Big breeze opener
The grey morning sky introduced day one of the 49er and 49er FX 2016 World Championships. Even though the previous 2015 Worlds in Buenos Aires, Argentina was contested less than three months ago, the athletes are approaching this event with as much anticipation and earnest effort as ever before.
With the day slated to begin just before noon, the race committee decided to send out the men first. The breeze was a manageable 14 knots and, with the Nacra 17s also given the go-ahead, the men started rigging up on the beach. The men’s 49er fleet took to the water, sailing from the Clearwater Community Center Beach out through a sometimes treacherous channel. When the wind decides to meet the waves, the result is a battle royale for the 49er fleet.
With building pressure from a manageable 14 knots to a ripping 18+, the 49er fleet kicked off the first race of their 2016 Worlds. It was a dramatic start in tough conditions. Irish sailors Mathew McGovern and Ryan Seaton were all smiles up until the top mark, but were more cautious downwind. “We were having a blast sailing up until that point. After we rounded, it clearly became dangerous to light it up and go real fast because then there’s a good chance you’ll be swimming. There’s a fine line between being able to heat it up and gain speed, while still playing it safe.”
Jonas Warrer and Anders Thomsen exemplified how even the most seasoned sailors were struggling with this challenging first race. The Danish pair got around the top mark in 2nd place, but then Warrer went for a bit of impromptu waterskiing on the downwind leg when his trapeze adjuster slipped out of its cleat, dunking the Danish skipper in the water. The 2008 Olympic Champion managed to recover his composure and dignity without capsizing, although he had dropped a few places with the minor mishap.
However, Warrer and Thomsen made amends on the next windward leg, spotting how skewed the course had become after the massive left-hand windshift. “We tacked earlier than some of the other boats in front of us,” said Thomsen. “It doesn’t pay you to overstand the layline in really strong winds, so we came in underneath them and took a few places back.” They then held off from hoisting the spinnaker straightaway on the final run to the finish, sailing high before getting the kite up and blasting across the line in first place.
The 2015 World Champions, Burling and Tuke, also charged through to win their half of the qualifying fleet, putting Denmark and New Zealand in an early tie for first. Rounding out the tie for third is Great Britain’s Pink/Bithell and France’s D’Ortoli/Delpech.
Over the course of the race, the pressure consistently mounted. The fleet just about made it across the finish line in one piece, it wasn’t long before the race committee made the call to cancel the second start and send the racers in for an onshore postponement.
The FX women waited on shore, keeping tabs on the building pressure. More and more, the women’s FX fleet are erring on the side of caution, mindful of just how easy it is to break a mast in the shallow waters of Clearwater. Look up through the boat park and you may just find a beach ball or colorful flotation device taped securely to a top mast. These women know that capsizing in these conditions is a very likely possibility, so the old adage: better safe than sorry, seems like a good idea when it comes to break a mast, or not to break a mast. As the sailors made their way from the course back into the channel they learned early in the regatta that by dropping their mainsails they avoided capsizing in the treacherous channel. The opening to the channel leading into the racing area is particularly shallow, and shallow waters are the 49er’s ultimate enemy. A total of six masts were snapped after today’s boat-breaking conditions.
The women are scheduled to start racing at 11am tomorrow EST. Weather reports seem to appear a bit lighter for tomorrow, although it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of the big breeze this week.