The best yetThe Great Britain sailing team had its best day yet on Day 4 of the Olympic regatta with a fleet-leading performance by Shirley Robertson in the Europe single-hander, and good starts by both Ben Ainslie in Lasers and Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield in the Men's 470s.
After three very difficult days of light sea breeze conditions, the passage of a weak cold front over the New South Wales coast produced a more user-friendly south-easterly which, at times, reached 18 knots. It has been a long wait to get going for sailors in the Europe and Laser fleets but they were glad of the change in the weather for their first day of racing on an inshore course just west of Bradley's Head.
Robertson was clearly up for the challenge and sailed confidently and consistently in both races, finishing fourth in the first race and third in the second - the more tactically challenging contest when the wind flicked around a bit more and the race course was influenced by a change in the direction of the tide.
Notable in both contests was Robertson's preparedness not exactly to bang corners, but to sail on one edge of the course or the other. Back in the boat park after a good day on the harbour, she explained, "If you stay in the middle you're never going to do anything - you're always looking to the sides. Here, if anything, the gamble is to stay in the middle - the leaders always come in from the sides. It's also difficult to come back - you seem to end up on one side. I think the trick is not to panic and stay out there," she added.
Robertson certainly did not panic. In the second race she dropped to 12th at one point but did not let it get to her and came back well, especially downwind when she showed good speed in flat water. This was an excellent start for a sailor who benefits from a confidence boost early on.
Among her main rivals for medals, Kristine Roug of Denmark produced a near miracle in the first race when climbing from almost last at the first mark, to sixth at the next leeward mark, before going on to finish fifth. Race two, however, was a horror-story and she was 21st, putting her 14th overall. Margriet Matthysse of Holland had a similar day, winning the first race comfortably but broaching and filling her Europe with water in the second race, an incident which dropped her to an unaccustomed 24th. She is 12th overall.
The 43-strong Laser fleet raced on the same course as the Europes. With flat water giving little opportunity for big surfing gains downwind, it was vital to get good starts and into the shift first. Unfortunately Ainslie did not manage this in the first race and got trapped just long enough to be well down the pack within seconds, a position from which even he could not recover and he finished 23rd.
"I had a reasonable start but the windshifts are really localised and I ended up getting headed into the boats to leeward of me and the boats to windward lifted away," said Ainslie. "So within the space of about a minute I found myself back in the fleet. I tried to get into the breeze from either side and tried to work up the middle, but it just wasn't happening - a bit of a nightmare really.
"My mistake was that I wasn't really extreme enough in trying to catch-up," he added. "Perhaps I was too conservative - there were other boats who really went for the corners and came out well." With his nemesis in Savannah, the defending gold medallist Robert Scheidt of Brazil, winning that race, it was important that Ainslie came back well in the second. He did not disappoint.
A good start at the pin end when he avoided getting caught up with a group of boats who couldn't lay the line, saw him away well and into clear air. The British star then sailed a near perfect first beat and was launched. By the first leeward mark he was 40 seconds ahead of his nearest rival and he finished 50 seconds ahead of - guess who, yes, the Brazilian - who leads comfortably overall, while Ainslie is eighth.
"That was much better," commented Ainslie. "It's given me much more confidence for the rest of the event. I'm going to have to sail much more like that if I'm going to do well. I had a really good first run and just got away - it seems to be a bit easier when you're in front," he added.
In the Men's 470s, Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield made an excellent start with a fourth and a third in the first two races and are fourth overall. The fleet leaders are Alvaro Marinho and Miguel Nunes of Portugal with Tom King and Mark Turnbull of Australia second and defending gold medallists Ivan Braslavets and Igor Matvienko of Ukraine third.
In the Solings, Andy Beadsworth, Barry Parkin and Richard Sydenham did not manage to make the top six at the end of the fleet racing stage (after six races), and finished seventh after dropping to 13th in the last race. Rather than getting a bye into the quarter-finals of the match-racing they must now sail in the first round-robin which includes many of the best match-racers in the fleet, including Jochen Schumann of Germany, Hans Wallen of Sweden and Philippe Presti of France. Also in there is Jesper Bank of Denmark who managed to pull himself up from 15th to 12th with a fourth place finish in the last race.
Ian Barker and Simon Hiscocks, the British 49er crew, meanwhile, had more bad luck when the tack line on their gennaker snapped as they hoisted the sail while in contention for a top-three finish in race five. They managed to re-fix the line and recovered to finish sixth. They are lying in eighth place overall but are not out of it yet. So far they have shown good speed and good tactics... all they need is a good roll of the dice.
The leaders with 11 races still to come are Marcus Baur and Philip Barth of Germany, with Jonathan and Charlie McKee of the United States second. Gold medal favourites Chris Nicholson and Daniel Phillips of Australia are fifth and came back from their two 11th places in the first two races on Monday to win two of the three races yesterday. A capsize in the second race of the day, however, dropped them to 15th, their first discard of the series.
The New Zealand crew of Daniel Slater and Nathan Handley capsized in race six - the result, they claim, of the downdraft of one of the many helicopters hovering over the courses.