“Rio shocked a lot of people in our sport – sailors were getting ill because of the water”

“Rio shocked a lot of people in our sport – sailors were getting ill because of the water”

Alexandra Rickham talks pollution at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, being environmentally conscious from a young age and taking on World Sailing’s Agenda 2030

Inheriting a comprehensive sustainability strategy has its pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s a sizeable, time-consuming piece of work that has been taken off your plate totally. No massive stakeholder engagement process. No need to agonise over what the strategic priorities are and, even more crucially, what can be left out.

On the other hand, if you’re a visionary sustainability professional, setting a course can be quite an exhilarating experience. And, in actual fact, the whole process of implementation is where the real work starts.

Alexandra Rickham, who joined World Sailing as its head of sustainability earlier this year, finds herself in that very position. Tasked with putting in place the international federation’s wide-ranging Agenda 2030 sustainability strategy – and its 56 deliverables – Rickham has a large, potentially intimidating, remit.

But with her passion for the environment, nurtured since childhood, combined with the grit, skill and leadership she demonstrated during a sailing career that produced two Paralympic bronze medals, five World Titles and three World Cups, Rickham is probably better-placed than anyone to take on the challenge. And that’s before mentioning her Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering Technology.

Nevertheless, implementation of a strategy that comprehensive takes a mix of hard work and pragmatism. While Rickham is encouraged by what World Sailing has delivered on the environmental side of things so far, the nature of sustainability is that environmental circumstances – and what we need to do collectively to avoid the worst of climate change, for example – are shifting. Therefore strategic priorities and targets need to be regularly analysed to see if they’re still relevant in their current form.

Big gap to close

One of Rickham’s key priorities is to make the sport of sailing more inclusive. A World Sailing Trust survey in 2019 found that the sport isn’t a totally inclusive and safe space if you happen to be a woman or a girl.

“The big issue for women in sailing is development,” Rickham tells The Sustainability Report. “Men have the opportunity to get lots of professional rides but we don’t see women getting them. Hannah Mills is the most successful woman sailor, and if a male had as many medals as her he’d have loads of professional rides under his belt and would have probably competed in the America’s Cup. That’s a big gap we need to close.” 

However, there is lots to be excited about. World Sailing’s ‘challenge 2024’ initiative, in which it is trying to decarbonise its support boat fleet, has made real strides, while much is being done in terms of analysing the life cycle of boats and equipment and reducing their impact from a carbon and waste perspective.

Often, those working at the centre of sport and sustainability are asked what came first: the passion for sport or the concern for the environment? Several are already involved in sport and fell into sustainability through curiosity, a growing interest or an organisational need. Others are a bit half and half. 

Rickham, however, is unequivocal that environmental protection and sustainable development have been on her personal and professional roadmap for as long as she can remember, and were shaped by significant childhood experiences.

The most unforgettable of these experiences, she says, was when Hurricane Gilbert ripped through her home country of Jamaica in the late-1980s, providing young Alexandra with a stark picture of the human devastation caused by extreme weather.

“The hurricane hit the day after my birthday, so I really remember,” Rickham says. “We had just gotten a satellite dish and my dad was warning our whole town. They all thought he was crazy because it didn’t come on the radio until a day before the storm hit. We battened down and I spent my birthday in darkness.

“It was a hugely critical experience for me in terms of seeing the impacts of extreme weather, especially in a developing nation where people lost their entire livelihoods in seconds. When there’s limited infrastructure the impact lasts for ages.”

Perfect storm

Impacted by that early experience, Rickham went to university to try to find the answers to some of our biggest environmental challenges but, after being contracted by the Royal Yachting Association and drafted for the 2008 Paralympic Games, sailing naturally took precedence.

That was up until the period around the Rio 2016 Paralympics, when something of a perfect storm took place. Knowing that retirement from sailing was a distinct possibility after finding out her discipline was being removed from the Paralympic programme, Rickman turned her thoughts on what to do next. 

Coupled with the collective outrage surrounding the quality of water reserved for the Olympic and Paralympic sailing tournaments (Guanabara Bay was full of trash and pollution, causing performance problems and even physical ailments for athletes), she decided to bring her two passions together.

Many of sport’s most prominent sustainability advocates and professionals come from the world of sailing – Hannah Mills and Dan Reading, Rickham predecessor at World Sailing, to name only two – and Rickham suggests this was very much shaped by the environmental debacle in Brazil.

“Rio shocked a lot of people in our sport. Sailors were getting ill because of the water quality and everyone could see what happens when you don’t have the appropriate infrastructure for waste management,” she explains. “It was very much a point of departure in terms of awareness as it was all over the news.”

Since Rio, the impact of climate change on sailing has become more tangible. Rickham’s local sailing club at the Queen Mary Reservoir just outside London had to cancel an event because a dry winter and hot summer affected the amount of water available.

While this is an eye-opening (and not to mention expensive) turn of events, at least it motivates people to take action, Rickham says. A huge proportion of her job as a sustainability professional is to talk to a number of stakeholders, to get people on side and work collaboratively to address the environmental challenges sailing is facing.


Luckily for Rickham, she’s joined an organisation with a leadership team and board “super invested in our agenda”, but moving forward on 56 objectives means that buy-in has to come from all over the organisation and, in many cases, even outside.

“I try to get people on board by giving them ownership,” she says. “I am dependent on other people and their knowledge about how to do their jobs. If I can empower a fellow staff member or an event organiser by highlighting the problem, but giving them the chance to solve it their way, that’s surely a better way. It’s pointless me going in there to dictate to people how they should do their jobs.”

In between Rio and World Sailing, Rickham oversaw and executed sustainability projects for a number of events, including the recently-established SailGP, which has put sustainability at the heart of its core business and entertainment proposition.

Is this a sign of things to come for the whole sports industry?

“We’re seeing the athlete voice become more prominent and it’s the norm that there’s at least one person in a sports organisation responsible for sustainability. But I still think we need more people,” she stresses. “We need more investment and need everybody in sport to deliver on this, especially at the top of the tree. The truth is that the organisations who are making the most movement on this are those where C-suite has made it a priority.”

Opt into our weekly newsletter for exclusive content focused on sustainability strategy, communication and leadership for sport’s ecosystem.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *