Setting Sail With Maths

24/05/2013 12:22 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 10:12 BST

Helping young people to learn about sailing is something I'm passionate about and on 4 July this year I'll be spending the afternoon with Transversal training a group of 16-18 year olds who have won a national competition. Despite what you might think however, this isn't a sailing competition, it's a maths one. Confused about the connection? Read on...

Of all the goals I've achieved so far in my life that I'm most proud of, being one of only seven British women with two Olympic gold medals is right up there. Representing my country in Athens and Beijing is something I will never forget. Of course, we all have regrets too and one of mine is that I didn't do a maths degree before taking up professional sailing.

My highest maths qualification is a GCSE and, like most people, I walked out of my final exam thinking that I wouldn't need most of the information I'd had to cram into my brain over the previous weeks and months. Little did I realise that this would be one of the most important subjects for my future career and success.

Success as a sailor relies upon your ability to read and react to the facts around you on the course - what the wind is doing, what the tide is doing, what trajectory you are travelling on etc. The spanner in this fact-gathering process is that the Olympic regulations state that sailing teams are only allowed one compass on board during races and that's very much it! You have to be able to rely on your own calculations to stand any chance of winning.

Of course you do have a team around you for support and the British Sailing Team has a number of specialists with maths degrees that my team and I would rely upon heavily for advice when there were any problems or changes in conditions around races. In Beijing for example the tide was an overriding factor as it was extraordinarily strong and no historic data was available. The British Sailing Team employed some of the best technical experts and it was their job to gather up all the relevant data and present it to us in an easily digestible and actionable format.


We couldn't however always rely on others to lead us by the hand. Conditions on the water can change at the drop of a hat so I needed to be able to make quick calculations and adjustments in my head as I went along. There was no time to ask for help or rely on technology in the heat of the moment.

I'm not talking about simple arithmetic problems either. Adapting for the tide direction is a percentage risk analysis. If the tide was running across the course for example, then that meant I could spend a longer amount of time on one tack. For compass-based calculations I needed to factor in weight, symmetry and risk - all whilst trying to cope with the pressure of race conditions. Any delay or mistake could have meant the difference between winning and losing.

I'll be looking to prove this to the competition winners on 4 July so if you are interested in taking part in a sailing lesson with me you need to download this set of sailing-based maths questions from the microsite and submit your answers by the end of May.

We all have goals and dreams, especially when we are young. One of the most important things to consider is what tools you need to arm yourself with to be able to achieve the goals you set. Maths is one of those subjects that lots of people, like me, thought they would just leave behind in the classroom and never use again. However, the practical application of maths is something I deal with on a daily basis and it has helped me get to where I am today. Don't just drop it at the first opportunity; you never know when you might need it.