When Hannah Mills takes to the water on the British SailGP boat this weekend, everything will come to her so naturally.
As the team’s strategist, her role is to monitor what all the other boats are doing in order to avoid damaging collisions while plotting the manoeuvres and strategies to deliver victory.
Mills, the most decorated female sailor in Olympic history, is excellent at what she does. The British skipper, Sir Ben Ainslie, describes her as a ‘once in a generation talent.’
But life has also changed dramatically for Mills, 35, since the arrival of baby daughter Sienna into the world five months ago.
Not one for taking too much maternity leave, Mills remarkably made a return to the British boat just three months after giving birth.
British sailor Hannah Mills with fiancé Nick Dempsey and baby daughter Sienna in New Zealand ahead of this weekend’s SailGP race in Lyttelton
Mills, who is team strategist for Great Britain in SailGP, returned to the water just three months after giving birth
The British boat on the water in Sydney Harbour during the most recent SailGP race
SailGP is far removed from the genteel image of sailing, too.
These high-tech catamarans zip across the waves at speeds approaching 100km/h, subjecting bodies to intense G-forces. It’s fast, furious and not for the faint-hearted.
Even someone as experienced as Mills was apprehensive about whether her body would hold up ahead of her return to the water in Singapore in January.
She suffered from extreme fatigue during the early months of her pregnancy, leaving her struggling to even get off the sofa at times.
Then there were other unknowns. How would little Sienna take to long-haul flying?
What would happen when she was left with dad – three-time Olympic windsurfing medallist Nick Dempsey – on the shore while mum had to focus on winning races?
Would a crying baby within the camp upset the focus of the highly-driven British team?
These certainly aren’t questions every new mother has to face.
‘It really felt like a test of where we’re at with Sienna and how she coped when I was not there for five or six hours in the day,’ Mills says.
‘The physical side for me – it has been a slow process. You have to be really careful after being pregnant and having a baby, it’s easy to rush.
‘I’m still feeding Sienna so that takes a lot out of my anyway. The big thing was not to get ill so I could keep on top of my training properly, which I have managed to do.
SailGP isn’t for the faint-hearted with the crews taking plenty of risks to gain an advantage
After the Sydney race, Mills and her family spent a week touring New Zealand’s South Island in a camper van ahead of this weekend’s race in Christchurch
Local schoolkids learn about protecting the environment
Ahead of this weekend’s racing, Mills visited Lyttelton Primary School to talk about another subject close to her heart – sustainability and protecting the environment.
Teachers told the kids all about seagrass and photosynthesis as part of the team’s Protect Our Future programme, before Mills chatted about sailing and SailGP, with the water where the racing will take place visible from the classroom window.
Mills also joined a local sailing club to plant trees as part of a re-wilding initiative.
‘It was about building it up slowly and be conscious on the boat when conditions are a bit more extreme – just to take it more carefully.
‘It is a logistical palaver for me to make sure I express [breast milk] before we go sailing, otherwise it can be a bit uncomfortable.
‘Then Nick has his supply and mostly she takes the bottle OK. But some days he has a nightmare when she is fussy and won’t take it.
‘In Singapore, I was so nervous to get back on the boat. I hadn’t sailed at all since October 2021, which is a really long time not racing or sailing. That’s not being on a boat at all.
‘I was really nervous but once we left the dock and got on the water, I was just so absorbed with what I had to do and I didn’t really think about her too much until we started coming back in.’
From there, the couple have embraced the globe-trotting lifestyle that an international sailing competition brings.
Mills celebrates Olympic gold in the 470 class at Tokyo 2020 with Eilidh McIntyre
Her partner Nick Dempsey won windsurfing silver for Britain at the 2016 Games in Rio – his third Olympic medal
They went on to Sydney, where storm-force winds forced the cancellation of the second day of racing, before hopping across the Tasman to New Zealand.
Hannah, Nick and Sienna spent a week touring the South Island in a camper van, exploring the stunning mountains and crystal blue waters that draw so many to New Zealand.
‘It was incredible, I’ve never been anywhere like it,’ Mills says.
‘It kind of made me happy and sad in a way to see how compared to most places we go, how pristine the environment is here.’
But how was life on the road with a five-month-old?
‘We’re lucky, she was super chilled. It was always challenging but we just made it work. She came on some hikes with us in her little sling.
The couple have enjoyed New Zealand’s stunning scenery, even taking Sienna hiking
‘She sleeps really well in the car, so everywhere we went she’d just have a nice long nap.’
Having a child resulted in the kind of tough conversations about sacrifice familiar to many new parents with their own careers and aspirations.
When both mum and dad are highly-driven athletes, things go up several more notches.
Dempsey, 42, who won windsurfing silver medals at London 2012 and Rio 2016, had landed his dream job coaching aspiring Olympians all over the world.
But Mills wanted to return to top-level sailing, so something had to give.
Dempsey opened up on the dilemma in a recent episode of the Performance People podcast hosted by Ben and Georgie Ainslie.
With just two rounds of the SailGP season remaining, Britain will hope to get on the podium
1. Australia – 76pts
2. New Zealand – 64pts
3. France – 63pts
4. Great Britain – 61pts
5. Denmark – 57pts
6. United States – 52pts
7. Canada – 49pts
8. Spain – 27pts
9. Switzerland – 25pts
‘I stopped my role as an Olympic coach and travelling around the world,’ he said. ‘With me going in one direction and Hannah the other, we had the simple problem of who looks after Sienna.
‘Stopping was a difficult decision because it was my dream job. It was difficult to stop because it was an unfinished project.
‘We are only a year-and-a-half out from the Olympics and in that squad, we have people who can win gold medals.
‘We are both pretty guilty of making decisions based on careers, and our wants and our drive. Something has to give at some point because two people like this chasing stuff doesn’t work.’
Another complication was the delicate matter of bringing a baby into the inner sanctum of a high-functioning sports team.
‘It is a performance environment and you don’t want to be the one there with a screaming baby upsetting the tone of the whole regime,’ Dempsey adds.
Fortunately, Sienna is immaculately behaved as Mills chats about Britain’s prospects in this weekend’s SailGP race in New Zealand.
They dropped to fourth in the leaderboard in Sydney but the format of SailGP, where the whole season boils down to a winner-takes-all race in San Francisco in May, means there is plenty to play for.
‘We have to be optimistic. Our team is incredible, we have the most amazing sailors,’ Mills says.
‘Our season has been up and down with incidents. So to still be in with a chance of making the top three is incredible and if we get that spot, anything can happen.’
‘Hitting the water at those speeds is like hitting TARMAC’
The Emirates Great Britain team experienced their fair share of drama last time out in Sydney when grinder Matt Gotrel fell overboard during a high-speed race.
The boat was travelling at close to 50mph when Gotrel slipped and fell through the fairing into the water. Though he remained attached to the boat by his safety line, he sustained muscular strain to his right hip and legs.
British team driver Ben Ainslie said: ‘It was really intense. When you hit the water at those speeds, it’s like hitting tarmac, it’s solid.
‘He suffered a bit of damage but thankfully it isn’t anything that will put him out of action for too long.
‘It made for an interesting day because we had that and then in the second race, one of the control buttons malfunctioned. So it wasn’t until the third race, we could have a solid race.’