Gearing up for the Europeans
Yesterday the temperature and wind readings both made it into the mid-30s, producing some spectacular sailing conditions for those who ventured out to get in some valuable practice time. In fact the conditions proved too vigorous for some and at least two boats sustained major damage to their masts. One of these unfortunate teams was the reigning Melges 24 World Champions, Lorenzo Santini’s UKA UKA from Italy. Their trimmer Federico Michetti said ruefully that he had a real feeling of déjà vu about the situation: "I can’t believe it. This is the second time we have had to replace our mast on the eve of a major championship. In Porto Cervo at the Worlds last year we were practicing when we suddenly lost our rig tension. Yesterday when we were sailing, the backstay crane failed. We have replaced the mast with no problems but we must now sail again at an important regatta with an untried mast."
Despite their obvious issues UKA UKA are still undoubtedly among the favourites at this event. However there are also any number of other strong contenders for the European crown. Certainly included in this group are the reigning European Champions, Franco Rossini’s Swiss entry Blu Moon. While Rossini has relegated himself to the sidelines for this championship, his crew list includes two past Melges 24 World Champions in the form of helmsman Flavio Favini and tactician Sebastian Col. For international match race star Col, this season has seen him make a welcome return to the fleet for the first time since his world title victory in 2004. He believes that the standard in the Melges 24 Class has improved considerably whilst he has been away: "It is great to both have the chance to be racing Melges 24s again and with such a fantastic team. Obviously Flavio is an outstanding helm and we have been learning better how to sail with each other with each regatta we do. My tactics are improving but I know I’m still not at one hundred percent yet. As a Frenchman it is great to be competing here in Hyeres. This is a fantastic venue which usually can produce a range of conditions without being too unpredictable."
The battle in the Corinthian Division (where professional sailors are not allowed) in Hyeres is set to be an equally fierce and open affair with a plethora of talented sailors lining up to claim the coveted 2009 Melges 24 Corinthian European Championship title. Having been victorious in Porto Cervo last year, the syndicate owned Storm Capital Sailing from Norway are the reigning World Corinthian Champions and are fully focused on pulling off a record breaking double this week in Hyeres. Also amongst the many aspiring Corinthian winners is Estonia’s past Olympian Tonu Toniste at the helm of Lenny, who are competing in Hyeres to defend the European Corinthian title they won in 2007 in Neustadt, Germany.
Despite being sailed in marvellous conditions with 12 to 15 knots of breeze under cloudless skies, today’s two official practice races really did little to help indicate current form. In the first race the bulk of the fleet failed to return after a second aborted start, opting instead to sail an unofficial race of their own. Despite having only few takers, the Race Committee took the opportunity to get a little practice of their own by running another race. It was a good day for the Netherlands with Dutch crews coming out on top in both practice races. Wietse Zetzema helming Carlo Vroon’s NED569 won the first race with recent convert to the Melges 24 Frank Lieve, sailing Rapid Sugar to victory in the next after only two months in the class.
This evening the sailors gathered on the Hyeres waterfront at the Espace Nautique for a Competitors’ Briefing followed by the Championship Opening Ceremony. All are very aware that the time for preparation and discussion is now over as tomorrow racing begins in earnest. The ten race series runs from Monday 24 August until Friday 28 August with two races per day scheduled.
Given the high quality of the fleet assembled in Hyeres and the likelihood that the spectacular combination of bright Mediterranean sunshine and winds in the mid teens, is set to continue for at least for the next couple of days, the 2009 Melges 24 European Championship is shaping up to be truly classic regatta for all concerned.