The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sailing venue will get a final run through its paces this week, as 523 entries and 723 athletes from 59 nations, plus their 249 coaches compete this week at the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta, the last Olympic classes dust-up and final taster of the form going into the Games. Although the forecast is for a wild, blustery week and this may not be the same for July/August's big event.
Sail for Gold both will be distinctly different from the sailing event at London 2012. As more than one national representative per class is allowed, there are many more sailors taking part including a few podium contenders who aren't going to the Games but would be if it weren't one nation per class.
The most notable example is the Finn. Following on from his annilation of the opposition at the recent Finn Gold Cup, all eyes will be on Olympic living legend Ben Ainslie, and whether he can live up to the high benchmark he has set himself on his path to becoming the most successful Olympic sailor of all time. However his main competition within the British team, Giles Scott is also taking part and while he didn't take part in the Gold Cup due to his committments to Team Korea in the America's Cup World Series, Scott beat Ainslie at the Finn UK Nationals.
Equally in the Laser Britain's representative Paul Goodison will be under pressure. Firstly the standout sailor in this Olympic cycle has been Australia's Tom Slingsby, who's won both the world title and Skandia Sail for Gold for the last three years, so Goodison is going to have a tough time to defend his gold medal position from Qingdao. Then he has his talented team mate Nick Thompson to deal with.
“This regatta is important but for me I’m just really concentrating on learning as much as I can more than focusing on the result,” commented Slingsby. “Hopefully we get a few different conditions so there are no surprises come the Olympics.
“I’m more focused on the bigger picture, the Olympics, but to win here for a fifth straight time would be nice for the confidence,” he said. “After the worlds in Germany I have had some forced rest to recover from an ankle injury. It’s a tricky injury because it’s kept me out of the boat and off the bike so my cardio fitness is lacking a bit leading into this regatta. I’ve had a few days in the boat here but am a bit behind the eight ball in regards to fitness for this event, I’m looking forward to the final hit out on the Olympic waters.”
In the Star, the battle royal will be between Brazilians Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada, winners of the last two World Championships and Britain's own Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, the Beijing Gold medallists and World Champions in 2010, who missed out on the 2012 title recently in Hyeres in the medal race.
The outcome in the Laser Radial competition is harder to determine. The standout performers over the latest Olympic cycle have been Marit Bouwmeester from the Netherlands and Evi van Acker from Belgium. However entering the mix more recently have been Lithuanian, Gintare Volungeviciute Scheidt (Robert’s wife) the recently crowned World Champion, China’s Beijing bronze medallist Lijia Xu, while British fans will be perched looking to see if Ali Young can better her fourth place at the recent Worlds to get on the podium.
In the 470 Men, the competition is likely to be for the remaining positions on the podium following the dominance of Australian duo, Mat Belcher and Malcolm Page, Page the gold medallist from Beijing, who have secured the last three World Championship titles, winning the latest in Barcelona with a day to spare. But it will be interesting to see if any teams are peaking later, coming on form just in time for the Games. Of particular concern to Belcher and Page, will be French duo of Pierre Leboucher and Vincent Garos won Sail for Gold in both 2010 and 2011. For British fans it will be interesting to see if Team GBR's Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell work over the last few months has paid dividends - they didn't compete at the 470 Worlds recently.
“Our form coming into this event has been great,” said Belcher. “We’re really happy with where we’re at and from now to the Games we’re just trying to continue to improve our performances.
“Winning the 2012 worlds in Barcelona was a great reward for our performances over the year,” he said. “It was a special moment for us, being the first team to win three men’s titles in a row. But in saying that our competition are working extra hard because of this, but our approach is simple, we are continuing to work on our performance and focusing on making ourselves better.
“It’s important for us to be here at Sail for Gold, everyone is here to gain valuable experience on the Olympic course and we just want to get familiar with the conditions and try and get comfortable with the surroundings."
In the Women's 470 it is much tighter at the top. In what we hope will be a classic example of peaking at just the right time for the Games, Britain's Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark were recently crowned World Champions and on home waters ahead of the Games, they will be out to prove that wasn't a fluke. However they will face tough competition, particularly if the breeze gets up, from the Dutch double World Champions Lisa Westerhof and her Amazonian crew, Lobke Berkhout, as well as the Spanish and Kiwi teams.
With a limited number of boats and available slots, the Women's Match Racing will be closest to what we might see in the Olypmic Games. Following their recently US trials, Anna Tunnicliffe and her Team Maclaren women – Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi – were selected over some tough competition. Tunnicliffe, the Laser Radial gold medallist from Qingdao, and her crew also won at Sail for Gold last year. BUt gunning for the US team will be World #2 Lucy Macgregor (GBR), #3 Claire Leroy (FRA) and #4 Ekaterina Skudina (RUS).
The 49er will be the only class where one of the top medal contenders won't be sailing. Just as in the Finn, 470 Men and Laser, the 49er has a stand-out team in Australians Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen but absent in Weymouth this week will be 2004 gold and 2008 silver medallists, Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez, who have the no small matter of getting Telefonica back into the lead with two legs of the Volvo Ocean Race outstanding.
In the RS:X Men, Qingdao silver medallist, Julien Bontemps will be in Weymouth to resume his rivalry with Nick Dempsey – Britain’s Skandia Sail for Gold champion in 2011, 2007 and 2006. Bontemps took the 2012 RS:X world title from Dempsey (the 2009 World Champion) by a couple of points.
In the Women's class, there is another Olympic legend in Alessandra Sensini (ITA), the only woman to have won four Olympic medals – bronze in 1996, gold in 2000, bronze in 2004 and silver in 2008. Sensini is still in the hunt having finished third at the Worlds earlier this year behind Israeli Lee Korzits and Pole Zofia Klepacka. In fourth place at that regatta was Britain's own Beijing bronze medallist, Bryony Shaw.
“It’s exciting – normally I would do more regattas as I have in previously years so I‘m almost like a jack in the box – a coiled spring – ready to get out there and perform again and really get everything fired up as a bit of a dress rehearsal for the Games,” Shaw enthused. “With the smaller fleets it will be much more like it is at the Games and those who are really putting in that final push for this summer. It will be good to see who’s in shape and who you think you might be able to really look at and get the jump on. The racing for a small fleet compared to a large fleet is very different – the style of racing, and how you choose your strategy – so it should be really good practice."
In the Paralympic classes many of the 2008 medallists will also be in Weymouth for their final opportunity for top flight competition ahead of the Games. In the Skud, the 2008 silver medallists Daniel Fitzgibbon and Rachael Cox will be competing, along with the bronze medallists, John Scott McRoberts and Stacie Louttit from Canada – both teams will be looking to go a place or two better later this summer, however Britain’s current world champions Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell, who have won this title for the past four will be looking to put their marker down on home waters.
The German 2008 Sonar gold medallists, Jens Kroker, Robert Prem and Siegmund Mainka will be looking to take the win at Skandia Sail for Gold, they will be looking out for last year’s winners John Robertson, Hannah Stodel & Steve Thomas (GBR).
In the 2.4mR the man to watch is gold and silver medallist Damien Seguin from France who will be attempting to go one better than Jens Kroker at the Games, and become the most medalled Paralympic sailor of all time. And trying to stop him will be Paul Tingley of Canada, the 2.4mR gold medallist in Qingdao – watch out for these two at Skandia Sail for Gold, neither will want to cede a psychological advantage to the other ahead of this summer’s contest.
Racing at the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta kicks off on Monday 4 June with Paralympic classes (2.4mR, SKUD and Sonar) finishing on Friday 8 June and medal races for the 10 Olympic Classes scheduled for Saturday 9 June.
The present forecast shows a relatively light day on Monday, the wind escalating over Tuesday and Wednesday with Thursday likely to blown off.