The opening day of the Gazprom International Dragon World Championship 2013 at Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (WPNSA) produced drama and one incredibly tough but exciting race.
The extremely shifty conditions and the eagerness of the crews didn't make life easy for Race Officer Tim Hancock and the results show that a number of the hot favourites found themselves much further down the ranking than they would normally expect.
After early morning thunder storms and heavy rain blew through, the crews arrived in the race area to find a shifty south westerly wind of 15-18 knots, scudding clouds, occasional bursts of wonderful sunshine and plenty of big waves. It took three attempts to get the race started, two under black flag with a total of seven teams being sent home for an early bath. Amongst those out of the race were Mark Dicker, IDA Chairman Richard Blickman, IDA Technical Committee Chairman Philip Dohse and Dave Ross, whose crew this week includes David Bedford.
The start which eventually got the fleet away was not without incident as a big right hander in the closing moments of the sequence gave those at the committee boat end a big initial advantage. Fortunately an equally big left hander half way up the first beat evened things out again and at the top mark Poul Richard Hoj-Jensen and Martin Payne, who had come off the middle of the line, led in with Uli Libor from the left, Yvgen Braslavets, Remy Arnaud, Lief Carlsson and Marcus Brennecke in pursuit.
In response to the huge wind shifts of up to 40 degrees, the race committee made some equally huge mark movements. But the breeze proved just as likely to swing back again as stay put and with the fleet on legs of over two miles it wasn't long before the committee found themselves out of sync. The fleet ended up on a shocking one tacker for the second beat which completely reshuffled the pack. The sailors problems were compounded because the mark change signal boat only advised port or starboard for directional change and + or - to indicate length, but gave no new bearing or distance. From a Dragon in big seas, with the wind all over the show and no mark boats large enough to see from the other end of the course it was anyone's guess where the marks were at times.
After racing Hoj-Jensen summed up the fleet's thoughts well saying "We couldn't see the marks. Because the waves are so big they would have been smart to have a big boat with a big flag up there."
Martin Payne added "I think when the course is so long you don't need to go quite so drastic [with mark moves], just a subtle move one way or the other."
Many of the hot favourites going into the event found themselves caught out by the big shifts and mark movements, with Lars Hendriksen struggling off the line, recovering well on the first beat, getting buried on the second beat and eventually fighting his way back up to 14th. Others who floundered included Markus Wieser who finished 18th, Tommy Mueller 20th, and defending champion Lawrie Smith in 23rd. Tonight there are more than a few sailors relieved that this eight race series includes one discard.
Whilst some struggled others excelled and on the line Hoj-Jensen claimed victory from Libor with Brenneck second, Russian triple Olympian Andrey Kirilyuk, who this week is standing in for regular helm Dimitry Samokin, third and Braslavets fourth.
After sailing Hoj-Jensen paid tribute to the race sailed by Ulli Libor, whom he has known since their days together in the Flying Dutchman Class. "We both sailed Flying Dutchmen in '68 in the Olympics in Mexico where he got a silver medal and I was sixth or seventh, so it was quite good fun to see that he's really come back and has good speed in the boat. He was the one who came back from the left side [on the first beat] up to the first mark and he was very, very close to us."
For Hoj-Jensen it was a day of double victory as he also won the Corinthian Division for all amateur crews, with Martin Palsson in second, Remy Arnaud third and Philipp Ocker fourth.
Whilst there may have been many challenges for the sailors on the race course today, the one thing that must be said is that the racing was nail bitingly close and in the big swells and fabulous late summer light the fleet made a stunning sight powering across Weymouth Bay with the spectacular Jurassic Coast as backdrop. Despite today's challenges the fleet is in excellent spirits and the sailors have been fulsome in their praise of the facilities at WPNSA and the outstanding welcome extended by the British hosts.
As the exhausted but exhilarated crews returned ashore there was one more drama to come when defending champion Lawrie Smith's crew, Tim Tavinor, sustained a nasty hand injury as two boats came together on returning to the dock. Whilst not life threatening Tim has been taken to hospital for medical treatment and his fitness to sail tomorrow is currently uncertain.
Tomorrow two races are scheduled and with lighter winds forecast it will be a very different day of racing. You can keep up with the latest from the race course via the Pantaenius Live Tracking, where you can also replay past races. News, results and further information will be posted at the event website. The regatta will continue until Friday 13 September with a maximum of eight races scheduled with a single discard coming into play after the completion of race six.