The Great Escape - Parts One and TwoBack in the days of racing in 470s with the late John Merricks, Ian Walker was a noted sailing escapologist, turning seemingly hopeless positions into championship or race-winning finishes. It seems that he has not lost this talent and with Mark Covell in the Star, he was at it again at the Olympics on Tuesday - on what turned into an extraordinarily successful day for the pair.
Racing on the Tasman off Sydney Harbour Heads in a 15-18 knot south-easterly, Walker and Covell were over the line early in the first race and went back. Game over, you might think. But with blistering pace on the second downwind leg they hauled themselves up from 12th at the second windward mark to finish second behind the overall leaders Torben Grael and Marcelo Ferreira of Brazil.
It was one of Walker and Covell's best races together and they were still buzzing with the excitement of it hours later. "We were really fast downwind," said Walker. "We were taking 150-200 yards-a-leg downwind. To be honest I think we are much better than we were when it's strong winds and we've got no fear on the boathandling. While some of the others might have been backing off, we just smoked through."
"It was the first time that I've sat in a Star boat since April and felt that we could hold our own with everybody," Walker added. "In that breeze we can hold our own lanes and choose when we want to go. We've got an edge downwind if anything, so I feel very comfortable."
In the second race the pair had another poor start. This time they tacked and ducked the fleet and went right, but the breeze twitched left and the Britons were struggling again. But again they clawed their way back. After rounding the windward mark in tenth place, they eventually finished third, a result which lifts them to fourth overall, only two points off the tie for second place between Colin Beashel and David Giles of Australia, and Peter Bromby and Lee White of Bermuda.
Accompanying Walker and Covell in the lower reaches of the fleet in both races were the current world champions, Mark Reynolds and Magnus Liljedahl of the USA. But the Brits handled the conditions far better than the Americans as the latter's finishes of sixth and tenth attest. Reynolds is now seventh overall.
Covell explained that he and Walker misread the pattern of the breeze in the second race but re-thought it and got it right. "We thought the shifts were persistent which they often can be in those conditions, but unfortunately they were more oscillating. So we got our heads round that and changed our game plan and that was a gain," he said.
With six of the 11 races now sailed in the Star fleet, Walker and Covell are very handily placed and a medal for the British newboys in international Star sailing is looking a real possibility. In Lasers, Ben Ainslie kept his bid for gold on course through an awkward race inside the Harbour which saw him finish 11th. Fortunately his arch-rival Robert Scheidt of Brazil fared even worse and was 21st, leaving the Lymington-based Ainslie still leading after seven races and with an increased margin of 14 points.
As he explained in the boatpark after racing, this was a heat that could have gone better for him. "I had a really good start but I just got stuck in the middle. The right paid first, then the left and I got caught up with the fleet." Ainslie did have a good first run but then there was an incident at the end of it with the lowly-ranked Laser sailor from the Netherlands Antilles, Cor van Aanholt, which resulted in the Briton taking a 720. It also led to some animated exchanges between the two after racing.
"He claimed that I didn't have water at the first leeward mark," explained Ainslie. "He made a terrible rounding and I tried to slip in inside him, but he did a big luff to make sure he hit me. I had to take the penalty. I didn't think I was in the wrong, but unfortunately the Portuguese and Swedish guys who are quite close to me at the top of the fleet were right behind me saying 'you've got to do a 720', so there was no way I was going to get away with that one," Ainslie added.
With four races to come Ainslie is sticking to his task and not letting himself get distracted as he gets closer to his ultimate dream. "At the moment I'm really happy with where I am," he said. "There's still four races left which, in sailing terms is quite a lot, and in Sydney anything can happen. So I'm still pretty open-minded and I'm just trying to keep doing what I have been doing from the beginning of the event, and I'll have a look again at it with two races to go."
Whereas the Lasers only managed one race on a day when showers and low cloud produced very difficult conditions featuring big windshifts and changes in windspeed, the Europe fleet got two races in on the same course. Shirley Robertson, who went into the day as fleet leader, emerged in second place overall but glad to have got away with two finishes in the top-10. She was eighth and ninth and now trails Serena Amato of Argentina by one point after eight races.
"I'm just trying to stay relaxed and keep my head out of the boat and not panic," said Robertson who now has yet another day off before racing resumes on Thursday. "I found myself today having to catch myself and say, 'what am I doing out here - there's no need for this'", she said referring to one or two moments when she was down the fleet and taking some big gambles to get back. "What I've got to remember is that I've only got one result outside the top-10 while most of my rivals have some bad ones in their scores," she added.
In Finns, Iain Percy is still on his way to gold with a five point lead over Fredy Loof of Sweden after six races. Percy would be even further ahead had not the breeze cut-off on the last run of the second race as he approached the line in second position. While the Briton sat marooned, the fleet brought the breeze up from behind and he eventually finished eighth. One big gainer was his main rival for gold, Matuesz Kusnierwicz of Poland, who was third.
"You get bad luck but you get good luck as well," said a philosophical Percy afterwards. "You just think you're a legend when you get good luck. When you get bad luck you think it's a terrible venue and you're unlucky - you've got to look at it like that or you get depressed," he added.