How Wales made me an Olympic sailor

When Hannah Mills stepped into a dinghy near Cardiff aged 8, it launched a career that led to an Olympic Silver medal in London 2012. And now it’s easier than ever to follow in her wake, she says..

“I started sailing in little plastic dinghies on Llanishen Reservoir just outside Cardiff, spending every night and every weekend I possibly could just messing about in boats with friends. That’s how I started racing, too – it looked like a fun thing to try.

Red sailing boat on Bala Lake in Snowdonia.

Sailing on Bala Lake, Snowdonia

“I did a lot of early training in Lake Bala. It’s such a great size for an inland venue – it feels huge when you’re in a small boat – and the facilities are good and well-run. We all loved sailing here on weekend courses but you can also just go for a day as a family and enjoy the scenery of Snowdonia. I was also sailing from Mumbles, which is a totally different experience again. Obviously the scenery because you’re just off Swansea, but also because there are a lot of tides, so you’re moving around a lot, which adds to the excitement in a little dinghy, and the Gower is so close, which is great for other activities.

“But most of my sailing until I was 18 was out of the Llŷn Peninsula. I absolutely loved it. You can get big swells rolling in in places – great fun when you’re in a dinghy – and you’re sailing just off the beach in competitions with people from all over Britain. And of course the scenery is beautiful: you’re out at sea and have the most amazing mountain scenery spread out in front of you.

“I didn’t really appreciate it much when I was younger, and my sailing now is based on the south coast of England or abroad. But I go back to do coaching and each time I think what an incredible place this is.

Boat sailing past St David's Hotel in Cardiff Bay.

Sailing in Cardiff Bay, South Wales

“What I notice most when I come back, though, is how much sailing in Wales has developed. When I was living there, sailing in Cardiff Bay didn’t really exist. Now there are 50 to 100 kids on the water every weekend and the bay itself is fantastic. In September  2012 I sailed there with Team Wales in the Extreme 40 Championships. Cardiff Bay is a natural amphitheatre, and to be racing these big fast catamarans in this enclosed space with a home crowd cheering me on was brilliant – almost like the Olympics again.

“So it’s an exciting time for sailing in Wales – I really hope my success in the Olympics and the experience of seeing the Extreme 40s inspires more people to get onto the water. Sailing is such an amazing sport: you’re on the water, free, released from everything on land and can just enjoy the elements at their best.

“And that’s part of the joy of sailing in Wales for me. The Solent is a great place to sail, but with so many boats there it can be quite scary if you’re just starting. Wales has more venues that are suitable to learn, with fewer people on the water, and it’s so friendly. The scenery is better, too, of course.”

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