Sail Melbourne concludes
Sail Melbourne, the first round of the ISAF World Cup for 2011/12 has wound up. Although the winds were light when the first medal race got underway shortly after noon, it built steadily during the afternoon to provide exciting racing.
The first fleet away was the 49er, and any of the top three teams was able to in the gold medal. Former world champions Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen held a four point lead over their training partners, Sam and Will Phillips, with the Kiwi duo of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke a further three points back.
It looked bleak for Outteridge at the start, as he was forced to tack away and crossed the line in last position and heading to the unfavoured right hand side of the course. However, the clear air provided extra boat speed and at the first cross he and Jensen were back in touch.
While the top three covered each other, the Western Australian pairing of Steven Thomas and Jasper Warren snuck away, extending on every leg and winning the race comfortably.
Back in the pack, Outteridge and Jensen had established dominance over the Phillips brothers, with the Kiwis trying everything they knew to spoil the party. At the end of the three laps, Outteridge and Jensen had done enough, crossing in second position and taking the gold medal.
Outteridge said that the medal race was " a bit stressful" with more wind shifts and more position changes than in any of the 15 qualifying races, and he and Jensen were clearly relieved to have secured another win.
In the men's 470, world champions Mat Belcher and Malcolm Page knew they had a lot of work to do, going into the medal round in third place and needing to put five places between themselves and the leading Americans, Stuart McNay and Graham Biehl.
From the first beat to windward, it was obvious that the champions meant business, streaking to an early lead and extending on every run. Early in the race McNay and Biehl looked to be in some trouble, rounding in 4th place and with the Japanese boat right on their tails. But in a bold move, instead of following Belcher and Page up the left -hand side in the final work, they took a risk and went right - and it paid off. They crossed in second place, to take the gold medal comfortably.
"Stu saw a lot of chop and bad air from the motor boats out to the left, so we tacked out and got clear air," Graham Biehl explained.
Belcher and Page were pleased with their medal race win, and silver medal, but reflected on what might have been. "If we'd done that earlier in the week it would have made things easier," Mal Page commented. However, in typical fashion for these true champions, they seemed to have more concern for compatriots Sam Kivell and Will Ryan, who had gone into the race in second place.
"We're disappointed for our training partners," said Mat Belcher. "They got caught on the start and couldn't get back into the race. But we're all working well as a team and its going to be good in Perth (at the Olympic qualifier)."
The women's race was a repeat of the men's, with an Australian crew totally dominating the race from start to finish. The difference was that Elise Rechichi and Belinda Stowell took a seven point lead into the final, and continued their amazing run of form.
Like Outteridge and Jensen, they found themselves in trouble before the start. "We were close to the line, so we bailed out and went off on port," Elise Rechichi said. " After that it was a relatively simple strategy. We only had the Japanese to worry about, so we just keep ourselves between them and the next mark."
Ultimately, it was the American crews of Erin Maxwell/Isabelle Farrar and Amanda Clark/Sarah Lihan who emerged from the chasing pack to take second and third places in the race, but Ai Kondo and Wakako Tabata did enough to win the silver medal ahead of Clark and Lihan.
Rechichi and Stowell are both Olympic gold medallists, but this is the first regatta they have raced together. Their perfect mark roundings and immaculate teamwork in the medal race belied the short time they have had together and promise plenty in the lead-up to the London Olympics.
Belinda Stowell agreed that the pair had improved throughout the regatta. "That was out best race," she said of the final. "It was nice to see everything click together."
Triple world champion Tom Slingsby (AUS) had already won the gold medal, taking an unbeatable 19 point lead into the medal race. He had vowed to "stay out of the way" of sailors still in contention for the minor medals and did that in the best possible way - by leading at every mark.
As he signed autographs for some young sailors Slingsby modestly claimed that he had been "lucky" to get away. "On the first beat I didn't cross another boat and thought I must be last. Then I got onto a big wave (caused by following coach boats) and surfed from last to first. The others were in a fight for the medals and weren't worried about me, they were busy covering each other, so I could get away."
In reality, Slingsby showed his class in the wide range of conditions that prevailed throughout the week, winning in light, moderate and heavy airs. Tomorrow he flies to San Diego to join the Oracle America's Cup team being helmed by Darren Bundock, before heading to Perth for the World Championships and Olympic qualifying.
British sailor Nick Thompson took the silver medal, 27 points behind Slingsby with Tom Burton holding off another Australian, Ashley Brunning for third.
In the women's event, the two overnight leaders could not be caught by the rest of the fleet and they indulged in a covering duel that left other sailors to fight out the medal race. Ultimately, Lijia Xu of China placed 8th to take the gold medal, while sailing Tuula Tenkanen back into 10th place and the silver.
Up front, Tatiana Drozdovskaya (BLR) took advantage of the battle at the back to win the medal race from Alison Young (GBR), but when Krystal Weir (AUS) finished just one place behind, she secured the bronze medal by a single point.
The men's RS:X final was one of the best races of the event, as any of three sailors were in a position to win. As the wind built, Dorian van Rijsselberge (NED) managed to find the best boat speed, but JP Tobin of New Zealand dogged him all the way, finishing 2nd in the race to win the gold medal by a point. Zach Plavsic of Canada was 4th in the race behind James Levy (AUS) but took the bronze comfortably.
In the women's race, the same situation prevailed - Bryony Shaw (GBR) needed to beat Jessica Crisp (AUS) because her lead was reduced to two points after a successful protest by Crisp had seen an OCS for Shaw in the fifth qualifying race reinstated, after initially being reversed.
Windsurfers are "three dimensional", using different daggerboard and rig settings for different wind conditions. Crisp said afterwards that she was about to start with the board rigged for planing, but at the last minute saw that the wind had dropped.
"I threw the daggerboard down, changed the outhaul and downhaul and started on starboard, going to where I wanted to be," Crisp said. She admitted to being reluctant to pump on the first downwind, which cost her some distance, with Shaw closing the gap significantly. "On the second downwind I just pumped my guts out," she said. It was enough to win the medal race and take the gold medal on a countback from Shaw. A brave effort from Flavia Tartaglini (ITA), who was suffering from a bout of flu, saw her cross third and take the bronze.
The final race of the day saw the heavyweights in action. Brit-turned-Aussie Oliver Tweddell continued his dramatic improvement to win the medal race comfortably, but Oleksiy Borysov (UKR) had already done enough to win the gold medal. He finished with 18 points, to beat Tweddell on 26 and Rob McMillan, another Brit turned Australian on 38.
Although many of the world's best missed this year's Sail Melbourne because they were travelling directly to Perth, there were still quality fields in all events. The Australian Sailing Team finished with four gold medals and won six of the medal races, putting them in a winning frame of mind for the events in Perth.