Olympic medallist and world number one sailor Sam Meech speaks to Chris Rattue on his quest for Olympic gold, real life pirates, and the influence of Peter Burling.

Sam Meech has been suffering for five days.

Severe hay fever is hampering his buildup to the Laser World Championships in Portugal starting Sunday, and he's having trouble finding the right medicine minus any performance enhancing traps.

"It's not usually so hard but the pharmacies here are quite small and don't stock too much," the 28-year-old sailing ace says from Porto, his voice clearly struggling.


But if ever a world class sailor was built for dealing with new issues in foreign lands, it is Meech.

The Rio Olympics was a triumph for the Meech family, with Sam - now the world's top ranked Laser sailor – collecting a bronze medal, and younger sister Molly claiming silver in the 49erFX.

Their education on the water began in the most adventurous of ways, when parents Simon, a GP, and mum Deb, a nurse, took to the ocean in a keelboat.

What began as a trip from Kerikeri in Northland to Australia - when Sam was 5 - turned into something a little more. They sailed on, to England, lived there for a few years, and then sailed back to New Zealand on this seven year odyssey.

Their home: a 14.3-metre, Alan Orams-built Herreshoff, a sturdy but not overly fast vessel.

"My parents bought a boat instead of a house and enjoyed the trip to Australia so much, they just kept going," Sam tells the Herald .

"We saw a lot of really cool things at a young age that a lot of people wouldn't see.

"I'm not sure I appreciated it at the time. I look at the photos now and thing wow. At the time it seemed so normal.

"There were quite a few scary moments. And it is also scary when everything you own is in a boat which could sink."

New Zealand brother and sister Olympic medal winners Sam and Molly Meech. Photo / Photosport
New Zealand brother and sister Olympic medal winners Sam and Molly Meech. Photo / Photosport

Simon Meech was a proficient sailor and of course kids instinctively trust their parents, even if the parents later concede that they weren't always in total control.

In the Red Sea, they were confronted by pirate-like characters who were probably military people – the family is not sure from which country – who confiscated their passports overnight, prominent guns discouraging argument.

There were the inevitable storms and close encounters with container ships at night. Sam remembers negotiating the French canals and locks as being particularly stressful for his parents, amid fears their boat - motoring with mast down - would run aground.

It was certainly a lesson in the rewards of putting your money where your heart is from Sam and Molly's parents.

"Dad was able to work as we went around and we'd sail until the money ran out," he remembers.

"They completely ran out of money in the UK and he worked for two years. Mum was in charge of our schooling, through correspondence.

"It was such a cool thing to do. Not many people would be brave enough to put all their money into a boat instead of buying a house."

On returning to New Zealand, with the family settling in Hamilton then Tauranga, the 12-year-old Sam started sailing dinghies.

This was serendipity, for a sailing prodigy.

Among the young Tauranga luminaries were future Olympic and America's Cup star Peter Burling, current world Laser No 23 Tom Saunders and his brother Jason, a 2016 Olympian, plus the Meeches.

Laser ace. Photo / Sailing Energy - World Sailing
Laser ace. Photo / Sailing Energy - World Sailing

Burling was leading the way, competing in the Optimist World Championship in America at the age of 11.

"He was already doing quite well internationally which gave us all something to aim towards," says Meech.

"It kind of happens in most sports, one or two people doing well which brings the level up with everyone else."

Sam was on the way to a career in the Laser, a class he loves because it is all about sailing ability rather than equipment. Winning the world youth title in 2009 painted a clear career picture for a kid who had toyed with the arts.

Rio was a breakthrough for Meech. He had prevailed in a very tough battle with Andy Maloney for the Olympic spot, and finished with the bronze medal while still emerging as a top class sailor.

He mainly skirts around the subject of trying to win gold in Japan next year, but admits to the odd dream of standing atop the podium at the next Games.

Strictly speaking, he is not assured of a place in the next Olympic Games even though he is the sailor who qualified a Laser spot for New Zealand. But most expect him to go.

He has already conducted extensive scouting of the Olympic venue, where "fantastic" strong onshore winds turn into tricky offshore ones. The heat will also be a big issue, particularly while preparing for races in the boat park.

Meech would also love to win the world title in Japan this July, and shake off a reputation for missing top spot on the podium.

"It is cool being the world No 1 and something I always wanted to be," says Meech, whose girlfriend is Swiss sailor Maud Jayet, who is also trying to qualify for the Olympics.

"I may not be getting the wins, but the good thing is I'm usually getting beaten by a different person each time. Someone else is always having a really good week. I'm waiting for my turn.

"In a sport where consistency is important I'm meeting my target of making the podium. But I need to make that step up to winning events."

Sam Meech was the flagbearer for New Zealand at the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Sailing World Championships. Photo / Photosport
Sam Meech was the flagbearer for New Zealand at the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Sailing World Championships. Photo / Photosport

Join the dots and you are looking at a sailor who is making an all-out assault on the world and Olympic crowns, before heading in a new direction after the Japan Games.

Olympic sailing is not a lucrative business, and he has been unable to find a sponsor. His success, through consistency, means he only covers costs.

On the not-too-distant horizon, Meech would love to be part of an America's Cup team or sail on Russell Coutts' new SailGP circuit.

"The money situation is pretty stressful and if I don't perform there will be no funding for the following year," says Meech.

"Olympic sailing is not something you can do long term, it's just not financial. But luckily there are other areas where you can make money in sailing."

He says his racing skills were first developed in dinghies, rather than having much to do with the family's life on the high seas.

But if he needs a reminder about other influences - of following your dreams and grabbing new experiences - then it is there in the form of a particular boat bobbing around at Gulf Harbour near the family's home in Whangaparaoa.

Not that it is always easy, when necessity means leaving a treasured lifestyle behind.

Simon and Deb Meech came full circle, having to sell Tradition - the boat which gave them so many great times on the way to Britain and back - to buy a house.

"They go past and look at it sometimes - I think it's quite hard for them to see."