Challenges ahead for Olympic Sailors

Fog in Qingdao
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The Games of the 29th Olympiad are looming as one of the most challenging ever since sailing became an Olympic sport in 1900. History will remind you that the first scheduled Olympic regatta, Greece in 1896, was blown away with wild winds.

A few weeks ago at Weymouth UK, the venue for the 2012 Olympic sailing event, several days of the 2008 Moths Worlds were blown away due to gale force winds. The opposite end of the wind spectrum is the potential problem at the resort city of Qingdao in the eastern Shandong province. Large tides and light winds prevail and Olympic sailors have been training for these conditions for the last four years.

Expecting lighter conditions than in any recent regattas, sailors have been embarking on a savage weight loss program. However Qingdao has thrown another curve ball. Qing in Chinese means 'green' or 'lush,' while the Dao means 'island.' and its nomenclature has been literal in recent times.

The sailing venue city's Yellow Sea coastline has been coated with a bright green algal bloom since late May. Its scientific name is enteromorpha prolifera. And prolific it is. It is a filamentous, very fast breeding alga, which grows from any break in its filaments. Some 300,000 tonnes of the algae have been removed, due to a giant human effort over the past weeks.

The Chinese have assembled two oil boom barriers to keep the algae out of the area. First a 20km oil boom barrier was completed, then a second 22 km barrier which can, theoretically block, algae at wind speeds up to 30 knots, was assembled 100 metres outside the first on the following day.
Earlier photo of the algae clean up underway in Qingdao
Burling Media

As New Zealand sailor Finn Dan Slater reports, while the bulk of the algae has been removed, long strands remain in the waters of Fushan Bay and sailors will have to work hard to keep daggar boards, rudders and keels relatively drag free.

So all in all the Olympic Sailing regatta is probably going to be sailed on the most testing play field ever. During the event a combination of large tides, building towards three metres for the medal rounds, little wind, possible sea fog and humidity haze reducing top mark visibility and feral sea algae filaments, will test the resolve of the sailors.

Some already it seems, are unable to contain their frustration at the challenging venue, and for others a bad start will mentally confront their determination. Hopefully the winners will be the best sailors, although the conditions will surely deliver more than the usual number of hard luck stories.

The Olympic regatta program is in the normal format for the Olympic classes, a total of 11 races including the double-points Medal Race finale. The exception is the 49er class with 16 races. While there are two extra days that can be sailed in this regatta if lack of wind slows the scheduled program, the Notice of Race, just as it did for the Test event, declares that just one race is needed to constitute a series.

We can only hope, along with the Chinese hosts and the ISAF officials who signed off on the venue that Gold, Silver and Bronze are not decided in any class, with a tragically small number of races. However the threat of this possibility will have an affect on race tactics, as every race might be the last race, as sailors will not be able to assume an aggressive OCS will be washed away in race drops.

The cheering element is that in spite of concerns about windless conditions, the 2006 and 2007 test events regattas were completed on schedule and to most competitors' satisfaction and in both test events there was at least one day with 20 knot winds and similar conditions have been seen in the last few weeks.

And with Typhoon Fung Wong (Phoenix) now hitting the coast to the south, winds on Fushan Bay in Qingdao could gust to 30 knots today and the algae could again be blown over the oil booms.

British yachting journalist Bob Fisher, who will be in Qingdao reminded me this week that there is an old Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times'.

It seems that at the very least the 399 Olympic sailors who will hit the water from Saturday 9 August are so cursed.
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