by Matt Carter
Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell will aim to win a sixth straight world title when they line up at the IFDS Disabled Sailing Combined World Championships in Halifax, Canada, next week (19-24 August).
Alexandra Rickham-Niki Birrell; SKUD, Delta Lloyd Regatta 2014
The Paralympic bronze medallists are among the eleven-strong British Sailing Team contingent set to compete across all three Paralympic Classes - the three-person Sonar, the two-person SKUD and the one-person 2.4mR – over six days of competition at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron.
'The Worlds this year is a country qualification event for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio and it’s the biggest Championships that we have had since London 2012, plus it will also be the first time we will see the Aussie Paralympic gold medallists. There are a lot of unknowns to be honest so we are just going in with open minds,' explained the 32-year-old Rickham.
'We have got over 15 boats on the start line which is the biggest SKUD fleet we have seen pre-Games since the Worlds in Weymouth in 2011, so there will be a lot of jostling for the top spots.
'The level of the SKUD fleet has raised, we are going to see potentially some different people moving up the scoreboard which is exciting to see. But as the fleet raises it’s game, Niki and I will also aim to raise our game and try to stay on top.'
Looking to extend their unbeaten run to six regattas since winning bronze at London 2012, which included the European crown last year and victory at the recent North American Championships, the 28-year-old Birrell confirms the opportunity to race against a large international fleet is crucial in terms of their preparations for Rio 2016.
'In SKUD sailing you don’t get to race against the top guys very often so it’s imperative that when you do come up against them that you see where they are at, see what you can learn and see what ideas they are using to help try and improve your campaign.
'Every time you enter an event you want to win, you want to do your best and you want to compete at the top of the fleet. To win another world title would be fantastic, but the ultimate aim is to win in Rio in two years’ time so it is crucial that we are making progress and are on the right lines so come September 2016 we are on the top step of the podium.'
With the pair competing for their sixth consecutive world title, having had their names etched on the SKUD World Championship trophy every year since 2009, Rickham admits when they teamed up over seven years ago they never imagined they would be in the position they are in now.
'I don’t think either of us thought we would be together this long to be honest. After London 2012 and the disappointment there it took us a little while to consider whether we were going to continue or not, so I think after seven years down the line I don’t think either of us expected to be sailing together! It’s very exciting to be going in as reigning champions and to be competing for a sixth straight consecutive World title.
'However, we still need to treat it like any other event, take one race at a time and see how we come out the other side. In some ways it puts added pressure on us but in other ways we have won the title five times in a row so I guess there is a level of confidence that we can go in with.'
The Sonar trio of John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Stephen Thomas enter their World Championships in fine form, having claimed podium positions at all five events they have competed at this year, including a bronze at this week’s Sonar North American Championships at Lunenburg Yacht Club.
The 37-year-old Welshman Thomas said: 'We want to be seen as serious contenders for Rio and to be doing that we need to be medalling at the major events. We didn’t perform particularly well in Ireland at last year’s Championships but we have had a solid set of results since then and are now hoping that form can continue into the Worlds.
'Winning a medal here is important to set an early marker as we move that little bit closer to Rio but it is also important for our confidence as a team and for our development to show that we are still improving and still moving forward in the boat.'
The Sonar fleet will see 16 entries competing for event honours, with British Sailing Team Podium Potential sailors Craig Wood, Steve Palmer and Ed Suckling also joining their British counterparts in Canada.
Thomas continued: 'The Sonar fleet seems to be getting stronger and stronger. If you look at the last cycle there were probably five maybe six boats who could win a medal, there is now easily eight or nine who will be competing for the podium and that’s indicative of how strong the fleet is getting.
'The boat handling is getting a lot better, the sail setups are getting quicker and the technical side of things is continually improving. Everyone is becoming more and more professional and that is what is happening in Paralympic sport generally now and we are seeing it in sailing – everyone is getting to the venues earlier and everyone is arriving better prepared and we have to up our game to meet those standards.'
Helena Lucas and Megan Pascoe are expected to be among the front-runners in the race for silverware in the one-person 2.4mR event, and will also be joined by up-and-coming Podium Potential squad sailor Will Street. The three British boats enter the regatta off the back of a clean sweep at the 2.4mR Pre-Worlds Regatta with Lucas taking gold, Pascoe silver and the bronze going to Street.
For 27-year-old Pascoe, her Europeans victory in the Netherlands in July capped off a consistent year and provided a timely boost to her Worlds campaign.
'It has been a pretty awesome summer, identical to what I had last year but I feel I have made some really big gains since then. Being crowned European champion last month was great and a lot of fun, I had to work quite hard for it but It was nice to come away with the title before heading over to Canada,' she explained.
'I am happy with the way I am sailing and hopefully I can carry my momentum from Sail for Gold in Weymouth and from the Europeans into the Worlds which is the key event for this year.'
Paralympic champion Lucas, who suffered gear failure on the final day of racing at the 2013 Championships resulting in a ninth place finish, is looking forward to competing at the Canadian venue for the first time.
'I have never been to Canada before so am really excited. It’s the first opportunity we have got to qualify the nation for the Games so that’s the main priority and that would mean a great deal to get that box ticked. It is also a great chance for me to check in against the rest of 2.4mR fleet to see where I am at compared to them two years out from the Games.
'After having a bit of a relaxed year last year it’s now time for me to start to knuckle down and put the hard work in. This event is an important stepping stone to the processes and any more development that we need building up to Rio 2016,' said Lucas.
Racing at the IFDS Disabled Sailing Combined World Championships starts on Tuesday 19 August and concludes on Sunday 24 August. There are 11 races in total scheduled for each class (two races per day Tuesday - Saturday and one race on Sunday 14 August).
For further information and results from Halifax, Canada visit IFDS Worlds 2014
British Sailing Team website