Skandia Sail for Gold 2012 kicked off today, featuring almost all of the medal contenders for the upcoming Olympic Games.
Over seven hundred athletes from 59 nations poured out onto Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay, the cream of world sailing ready to put a marker down for the coming Olympiad. But conditions were tough, the forecast was for a transitional day, with a new wind arriving and strengthening throughout the rest of the week. So while Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay delivered racing, it did so in fits and starts.
The 470 race course got the best of the deal, with two races for everyone and a relatively early finish. In the Men's competition, some familiar names popped out in front. Early race winners were British Olympic representatives Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell, along with the all-conquering Aussie duo of Mat Belcher and Malcolm Page, winners of the last three world championships. Belcher and Page won their second race as well, and lead overall at the end of the first day. But it was also a return to the water and an immediate return to form for Britain's double World Champions, Nic Asher and Elliot Willis who scored a second and a third to hold second overall.
Asher and Willis have been kept out of sailing through illness since a below-par World Championships in Perth last year, and this was their first regatta in 2012. In the meantime, rivals Patience and Bithell got the British Olympic slot for the Games - a bitter disappointment to double world champions that have yet to go to the Olympics. Asher commented, "I would like to carry on for Rio but we will make that decision after Skandia Sail for Gold with Sparky (Stephen Park; Skandia Team GBR Olympic Manager). I see other options are stepping into the Skiff or 49er. But it is fantastic to be back and we have some unfinished business here."
The Women's 470 fleet got underway in the afternoon and also completed two races - winners were the new British World Champions and Olympic representatives, Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark. They posted a first and a fourth to lead from Elise Rechichi and Belinda Stowell from Australia. This is a rivalry that will go all the way to the Games.
The story out on the Finn and Star race course - the furthest from the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy - was more typical of the day. They went out in the morning, were sent back to the beach for lunch without any action, were then hauled back out on the water again in the afternoon to finally get a race in. After all that, it was Michael Hestbaek who took the win in the Stars with four-time medallist (two gold and two silver), Robert Scheidt in fourth.
The USA's Caleb Paine won the Finns, with another four-time medallist (three gold, one silver), Ben Ainslie in fifth. Paine commented, "It feels great to have won today obviously not being selected to represent [the USA] in the Olympics, so to beat the other guys who will be there feels great." But for Ainslie it wasn't so much about the results, "My focus for the week is learning, especially the equipment in the boat; the results aren't important this week it is just about getting the preparation right and learning as much about the venue as possible."
The Paralympic course was one of those that raced in both the morning and the afternoon - starting with one race each for the Sonar and the Skud in the morning. The Sonar's were won by Udo Hessels and Mischa Rossen of the Netherlands from Sven Reiger and Edmund Rath of Austria. In the SKUD 18, Qingdao bronze medallists, John Scott McRoberts and Stacie Louttit from Canada took the honours from Australia's Qingdao silver medallists Daniel Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch.
John Scott McRoberts commented, "It was great to be first today and we are looking forward to the rest of the week and the windy conditions which we prefer; particularly as we already had lots of practice at the Delta Lloyd regatta in light air."
The 2.4mR fleet got out on the Paralympic course in the afternoon, and managed two races in the light conditions. Some very familiar faces were out the front, with both the Netherlands Thierry Schmitter and Megan Pascoe of Team GBR scoring a second and a third to tie for the lead overall, ahead of France's gold and silver medallist, Damien Seguin in third.
Getting the toughest deal were the men on the Laser course, it was very late when they finally got going, pushing on towards seven o'clock. Unsurprisingly, they only got one race in, and it was won by Simon Grotelueschen, beating countryman Philipp Buhl. The Women in the Laser Radial did better, with two races completed by a reasonable hour. It was Dongshuang Zhang of China that took a first and second place to lead overall from Canada's Isabella Bertold and Spain's Fatima Reyes.
It was also a very long day out on the Women's Match Racing course, they started at 10:00 and finished their eleventh flight at 20:20 - almost ten hours later. The only unbeaten teams at the end of the day were Australia's Olivia Price who won six from six and Silja Lehtinen with four from four. And with Russia's Ekaterina Skudina only losing one from six, these three currently top the standings, but there is a long way to go in this competition.
The 49ers took all day to get through it, but they finished three races for both fleets. At the top at the end of the day was Britain's Dave Evans and Ed Powys with two wins and a third. It gives them a solid jump from Austria's second-placed Nico Luca Marc Delle Karth and Nikolaus Leopold Resch. Evans commented, "We like the breeze so we are looking forward to the rest of week. Today was a condition we are ok in, but we don't really do that well in; so getting a good result was great for us."
The RS:X Women got two races in today, and it was Poland's Zofia Noceti-Klepacka that had the best of the day, with a first and a second, edging Britain's Bryony Shaw who had a solid couple of thirds, and Spain's Marina Alabau with a second and an eighth. It wasn't a surprise to Bryony Shaw, who commented afterwards, "We had a couple of light wind specialists up there in the first race and then the two girls who I see as my main rivals from Poland and Spain were there in the second race, really showing their experience when everyone was tired and a bit worn out after the first race, so it was a good little battle with those two."
Zofia Noceti-Klepacka reckons she will be stronger in the windier conditions forecast for the end of the week though - which may or may not worry Shaw. "I prefer it when the conditions are windier so I am looking forward to the rest of the week; the forecast looks great so it will be more fun,"
The Men's RS:X got one race done in the morning and another in the afternoon. The day belonged to 2012 World Champion, Julien Bontemps of France, with a first and a third. It was just a one point better performance than Toni Wilhelm of Germany who scored a first and a fourth.
ISAF Sailing World Cup Website
Skandia Sail for Gold Website