Another tough day at the officeI'd hate to be racing in the Soling class at this Olympic regatta. So far the 16 crews have endured four very difficult races in conditions which have tested people's nerve to the limit. The weakling and erratic spring sea breeze has never got up above six or seven knots in any race and on several occasions decisions by race officers to go ahead have looked very iffy.
As is often the case at regattas when the weather does not cooperate, the form book has not fully asserted itself and with just two races in the opening fleet racing stage to come, there are some surprising faces in the top positions and some equally unexpected skippers facing the chop in the lower reaches.
The overall leader at the end of day three is Herman Horn Johannessen of Norway - a big surprise - with the equally unexpected Kiwi crew led by Rod Davis second (they came last at the pre-Olympics this time last year). Third is the Savannah silver medallist Georgy Shayduko of Russia, with Sergy Pichugin of Ukraine fourth. All these guys are good light air racers but they are not the best match-racers in this high quality Olympic fleet, and this is already threatening to make the final match racing stages easier than the early ones.
Early leader Roy Heiner of Holland is now sixth behind Neville Wittey of Australia, while Britain's Andy Beadsworth, Richard Sydenham and Barry Parkin have climbed from 10th to virtual safety in seventh place, after finishing eighth and fourth in races three and four. Another big improver is the defending Olympic champion and triple gold medallist Jochen Schumann of Germany, who has climbed from 12th to eighth and must now also be confident of progressing.
Among those facing the cut are Manuel Doreste of Spain who is dead last on a whopping 59 points and definitely going home early. Even more surprising is Jesper Bank of Denmark, the gold medallist in Solings in Barcelona who won European and world championships in the class this year. Just like Magnus Holmberg of Sweden at Savannah, Bank is having a shocker. His results so far are 6, 16, 12 and 12.
Rod Davis, who won a gold in Solings in 1984 and silver in Stars in 1992, tried to explain what's been going on. "Some weeks you go wrong and some weeks you don't," he said. "Everybody out there has the ability to win it and to look kind of average." Pressed on what has marked out the better performers from the rest, he added, "It's been a matter of getting your head up out of the boat and figuring out what's going to happen next. It's not so much a boatspeed contest but a boat positioning contest."
The Brits did a good job of getting their head out of the boat in races three and four, reaching the weather mark in third place in both races. In the first they got tangled with the Canadian crew led by Bill Abbott after rounding the first leeward mark and lost a few places and then a few more on the final run. In the second they slipped just one spot to finish fourth after letting Johannessen through at the second windward mark.
The boys were clearly delighted after a nerve-racking day, "It's been the lightest regatta we've ever done," said bowman Parkin. "The max we've seen is seven knots and most of the time it's been four to five knots. Our objective was to get ourselves out of the danger zone, so we wanted a couple of good results and we got two in the top half of the fleet. We went round the top mark in both races in third, but didn't have much luck in the traffic basically, which forced us the wrong way a couple of times."
Parkin said the toughest part has been trying to predict what the wind is going to do. It has been swinging through 60 degrees and generally there has been more pressure on the right-hand side of the courses, which have all been set to the north of Sydney Harbour Heads on the Tasman Sea. "You're always caught between going right for the pressure and left for the shift," said Parkin.
Parkin is happy with their speed and has not seen anything to worry him for the later stages. "On average we're going as fast as everyone else. At times we can be quicker but what we have to try to do is keep gear changing so that we are fast all the time and I think we are homing in on that," he said.
I asked about the pressure of the Olympic regatta and knowing that a couple more bad results could have sunk their strong medal chances. "We've been pretty relaxed," he said. "We've been pretty confident we're going to make the top 12. We didn't have the best start to the regatta - our objective was to make the top three - but after today we think we've got a good chance of making the top six.
"To be honest, the main thing is to get through this without getting too stressed - even if we come 12th, it doesn't really matter. All it means is another day of match racing," Parkin added.
Inside the Harbour, meanwhile, racing was cancelled for Tornadoes because the breeze never filled in sufficiently. However both Mistral fleets did manage to get another race in. Britain's Nick Dempsey had another disappointment finishing 29th, which leaves him 22nd after four races. In the women's fleet Christine Johnston was 17th. She is now 20th after four races.