively in Optimists or cruising on larger boats, to sailing relatively cheaply on a windsurfer or kite surfer, or in more expensive campaigns. It's available to men, women, boys, girls, old, young; it covers everything. Its beauty is that it's so diverse and it's good to see sailing represented in what many people consider is the pinnacle of sport, the Olympic Games. It's a truer representation of what's out there and what the sport is about.

We are very much in danger of going down an elitist route, something that isn't a real representation of our sport, in my belief. When I look at the Olympic sailing, I have huge respect for the guys, what they are doing is incredibly physical and very specific, but it doesn't look like any form of sailing that I do. I windsurf, I sail dinghies, dayboats, keel boats, and I sail on Maltese Falcon; so from one extreme to the biggest sailing boat out there. With the integration of kite surfing and offshore sailing, it's more a representation of what sailing is about. Where sailing came from was travelling from A to B, like the Clipper Yachts - the first boat to get back from India could sell their tea for the most competitive prices so there was an incentive to get back first - and that's where it came from. Then it evolved into dinghy boats in the UK, the National 14, the Moth, the Merlin, and they had to race triangle/sausage races, over one to four hours long. Sailing has evolved, perhaps driven by the media.

Fundamentally, keelboating and yachting has been in the Olympics before, when back in the day Linton Hope designed and raced his own-made boat in the late 1800s and 1900s. It's not a new thing and for me it's more pure than where I think the sport is at the moment.

Alan Roberts aboard his Figaro yacht - photo © Thomas Deregnieaux Photography

Mark: On sailing participation itself, you do a bit of SUP-ing. As sailors, a lot of us paddleboard when there's no wind; we inflate the paddleboard and get out on the water. Do you think those people who are SUP-ers but don't sail, are naturally the best people to attract into sailing because they have already broken the barrier of being out on the water? Do you think sailing could do more to attract those people?

Alan: Yes, I do think so. I think the reason I enjoy sailing, kayaking, SUP-ing, kite surfing and windsurfing is because I like being on the sea. I enjoy understanding the wind and I enjoy the elements. I also enjoy land-based stuff like running and cycling, but the draw is the sea and the interaction with a variable playing surface. I'm a sailor and I enjoy being at sea, so if people are using paddleboards they have taken the first step towards that world. If it's the sea and the elements that they like, then maybe there's a chance they will like stepping into a dinghy or a yacht. But there's a huge difference in understanding.

Alan Roberts aboard his Figaro yacht - photo © Thomas Deregnieaux Photography

Mark: Here at Zhik we were talking about the Isotak X but the first thing you did when you got to the stand was look at the Eco Wetsuit, saying, "I've got to get me one of those!" Working with Zhik must be a dream, because of the diversity of their range and the diversity of watersports you take part in?

Alan: I'm very lucky to work with them and for them to support me: they support me across the range, from my Figaro offshore to the Merlin Rocket, or swimming in the sea in my wetsuit. For me it's an ideal match and it's great to see that they are pushing the brand in in all watersports, because it comes back to what you said once you're into watersports, you're into all sorts of watersports. It's not just offshore sailors, or inshore sailors, I think it all links. More people do more things nowadays than before.

Mark: I agree I think the diversity of what we do on and off the water is greater.

Alan: Accessibility is better because the materials are there, and people have a bit more money. Because companies like Zhik are bringing more products into it, previously people were put off if it was cold. These days if you can get out on the water and not worry about being out all day, coming in when you're totally freezing, it attracts adults and children and makes the whole experience more enjoyable.

Mark: Many thanks for your time Alan!

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