ISAF Rolex World Sailors of the Year Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie (NZL) and Mat Belcher (AUS), with crew Will Ryan, will be out to defend their 470 world titles at the Santander 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships.
The Kiwi and Australian sailors have been the stand out 470 racers in recent years with success after success wherever they compete. Whilst it's hard to bet against the defending champions there are several dangerous and skilful sailors in the 85 boat men's fleet and 65 strong women's division.
Santander 2014 is the first Rio 2016 Olympic Sailing Competition qualification regatta with 50% of places awarded based on results in the Spanish city. The male competitors will be aiming for one of 13 places with the female racers gunning for one of ten.
Aleh and Powrie are the pair to beat in the Women's 470 and have raised the bar in the fleet. The pair took their first world championship title in 2013 and will be aiming to be at the front of the pack once again in Santander, "The aim for Santander is to qualify the nation in the class and it's a world champs so of course we want to be up there and if we're not up there then we're going to be pretty annoyed,"
said Aleh. "We'll take it as it comes. Hopefully we'll be competitive and there's a good bunch of girls right at the top so we'll have to see what happens."
Throughout 2014 the Women's 470 has seen Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark (GBR), Anne Haeger and Briana Provancha (USA), Lara Vadlau and Jolanta Ogar (AUT), Camille Lecointre and Helene Defrance (FRA) and Fernanda Oliveira and Ana Luiza Barbachan (BRA) consistently mix it up at the top.
With such a strong group at the head of the fleet Powrie realises it won't be straight forward to defend the title, "We're all pretty close at the moment. We've got all the top boats going so it can be anybody's and whoever sails the best will be up there. We'll approach it like any other regatta we do. We'll have to make sure we qualify the country and that will be in the back of your mind but I guess as defending champions we'll just see how we go."
America's Haeger and Provancha have come on leaps and bounds over the last 18 months and have become serious contenders for major honours. At the Aquece Rio International Sailing Regatta 2014 the pair held the lead going into the final day but dropped out of the medal places altogether with a disappointing Medal Race result. Nonetheless experience was gained and Haeger is up for the Santander challenge, "It is the first Olympic qualifier so that's the number one goal for us but we also really want to come away with a strong finish and learn as much as we can. We're still kind of climbing the learning ladder and chipping away at the boat. It can be a pain but it's our pain and we're looking forward to Santander."
The Americans have pushed the likes of Aleh and Powrie and Olympic silver medallists Mills and Clark yet remain coy on their chances in Santander, "We would love to be up on the podium but we don't know if that's on the cards quite yet," added Haeger. "We still have a lot to learn but it would be a dream come true if we were able to podium there. Gold would be awesome so I guess we'll see.
"There are a lot of girls up there who are all on a similar playing field and whoever can get that edge in Santander will be on top."
Belcher and Ryan have been a class above the rest in the Men's 470, epitomising consistency, good team ethic and focused minds. Their unbeaten run came to an end at ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami in January and whilst their rivals have had their ups and downs the Aussies have remained on the podium in a highly competitive fleet, "There are so many people who can have a shot but it's whether they can continue to do that event after event. We've shown that it's the hardest thing.
"The guys that have been in front of us this year they've had some good events but then they've been at the back. I'm sure they appreciate how hard it is to perform at every single regatta but they're all improving heaps and we just have to keep working hard ourselves."
Belcher has been on top of the world championship podium for the last four years, taking three titles with Malcolm Page and one with Ryan and he's content with his build-up to Santander 2014, "The Worlds is the Worlds; it's always the main event. We're in pretty good shape and quite happy with how we're sailing.
"For me trying to win five in a row, that's pretty cool and I never thought I would ever be in that position. I'm not sure if it's been done before but it's a pretty cool opportunity and we'll be sailing hard. There's so much competition but we've got to keep pushing ourselves, keep focusing on ourselves and keep trying to get better and better."
The Men's 470 fleet has an abundance of exceptional talent with seasoned athletic sailors all capable of performing on the big stage. Croatia's Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic were the last duo to pick up a world title before Belcher asserted himself and they will be in the mix once again.
Following a disappointing 2013 worlds, where they placed 19th, the Croatians have worked hard throughout the year in preparation. Following two silvers at ISAF Sailing World Cup Qingdao and Melbourne their hard work paid off at ISAF Sailing World Cup Mallorca as they took gold in a fleet resembling the strength of the one that will be seen in Santander.
ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami gold medallists Sofian Bouvet and Jeremie Mion (FRA) and European Champions Luke Patience and Elliot Willis (GBR) also come in with confidence. The competition will be tight in the Men's 470 with further contenders coming in the form of Joonas and Niklas Lindgren (FIN), Pierre Leboucher and Nicolas Le Berre (FRA), Anton Dahlberg and Fredrik Bergstrom (SWE), Stu McNay and Dave Hughes (USA) and a strong Spanish contingent.
470 racing commences on Sunday 14 September with two races on the agenda. Two further races on Monday 15 September will bring conclude the qualification series.
Gold and silver fleet racing will begin on Tuesday 16 September with Wednesday 17 a scheduled reserve day. Racing on Thursday 18 and Friday 19 will conclude the final series with the Medal Races on Saturday 20 September bringing 470 racing to a close.
Santander 2014 ISAF Worlds Event Website
Santander 2014 ISAF Microsite