When Anna Burnet and John Gimson smashed a sailing world record in September their success wasn’t confined to the speed of their race.
As well as notching a new fastest time between Belfast Ballyholme and Port Patrick (1:30.41, seven minutes faster than the previous record) in challenging conditions, the pair proved an important point to the maritime industry while raising awareness of the climate crisis.
Anna and John were joined on their record attempt by Pioneer of Belfast, the world’s first fully electric and commercially viable foiling vessel, in an effort to highlight green technology within the sailing industry. At 21 miles, the Northern Ireland-Scotland route mirrored that of thousands of ferry crossings globally, with Anna and John striving to show that a vessel can handle the journey without burning fossil fuels.
They have since used their platform and the media interest in their success to encourage greener practices in sport and beyond.
“If you put that [hydrofoil] technology into the commercial world you could power many ferries and all of these kind of things with electrical power,” John explains. “So we did that particular challenge because it’s a 21-mile route, which is a very similar length to thousands of ferry crossings all around the world. We got the first commercial foiling ferry to accompany us to show it was possible.
“It’s a cause to us which is important because we spend our whole lives in ports and marinas around the world and with a lot of little ferries it always stinks of diesel fumes. It is bad for the health of the people there, let alone for polluting the planet. I think it’s time for the world to change and the technology is now there.”
The pair pushed the world record down significantly, but weren’t helped by tricky weather conditions. With a limited window to use the Pioneer of Belfast, Anna and John had to take their chance to get onto the water as soon as it arose. That happened to be in between two storms – and on the typically choppy Irish Sea.
“Halfway across both of us had moments where we thought: ‘What the hell are we doing?!’,” John says. “It was a bit on the edge but we were both pleased to do it. If we’d had the perfect conditions we maybe could have knocked another 20 minutes off.
“But because it was such a challenge conditions-wise it made us feel like it had been a challenge to do it. It was at the edge of what we could have done.”
As well as making changes to their personal lives, Anna and John have been working out how to combat the climate crisis publicly for some time. They say they’ve seen changes in the environment during their sailing careers and are regularly affected by increasingly unpredictable weather.
“The marine pollution side of things has been on our radar for a good few years,” Anna says. “As the climate crisis has become more of a worrying thing and more in the public domain, it’s occurred more to us; we’ve noticed more of the pollution in ports.
“It’s something that we’ve been growing increasingly aware of in the last few years and it’s got to the point where we’re excited to hopefully start to make an impact in a small way. It’s something we’re becoming more and more passionate about.”
A recent UK Sport study showed that 66% of UK adults believe athletes have a role to play in championing causes, and motivating both sailors is a sense of duty to capitalise on their opportunity.
“We’re incredibly lucky that we get to do what we love and something that we’re passionate about as a job,” says Anna. “So I feel it’s our duty to give back. It’s not just to go and get medals – that’s how you get the funding – but it’s more than that: we need to do what we can with this platform. And no athlete’s career lasts forever, so you need to make hay while you can.
“I think, especially as sailors, in this capacity we’re starting to understand more and use our platform to make other people aware.
“For both of us this was the first step into publicly trying to do something… It’s the first big thing we’ve done and we’d like to do other things, definitely, having seen the positive impact this had.”
The reaction to Anna and John’s message has been positive, but Anna says she recognises the concerns athletes might have about speaking up.
“It can be hard. We personally were a bit nervous to talk about it because it’s very easy to be quickly criticised: ‘You’re Olympic sailors and travel around the world; that’s not very green.’
“But it’s more about raising awareness for us of the way forward from that. What we [the sailing industry] are doing right now isn’t optimal but I think it’s motivated us to see where we can push forwards with other people in our sport and other sports to make our practices more environmentally friendly. A big change needs to happen.
“I think everyone on the World Class Programme can make an impact in some way and I feel like what we’ve done has been positive. If anything it’s given us more motivation to do more and to be better ourselves. I would definitely encourage other athletes to do what they can.”
Image: World Sailing