Monday, August 15, 2011

Weymouth Pre-Olympic Regatta 2011

This week we had a first glimpse of what is in store for sailors competing in the 2012 Olympic Games. The Weymouth Pre-Olympic Regatta is a test event designed to replicate the Olympics exactly to familiarize sailors to procedures during the Games. Participating countries select one sailor per class to compete, making the regatta much smaller than its World Cup counterpart, Sail for Gold. As the Olympics draw closer, the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy is a familiar venue to most seriously campaigning Olympic-class sailors. However, the Olympic test event had a few surprises in store for competitors.

The Olympic Test Event is also a practice run for the 2012 London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) . Having these guys in charge is like having "Big Brother" watching over you. Whenever anything out of the ordinary happened, the standard answer given was "We're doing it this way because LOCOG ordered it." Two weeks before the regatta, there was a lockdown period for the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, the Olympic sailing venue. This lockdown occurred at the usual time when sailors get in their most productive last minute preparations - throwing a major complication into training. However, the Sailing Academy gave the sailors access to a launching ramp and gravel parking lot outside their gated campus, so normal preparations could continue. After three days, without notice, we were informed the ramp was now closed. The reason was, "LOCOG ordered it." It didn't stop the sailors from getting on the water, only now they invaded local, expensive, sailing clubs, or launched off the rocky public beach. Some windsurfers kept their boards and equipment inside their coach boats. The windsurfers were able to find the most creative solutions, but did have a few problems. The Dutch men's Gold Medalist had a real scare when his equipment was stolen from his temporary beachside launching area. It was after making a public appeal that his board showed up in the bushes a week later, just in time for the regatta.

Another surprise was that the organizers switched courses between classes daily. Unlike Sail for Gold and other World Cup events where the classes are confined to one course for the whole event, we rotated around the five course areas. On some days, classes even raced one race on one course, then switched to another course for the second race. This was accomplished by moving with the whole race committee, marks and all, to an entirely different course. The course changes significantly impacted sailors because conditions on each course are widely different. For example, the harbor course inside the breakwater (referred to by some as the "kiddie pool") has relatively flat water and a confined space with no current. In contrast, the east course sees big chop on top of big swells and the greatest current flow. The west course is tucked in the bay near Weymouth beach with high cliffs and big valleys bending the winds every which way, which makes the course very gusty. The south course is in the middle of the bay, and can be as big as the east course in strong winds or as flukey as the west course, because the wind bends around the high cliffs of Portland. And finally, there is the Nothe Course, also known as the Medal Race course. It is tucked way up under the Nothe fort, which sits high atop a steep hill and butts up to the massive Portland harbor break wall. This is the "stadium course" where the medals will be decided in short sprint races. After the shock of this new decision, and having prepared for the last three years to race on a specific course, the sailors took it in stride. From my perspective, this actually made the competition much more interesting and a bigger challenge. I don't think it changed the overall results because to win at the Olympic level, you need to be strong in all conditions.

Finn Racing on the Nothe Course

The other major difference was the staggered schedule over the two weeks of racing. The Finn and Star classes started five days after the Women's match racing. The schedule was a little unsettling to some, and almost anticlimactic. Normally there is a certain buzz on the first day of racing at World Cup events, as everyone suits up and has to deal with the day's competition and conditions. But here, we experienced teammates and team coaches who were fully into their regatta, good or bad, and we were still chilling out waiting to start. On the other end of the event, when the Finn and Star classes were going into our two last days of racing, the rest of the fleet was packing gear and leaving. Before the Finn Medal race, the venue felt like a ghost town with all but a few boats left on campus.

On the Finn course it was business as usual. Ben Ainslie continued his dominance over the fleet. However, the competition for the lesser medals is heating up. Pieter Jan Postma from the Netherlands posted three 1st and two 2nd places on his way to the bronze medal. An 8th in the double-points medal race, by virtue of Ainslie match racing him at the start, dropped him out of the Silver medal putting him behind Frenchman Jonathan Lobert.

The Netherlands and Australia were the only two countries with double gold medal performances. The Netherlands added two more medals, a silver and bronze, to Australia's one silver medal. Great Britain topped the medal haul with five medals, adding two silver and two bronze to Ben's gold. Other gold medals were won by France, Poland, Finland, and Japan. Spain won two silver medals, and Belgium and Russia took one silver each. The United States won two bronze medals, one in the women's match racing and a gutsy performance by Paige Railey in the Laser Radial after a slow start, winning the last two races to secure her medal.

The Weymouth Pre-Olympic regatta accomplished what it set out to do. The race committee work was flawless and the event staff were friendly and efficient. Each country and sailor has a better understanding what it will be like at the Olympics, and most importantly, what improvements are needed to be better prepared to win medals.