Olympic Report from Magnus Wheatley
Today, after an interminable delay of three hours as the sea breeze just refused to set in, I witnessed three absolutely fascinating races in the ultra competitive 49er class on day seven of the Olympic Games. This fleet is just so tight that making any medal predictions is nigh on impossible. All I do know is that the 49er fleet is a huge game of snakes and ladders and the winner will be the one who avoids the most snakes! Everyone in the top half of the table has recorded appalling results as it’s just so easy to go from the front to the back in the blink of an eye.
The Saronic Gulf just wasn’t playing ball this morning and a stinking, dry heat set in across the racecourses that made the sailors sweat shoreside whilst the marshals and race committee fretted out on the various designated courses. Eventually the decision was made to send the competitors in and it wasn’t until 3 o’clock that we saw any action. Suddenly though it was all go as an armada of boats leapt to attention and set out to the course just off from the Aghios Khosmas Sailing center as 12-14 knots blustered in from the South-East.
Race one was a nervous affair with the fleet getting away first time after most of the boats had stalled on the line for over a minute in their slots. Team GBR’s Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks got a flier, managing to carve out a gap just to windward of the bunch at the pin end of the line. After a couple of minutes on starboard they realized that the big guns of the fleet had all tacked off early and were looking for the controlling right so they hedged their bets and tacked away, ducking a few sterns but emerging in clear air and heading back to the middle-right of the course. My question though at this point was: if you wanted the right, why not start at the committee boat end?
I was proven wrong though as they rounded the top mark in third place behind the French and Spanish and hoisted their chute with consummate ease, way better than the rest of the fleet before executing what can only be described as a carve gybe away from the leaders onto port and into clear air. It was to prove a masterstroke with Draper/Hiscocks trapezing hard down the waves and showing superb balance and control on these tippy, dicey, soap-dishes of boats.
At the leeward gate marks it was clear that the GBR lads had the race under control and they doused their kite to perfection, exiting at the port leeward mark and heading out to the right. It was a big lead already but the fleet had all sorts of ideas with some big guns exiting to starboard and heading out left (why? I don’t know). Draper and Hiscocks played it cool though, taking just enough right to gain before covering back to the middle left. This was concise, big fleet sailing by the World number 1 ranked team.
At the final top mark I saw a hoist that made my eyes pop out on sticks! Hiscocks leaned in, two seconds later the kite was up and filling and never had time to collapse once…I have never in my life seen a better hoist, in any fleet, anywhere in the world! The stopwatch counted to 44 seconds before the Danish team and a gaggle of others followed suit but the Brits were half way to the finish by then…Winners gun ensued after a smart gybe and the first race victory of the regatta was theirs. Was it a statement of intent? I certainly hoped so…
Race two got underway, once the Indian team had finished (we’ve nicknamed their boat Eric the Eel) almost immediately and as the wind dyed to just a smidge over ten knots, still enough to have both men on the wires but the Brits could do with just a fraction more. Again Team GBR got a cracking start, finding space just to windward of the pack at the pin end of the line. After a long starboard where I felt they were being a little trapped by the Ukranians they tacked in unison and headed back to the main fleet out on the middle right of the course. They were looking good but suddenly as the press boat maneuvered to the top mark it was apparent that the Brits were on the wrong side of a shift that looked 15 degrees and were being shuffled down the pack. As I said earlier, it takes no time at all to go down the fleet and this time it was GBR’s turn.
Rounding in 11th at the top mark, the boys did another good set, not as good as their second in race one and headed out on a processional leg on starboard to the gybe angle for the finish. We were willing them to gybe early, just to mix things up and roll the dice and almost as if the God’s agreed, they did just that, splitting away from the procession and heading down the middle of the racetrack. It was a tactic that nearly paid and a big gaggle of skiffs descended on the leeward mark with the Brits opting for the port exit once again. Banging a corner is perhaps a little harsh but Draper and Hiscocks split from the leaders and took a different course out to the right side in search of both clear wind and perhaps a knot or two of pressure. By the time they converged at the final windward mark it was very close with neither side having made a significant gain and Team GBR rounded in tenth place just behind the Norwegians and Ukranians.
Final run now and this time the boys stayed on the processional starboard gybe, following the leaders whilst the fleet behind them split on to port and played the bigger waves down the left side of the run. The wind died just fractionally out right and as the finish loomed it was looking oh so tight for Draper and Hiscocks as the early port gybers came flying in on starboard. Eventually they had succumbed three places as the Polish, Brazilians and Germans (dammit!) sneaked through to relegate Team GBR to their worst result of the regatta – a 13th place.
Once the Indians had finished (how on earth did they qualify?), racing got underway immediately with absolutely no heads down approach at all from Draper and Hiscocks. They refused to deviate from their successful starting pattern and again found themselves in clear air with room above the pack at the pin end of the line. Holding out on starboard they smoked the Aussie team upwind before they (the Aussies) tacked away as Team GBR held on with the Greeks and Italians above them. Once they felt on a limb, the decision was made to tack and duck the two boats to windward and head back to the middle of the course. However as the beat unfolded it was apparent that the right had come good again with just a little more pressure and by the top mark they were struggling in 12th place whilst the USA and Japan marched off into the sunset absolutely miles ahead of the chasing pack.
A gybe set on to port, executed beautifully saw Team GBR away down the first run playing big time catch up but it just wasn’t the conditions where their superb boathandling could come to the fore. At the leeward mark it was lottery time again with a mass of boats gathering, however Team GBR came out with five numbers and a bonus ball to take a couple of places by the skinniest of margins. Now it was all down to the last beat and this time they played it ultra conservatively going middle right on the shifts. ‘Thank heavens,’ we cried on the media boat and by the top mark they were duly rewarded with another place gain to round in ninth place. Looking at the scoreboard that would have been really handy but it was a case of last run blues as the fleets split and the left paid up some dividends to relegate Team GBR to 11th.
However overall the 49er class is just about the most wide open of the lot with the top two (Spain and Ukraine) tied on 47 points with USA in third on 50 points and Team GBR knocking on the door in fourth with 52 points. This sixteen race series has many, many more twists and turns to come and it’s a very brave man who dare predict the outcome. The next two days of racing will almost certainly determine the top six who will fight it out for the medals and the Spanish duo of Iker Martinez and Xavier Fernandez are looking like the men to beat. Having said that the young Americans, Tim Wadlow and Pete Spaulding, fresh out of the College scene in the USA are posting good results as the breeze kicks in whilst the Ukranian team Rodion Luka and George Leonchuk (who?) are a very consistent pair, good across a wide variety of wind strengths. My money is still on Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks though as they’re such big-time sailors and can handle the pressure when it really matters. Two good results tomorrow could see them easily at the top of the leader board and after their boat handling performances today they thoroughly deserve to medal.
It’s a fascinating class and I have to say that with cameras onboard, helicopters flying overhead and some of the most balletic sailors on the planet, the 49ers really are an absolute pleasure to watch. If this is the future of dinghy sailing then I like it and I urge every 15 year old to forget the 420 and jump into a 29er because its big brother is the class you’ll want to win in at the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008!
Simon Hiscocks: We are happy, we are a little down today because we went out to have a race today that was between three boats and we lost that and we kind of feel despondent about that but I sure that tomorrow morning that will feel different, but we have already had a day with it sinking in that we have got a medal and we are happy. It has been a long, hard event and we have come away from it with something.
Chris Draper: We really came here to win the gold medal since we joined as a team and that is what it has all been about so we are pretty disappointed, but like all the team, and Simon and Sparky and everyone keeps saying so many people have come here and not won medals and they have been saying that we deserved to and should be proud of what we have done and contributed to a fantastic team, British sailing team.
I am sure that over the next few days we will look at it like that and there are little things going through my mind at the moment, little opportunities that we missed and stuff. We sailed well and it was a hard series. Conditions really were very tough here but it was the same for everyone, but you can look back and see places where you lost and where you gained. I don’t think there is any point in reflecting on it like that. We could have sailed slightly better. Everyone who knows us knows that.
Today’s game plan, what was it?
Chris Draper: Obviously we wanted to win the race. We had a good start and on the first upwind leg we were going well when the wind started to go left a bit and we started to think that it was moving backwards and forwards and it would go back right and so we opted to tack right and get across the fleet and put ourselves in a good attacking position, but the wind kept going left on that first beat and the left hand side gained because of that we were playing catch up; we were catching up on the leading three all the way up the next upwind leg and we were close to them on the next upwind leg. It was close at the last upwind mark. Then we were discussing what we should do whether we should attack the Ukrainian by just sailing up to him, or whether we should gybe and split from him and we gybed and he came with us and then it was just difficult for us to get back in there. Rodion and George sailed a fantastic regatta. We always knew the Spanish were going to be strong, but the Ukrainians really have sailed out of their skins.
What are you thinking of doing next?
Chris Draper: We have sailed together since November 2000 and we have had very few days off. We have worked very hard and it has taken up our lives but this is what we do, basically. We have to force Simon to take days off, but that is just how much time we put into it. It’s what we do and what we will continue to do. We will be back and hopefully go a few medals better.
Tell us a little about the feeling of pride in British sailing
Chris Draper: There are still a few opportunities left, but the performance has been brilliant. We all felt that it could be if we just kept a level head between the team as much as possible and the team has performed as well as we could have hoped, and there are still a few more boats left racing and a few more opportunities.
Will you carry on in the 49ers and as a pair?
Chris Draper: We always said that we would carry on. It is time for reflection now and we are going to go away and have some time off. That was always the plan no matter what happened.
Simon Hiscocks: That’s our plan and it has been up until now and there is no reason for it to change. We will take some time now. It has been a very long and hard, this year in particular it has been long and hard, and in fact since we set out in 2000 in various guises and stuff, so it has been a long four years, and for me a long two years before Sydney. We are going to have a bit of a break and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be there fighting for the gold medal in China.
Simon has this been a harder event than Sydney?
Simon Hiscocks: This has been harder. The event has been spread over something like 10 days. We were supposed to like race day on day off and we haven’t done. We have only managed to have two lay days and all of these days have been quite disruptive, waiting for the wind, or not getting as many races in on the water as people would have liked. That puts a lot of extra strain on it, and the fact that it does start from the days when you are concentrating, the focus, getting up every morning and getting ready and that is all part of the mental drain. The racing- you can see from the results- that it has been really close, really tight and really hard. Windshifts with lots of place gaining and losing throughout every race and a lot to fight for throughout every race and the guys that have beaten us have done that better.
Simon, clearly your hunger for gold is undiminished?
Simon Hiscocks: That was the idea for this one!
Is lighter airs looking to Beijing an area the British team need to continue to work on?
Simon Hiscocks: I think that we are actually pretty strong across the whole wind range. In the class I don’t think you could pick out anyone who was weak in it. I think that what stands out a lot is that when it is windy we are strong and there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that we get the weather in the UK and generically as a team we are fitter and stronger than most other guys because we have great support in those areas and we have worked hard and I think what peoples perception of us being weak in light winds is actually because we are stronger when it is windy.
Was the boat taking a beating at the finish? Chris gave a bit of a stamp on the wing.
Chris Draper: What we have achieved is fantastic and we have just got to remember that, but I was bit upset!