Sailing Saunders brothers take Chester, N.S., along to Rio

Graeme and Jacob Saunders of Chester, N.S., arrived in Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, where they will be competing in Olympic sailing — on a boat named Chester.

Graeme and Jacob Saunders competing in Olympic sailing

Jacob and Graeme Saunders grew up sailing in Chester, N.S., and now they're taking their skills to compete for the Canadian team at the Rio Summer Olympics. (Stephanie Skenderis/CBC)

Two brothers from Chester, N.S., are finding a way to bring their hometown to their first Olympic Games.

Graeme and Jacob Saunders arrived in Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, where they will be competing in the men's two-person 470 race — on a boat named Chester.

It's a tribute to a town that has supported them from the beginning.

It's really great to share this with my younger brother.- Graeme Saunders

"Sailing is a really expensive sport and since we started the support from the community has been amazing," said Jacob Saunders, 24, who is stationed at the helm.

"After one of our fundraisers at the Chester Yacht Club we were able to purchase two brand new boats, one of which we'll be using in the Olympics," said Graeme Saunders, 26, who works crew.

Hometown heroes, celebrities

Chester Yacht Club is where the brothers call home.

Brothers Jacob and Graeme Saunders of Chester, N.S., have been named to Canadian Olympic sailing team. (Pedro Martinez/Sailing Energy)

Their parents weren't sailors, but enrolled the boys in the junior sailing program in 2002, mainly because it's the thing to do in Chester. Eventually the brothers graduated to coaches themselves.

Their first boat, the Green Dragon, is still docked at the club. Now, whenever they come home, the brothers are treated a bit like celebrities.

Setting up the Green Dragon takes longer, because neighbours and community members constantly approach them during preparations; kids ask for autographs, while old friends wish them well.

Jacob Saunders remembers being motivated by experienced sailors from the area and hopes to do the same for younger people starting out.

Graeme Saunders teaches sailing in Chester. (Submitted by Gerry Giffin)

"When we were growing up here we had a lot of older sailors to look up to and guys who were going to Youth World Championships and national championships across the country," he said.

"It's pretty cool to be in that position now."

Brother advantage

The brothers first started sailing together after Jacob finished high school, and Graeme Saunders said it's a natural partnership.

"We think very similarly, we approach sailing very similarly," he said. "It's really great to share this with my younger brother."

The feeling is mutual.

Jacob Saunders, pictured here with dad David Saunders, grew up sailing in Chester, N.S. (Submitted by Gerry Giffin)

"It's almost like we're running a business," said Jacob Saunders.

"It's cool to work with Graeme on a professional level and still be brothers at the end of the day and still want to hang out and be friends."

Even if there's conflict, Jacob Saunders said they are quick to forgive each other.

"We can lose our temper once in a while, but we just let it go and we're back to the same place," he said. "It's an advantage in that sense."

The road to Rio

It's an advantage that has taken them far, but it was years before the Olympic dream came into view.

"The first time it crossed my mind as a realistic goal was competing at the Youth World Championships in 2009. It was the first time I'd competed for Canada," said Jacob Saunders.

"My first window into what Olympic sailing might be like."

In 2010, the brothers teamed up with a common goal: making it to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

We want to sail our best and not leave anything on the table. We've put in the hours and the training.- Jacob Saunders

They qualified for the national team in 2013, and in January 2016 finished in 7th place at the Sailing World Cup in Miami.

But Rio remained elusive until early June, when they finally found out they had made the cut for Team Canada.

Graeme Saunders said he and his brother were in an airport on their way to England for another competition when they got that call.

"There was a period we weren't sure it would come together," he said.

'Pretty phenomenal place to sail'

After spending three weeks training in Rio, it finally started to sink in.

"In general it's a pretty phenomenal place to sail," said Graeme Saunders. "It's got a huge range of conditions, from big waves and windy to light and flat."

Garbage is spotted floating in the waters of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro where Olympic sailors will be training and competing for medals. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

As for pollution, Graeme Saunders said it's not as bad as he was expecting, though sightings of plastic bags and debris are inevitable.

"We'll take some precautions, but it's no worse than Halifax Harbour was 10 years ago," he said with a laugh.

Long-term tactics

The brothers said they may have an advantage in Rio because the venue is not a regular spot on championship tours, which means they and their competition will all be figuring it out.

Graeme and Jacob Saunders, testing out their Olympic kits, prep their boat, The Green Dragon, to head out on the water in Chester. (Stephanie Skenderis/CBC)

But for them, this race isn't necessarily about a medal — they are playing the long game.

"We want to sail our best and not leave anything on the table. We've put in the hours and the training," said Jacob Saunders.

"But we sail in a very experienced class and very few win a medal at their first Olympics. The long-term goal for us is a medal in Tokyo in 2020."