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Olympic sailing nominees Tyler Bjorn (right) and Richard Clarke practice before the announcement of the Canadian Sailing nominees to the 2012 Canadian Olympic Team, on Friday, June, 1, 2012, in Weymouth, UK. (Jim Ross)
Olympic sailing nominees Tyler Bjorn (right) and Richard Clarke practice before the announcement of the Canadian Sailing nominees to the 2012 Canadian Olympic Team, on Friday, June, 1, 2012, in Weymouth, UK. (Jim Ross)

London 2012

Canadian Olympic sailors keep supporters close to heart Add to ...

When Canadian Star-class sailors Richard Clarke and Tyler Bjorn take to the waves at the 2012 London Olympics, they will have – at last count – 403 names behind them.

In recent weeks, the names have been attached to the stern of the boat in a novel fundraising project that has taken them into new waters.

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Short of finances as the Olympics loomed, Clarke and Bjorn earlier this year put their quest for support online: For a $50 donation, supporters would have their name emblazoned on their boat that will compete in Weymouth, England, at the end of this month. (Those 18 or younger got a break: $25 a moniker.)

Clarke and Bjorn worked social media to let people know about their Get On Board project. They have a website (clarkebjornsailing.com) with a link to the program. Bjorn tweeted. Clarke hit Facebook.

The result? Old friends, acquaintances and strangers came out of the woodwork.

Most donated more than $50 (an average of $70). One offered $1,000. (“How many names do you want on the boat?” Clarke asked him. “Just put my wife and kids on it,” was the reply.)

Very quickly, Clarke realized how important it was for people to see their names on the boat via high-resolution photos on their website.

“I think that helps close the loop,” he said. “It really does make them think that they’re really going to be there.”

In all, the campaign has raised about $30,000 since February, to help pay for equipment, logistics, travel and racing and training support in the months leading to the Games.

It was an experiment that brought in more money and response than Wind Athletes Canada president John Curtis though possible.

“I think we’ve broken new ground on how fundraising can get done at this level,” he said.

As head of an organization that raises finances for national team sailors, Curtis said he began to consider ways about four years ago to use the Internet (and social media).

The logistical barriers to making a donation – filling out a form, signing a cheque, putting it in an envelope, posting it – were enough to give potential donors pause. Fundraising events also require a lot of work, and sailors don’t have time to attend many of them while training and racing around the world.

Overall, Wind Athletes Canada (WAC) has raised $100,000 online, but in its early days, the process was cumbersome.

WAC once used donations via PayPal.com to raise money. But PayPal took a bite – 31/2 per cent – out of each transaction, and WAC still had to issue a tax receipt after tracking through cumbersome record keeping. “I was pulling out my hair,” Curtis said. “We were doing hundreds of these things.”

However, Clarke had a neighbour on Salt Spring Island, B.C., who owned a business that created online registration for conferences: Mark Strongman, president of Effective Registration.

Strongman agreed to donate his services by adapting his system to create a seamless process by which WAC donors fill in name and credit card information, and the program automatically spits out a tax receipt and a “thank you” message.

“We’ve been trying this Internet access to people for a long time, but I think we really nailed something with the simplicity of it,” Bjorn said. “We believe that having their names on the boat really struck a chord with people.”

Clarke said about two-thirds of their costs have been backed by the Canadian Yachting Association, Own the Podium and Wind Athletes Canada. They also have sponsors such as High Liner Foods Inc.

Still, the names on the hull provide much more than financing to the Star-boat crew.

“It’s heart-pumping,” Bjorn said. “No pun intended, we have all of these names behind us.”

“I’m very touched by it,” said Clarke, who will be competing at his fifth Olympic Games. “When I look back at the 400 names on the back of the boat, it makes my heart swell. It makes me very proud.”

However, Olympic rules prevent them from having signage on their boat during the Games. But they have Plan B: All of the names will be inked onto the sailors’ rash guards, shirts they wear beneath wetsuits.

“One way or another, we’ll be taking those names to the Games,” Clarke said. “They may not be seen. But they will be close to my heart.”