Chupacabra stirs up Olympic Tornado fleet

The much-discussed and reported upwind Code 0 on Charley Ogletree and John Lovell (USA)’s Tornado.
Tornado sailors Johnny Lovell and Charlie Ogletree are at their fourth Olympics. They already have a silver medal from Athens 2004 and are going for gold in 2008. This means they’re taking risks. They have developed a smaller, flatter gennaker to be used for light-air sailing in Qingdao.

This sail, dubbed the “Chupacabra” after a mythical mountain creature, has developed a stir inside the Tornado fleet.

In summary, Lovell and Ogletree teamed up with the Dutch team of Australian Mitch Booth and Dutchman Pim Nieuwenhuis, and have found a way to cut the gennaker so that can be used both upwind and downwind. As a result, they will have a complete extra sail on the upwind legs. Competitors have accused them of leading the “dark side” with this unconventional design.

Some sailors have threatened to withdraw from the event because of the sail’s potential for speed. Ogletree explains, “This sail is not 100% all the time. It has its weaknesses, which is why it’s a big risk for us. People miss that part: We are taking a huge risk and we’re not sure it’s going to work. But we have a silver and we want a gold so that risk is worth taking.”

This concept isn’t new (more on that later), and the risks involved aren’t either. Tornado teams have been bringing development breakthroughs for years. Ogletree says, “Every four years somebody develops something good.

In 1992 Randy Smyth and Keith Notary (USA) had a lighter sail than everyone else and they got silver.” In 2004, Lovell and Ogletree, along with the Dutch, British and Spanish brought fast and unreleased Cuben Fiber sails to the event.

USA, John Lovell and Charlie Ogletree - 2008 Olympic Regatta, Race 1

Ogletree addresses the points that matter most: The rules. He explains, “This is a one design class, but there is room for development within those one design rules.” He continues, “Everyone has taken different paths to design sails for light air and this is the one we’ve chosen.”

Lovell and Ogletree have been accused of taking advantage of a secret loophole, but there is nothing secret about this. Ogletree says, “The opportunity was there for everybody. Everybody tried the first stage of this a year ago and it didn’t work so they gave up. They were quick to discount its potential effectiveness.”

The road to the Chupacabra wasn’t promising at first. Just as everyone else had seen, the first stages didn’t work, but Lovell and Ogletree saw enough potential to keep trying. Lovell and Ogletree were running two simultaneous design paths (one traditional and one innovative) when their lighter, flatter gennaker started to show promise in late summer.

Then in early spring they made a big leap forward, and that’s when they decided to skip Europeans and hold a full-on testing camp in Spain. They knew it was a risk to miss their last competitive regatta before the Olympics, but saw promise in their project.

In mid-July they showed it to the fleet and their response was dismissive. Ogletree says, “Everybody was quick to come up and tell us that they tried it and it doesn’t work. They said we’re doing it all wrong. Sure enough those people who told us it wouldn’t work are the same ones who are here saying it’s not fair for us to use it.”

The new gennakers measured in yesterday and final sail decisions were declared this morning. The Dutch team with whom the Americans developed the sail had measured in their new sail, but today elected to race with their traditional one.

It is a risk for the USA to use this new sail, but it is legal, and it has been interesting to see how many people have slapped together similar designs in an effort to keep up. The forecast doesn’t guarantee light winds, so nobody really knows what’s going to happen with the light-air gennaker, but at least one will hit the race course tomorrow.