Breeze through;Subject of the week;Technology
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, British success stories were thin on the ground. But on the water, our sailors won two silver medals and a couple of fourth places - especially satisfying results for the Nottinghamshire company which kitted them out.
When Douglas Gill International was approached by the Royal Yachting Association in 1993 and asked to develop a "climate-specific clothing range" for the British team at the Atlanta Games in Georgia, the company realised this would present a unique design challenge.
Sailing wear had moved on from the oilskins and sou'westers of yesteryear but even the new generation of breathable, waterproof fabrics would be tested in this extreme environment. The hot, damp conditions of America's Deep South placed extra demands on those taking part in the Atlanta Olympics. In equestrian events, horses had to be showered between rounds and athletics events were held in the early morning or evening to avoid the blistering midday temperatures.
For the yachtsmen and women, conditions on the sea at Savannah - 90 per cent humidity in 90degF - meant anything but plain sailing. Long days afloat under a blazing sun and in the heat of competition would test the competitors' endurance to the limit.
Gill drew up a six-point design brief for the new garments. They had to keep the sailors cool and comfortable, protect them from the sun and ultra violet light, and be highly breathable, aerodynamic, wind-resistant and lightweight.
By early 1994, Gill had developed a range of prototype garments - a close fitting body suit, baggy high fit trousers, and lightweight smock tops - which were put through their paces by competitors at southern European regattas and by Gill's marketing manager, Liz Rushall, an accomplished sailor herself, in South Africa.
"Most sailing clothing is only trying to keep you warm and dry and that was our specialism. But conventional waterproof garments weren't the solution and at that level of the sport, clothing is an essential part of your equipment.
"We had a team of elite sailors that we could work with in the run-up to the Games and we were getting feedback all the time. But the first prototypes weren't durable enough - the membranes delaminated and broke down."
While taking part in the pre-Olympics, on the Olympic sailing course in Savannah, Liz, who narrowly missed out on qualification for the Games herself, realised that some of the clothing was unsuitable for the muggy conditions.
"Savannah had a very particular climate and weather conditions. You walked out of an air-conditioned room and your clothes were soggy. It was like a jungle. The water was so warm that when a wave hit you it was like someone throwing a bucket of bath-water in your face."
The reflective body suit and lightweight smock were proving popular and by now the United States team was also interested, requesting clothing for their team. But the high-fitting trousers came back unworn - a sure sign that they weren't right for the job.
Liz decided to press on with the development of the body suit, making sure it incorporated a high level of protection from the sun's rays. "There was an enormous amount of heat reflected from the water and none of the sailors could afford to get burned." In addition to the need for sun protection (the floating marina where competitors waited for their races was uncovered) the clothing had to cope with the physical rigours of modern racing.
"When you are working hard the body movements can be quite extreme," says Liz. In the 470 class, the two-man dinghy where the crew hangs from a trapeze to keep the boat upright, speed of movement and fitness are essential. So the body suits needed to be flexible as well as strong to put up with constant abrasion from ropes and decking. Gill solved this problem by incorporating Lycra panels into the sides of the suits, which also made them easier to get into, and were in dark blue - the British team colours - to contrast with the silver suits.
The materials may be high tech but the company still falls back on traditional production methods. Patterns were designed on computer then cut on "old tech" tailor's dummies and tried for size by willing guinea pigs at Gill's Long Eaton factory. The stop-start nature of competitive sailing - three or four races a day with long breaks in between - presented a further difficulty. Periods of intense activity followed by inactivity can lead to chilling, even in such hot conditions, and the body uses up extra energy evaporating moisture next to the skin. This is wasteful when conserving energy levels for the next race is so important.
To avoid "wet suit itch" - the uncomfortable condition familiar to many sailors caused by a build up of water and body salts next to the skin - the suit was given a thin fleece lining to "wick" moisture away from the skin.
Several versions later, the 16-strong Olympic team were presented with "Speed Skins", which featured a Lycra fleece lining laminated to a hydrophilic film - a chemical structure that is flexible as well as waterproof.
"This was the first time we have come up with anything so refined," admits Liz, who stresses that the end product is a joint effort, marrying the design skills and nautical know-how of her staff with the technical nous of the fabric manufacturers. "We have had other projects for sailing teams but this was so specialised in terms of research and development into fabrics that it was a first for us."