Friday, June 17, 2011

The Strong Rise to the Top: Ainslie Dominates the Sail for Gold Regatta

For the past few weeks, I've been coaching the Australian Finn sailor, Brendan Casey, in Weymouth for the Sail for Gold Regatta. Last week, Weymouth lived up to its billing as a heavy weather venue. With the exception of day one, the cold wind blew hard for the entire event. Sail for Gold is used by many countries as qualifying for the pre-Olympics in August and as is the case with the US team, as a qualifier for Olympic team selection.

The Finns and Stars shared the same race course which is the furthest laid course from the harbor. It is a 45 minute tow downwind, and the return trip takes close to an hour. In addition, the multiple one hour and twenty minute races meant that we spent up to eight hours on the water for most of the event. Throw in the bone-chilling cold and you can really appreciate the strength and mental fortitude these sailors have.

The on-course conditions made it difficult to read the wind shifts and currents. The long starting lines and long legs meant the fleet spread over a half mile from left to right on the first leg. Picking the proper side on the first beat was critical to a top result. From a coach's perspective, it was important to get a feel for the shift trends and current. Weymouth is one of those venues where the more time you spend racing and training the better. It is important to develop a "sixth sense" about the shifts.

A lot of competitors struggled to master the conditions. We've seen races with big breeze this season, but haven't seen the immense waves and chop that persisted during the week. It required a different setup with the mast and precise steering to keep the boat moving at top speed. The decision where to start strongly determined tactics on the first beat. The three main factors tactically on the beats were current, wind shifts and pressure. It was never obvious which factor would play out the best and made the decision where to start nerve racking. A number of times, the current would be more favorable on one side but the forecasted shift was to the opposite side. The one thing that was consistent throughout the week was that it was never favorable to sail the middle of the course.

Competitors also had a tough time mentally and physically when facing the difficult conditions. The strongest sailors have a good mental game, which is the most important preparation a competitor can make. Having a good mental game supplements physical preparation. It's important to go out with a positive attitude, a few clear goals, and realistic expectations.

On the Finn course it continues to be the Ben Ainslie show. He again dominated the fleet winning by 14 points. Early on it looked like Dan Slater from New Zealand would make a run at Ben by winning the first two races, but Slater fell back to earth on day three with more typical results. Not surprisingly, the British team enjoyed great success winning the medal count in the Olympic class with two Gold Medals, three Silver medals, and two Bronze medals. The Australian team was second with two Gold Medals, and one Silver medal. Next was New Zealand with a Gold and Silver, followed by France, Netherlands and the USA with one Gold and Bronze each.

Next month Brendan and I are planning on training in Weymouth for two weeks prior to the Pre-Olympic Regatta. In the meantime, I'm headed to San Francisco to run a Laser Master's clinic in early July as a tune up for the Master's Worlds in August. The Worlds happen to fall on the same dates as the Weymouth event, so I will unfortunately miss out on challenging for a world title in my home waters. It's disappointing not to race, but I'm really excited about helping Laser sailors perform well in the difficult conditions found on San Francisco Bay.