After a stunning opening race win, Skandia sponsored Iain Percy and Steve Mitchell were unceremoniously dumped by fleet-inverting pressure in the final quarter of the last beat of day two of the Star Class World Championship.
Having been up in contention all day, holding a consistent fifth place, it was agonising for the British Star representatives for Athens 2004 as they saw their title hopes fade, whilst their bitter Swedish rivals, Freddy LOOF and Anders EKSTROM stormed through the fleet with outstanding boatspeed to claim a second place and the overnight lead in the championship.
However the day belonged to the Netherlands team of Mark NEELEMAN and Peter van NIEKERK (NED) who, from the starting gun, sailed into an unprecedented lead that at times topped 1 minute. In this fleet, that's virtually unheard of and Neeleman held his nerve despite a late charge from the ultra-quick Loof to score a stunning race victory by just over 20 seconds.
Unlike the April storm clouds and 26 knot breezes of yesterday it was a picture perfect day with broken clouds forming off the mountain ranges of Formia and Naples bringing with it, a shifting breeze that peaked at around 20 knots before fading to a consistent 14 knots. The sea-state was slight as the sun drenched the course and the race committee got the racing under way at just past the allotted 2pm schedule. A clean start by all competitors saw the 103 boats get away with the major contenders huddled down at the pin end of the line on a long starboard leg into the shoreline of Formia to pick up the first shift. Torben GRAEL and Mercello FERREIRA (BRA) were the early leaders, having aced the start but as the wind shifted anti-clockwise the race played into the hands of Neeleman who held a small lead over a chasing pack of Percy, Stig WESTERGAARD and the Italian Gold star of Roberto BENAMATI. Bermudan Peter BROMBY was just off the pack but pulled through beautifully in the last quarter of the beat to round the top mark fifth. Freddy LOOF had been buried in a gaggle at the pin end but began his charge after rounding the top mark in the mid teens. Percy rounded eighth at the windward mark as the breeze filled to just under 20 knots before beginning his customary downwind execution, gybing off to the port side of the course with Loof breaking from the pack with him.
By the leeward mark, Neeleman was off in a class of his own having extended down the run in clear air whilst Grael led the following pack of Westergaard, Loof and Percy. There was very little to choose from in terms of boatspeed and technique as the top five in the rarefied atmosphere of the Stars fought it out tooth and nail up the second beat. The only surprising speed differences were seen in the boat on boat contact of Loof who seemed able to lee bow at will and always had the pace when it mattered. Neeleman rounded the second windward mark with a 1 minute 5 second lead from Grael and Westergaard with Loof closing in behind. Percy was a further10 seconds back and seemingly being dropped off the pack, however his downwind speed kept him in contention.
Now came a big move from Loof who gambled all and headed off far to port, splitting from the leaders in search of increased pressure. With his rig rocked so far forward that it appeared well over the bow and some interesting kinetics from his bowman Ekstrom, Loof pulled off the move of the regatta to sail straight through Westergaard and Grael and close down the gap on Neeleman to a cool 43 seconds. The Netherlands duo were looking anxiously over their shoulder at the Swedes and opted to slap the tightest of covers on their closing rivals. Rounding the port leeward mark the top four boats headed out to the clear air off the Naples headland whilst Percy gambled all and went for the starboard exit to hug the shore. It was all looking so good for the 'charisma twins' a quarter of the way up the final beat as they closed in on a covering Westergaard before overtaking them with superior tacking speed in a close fought duel. The leaders all congregated in the middle of the course as the charging Percy posed a real threat but then came a moment of the cruellest of luck.
With the wind flowing down off the mountains, Percy headed out to the right side of the course to cover Westergaard and in search of what felt like the filling sea-breeze. However the rest of the fleet banged hard left as their compasses dialled down on a steady header and, crucially, increasing pressure. Looking over their shoulders must have been a sight for sore eyes as around twenty boats piled in from the left, taking advantage of an extra five knots of sea breeze to sail through in the final quarter of the beat. No matter how much boatspeed you have, there's nothing you can do when you're on the outside of pressure like that! Percy and Mitchell had to watch as crews hiked at full extension whilst they soldiered up on starboard tack desperate to get into the breeze.
Up front it was different as Loof and Neeleman conducted their own private match race in the final quarter, covering the fleet out left and keeping an eye on each other. Despite the gap closing considerably, Neeleman held on to take the gun with Loof scoring the second place to take him into the overnight championship lead. Peter Bromby was the biggest winner of the lefties, nailing a third just ahead of Torben Grael, who couldn't get over to the left fast enough from the mid-point of the beat. Maxwell Treacy and Anthony Shanks continued their good form with a sixth place whilst Paul Cayard notched his first top ten after yesterday's dismasting with an eighth place having been buried in the late teens all day until the final beat. Percy ended up frustrated with a 22nd place and their anger was palpable as they crossed the finish line…That's the discard then!
Racing continues today with winds expected in the 10-15 knot range from the west which should develop a sea breeze and the big question on all the competitor's lips is: Can anyone catch or match the speed of Loof? If anyone can it's Percy and there's another four races left to decide the fate of the 2004 Gold Star…Fingers crossed for consistent winds!
Overall Top Ten
||Helm & Crew
||Frederik Lööf & Anders Ekström
||Mark Neeleman & Peter Van Niekerk
||Torben Grael & Marcel Bastos Ferreira
||Maxwell Treacy & Anthony Shanks
||Mark Mansfield & Killian Collins
||Peter Bromby & Lee White
||Rohan Lord & Andrew Taylor
||Roberto Bermudez de Castro & Pablo Arrarte Elorza
||Stig Westergaard & Dann Neergaard
||Iain Percy & Steve Mitchell