Letter from Qingdao: Brits' Day at the Races

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The British Yngling crew took the Gold Medal in wild Qingdao conditions at the 2008 Olympic Regatta - Day 9 - Yngling Medal race

Greetings from Qingdao, on this the ninth day of the 2008 Sailing Olympics.

Today dawned like no other here in Qingdao, there was wind on the water, and the promise of strong breezes certainly came true, and for the first time since our arrival at the Olympic Sailing venue, we saw breaking waves.

The conditions tested the organisers, with the start boat for the Tornado and Star course, taking on water on the way to the start area on the outer Course E. It returned as the bulk of the Star and Tornado fleet went past, heading for the race course.

That was really the start of a very difficult day, where racing was cut short on some courses because the committee boat was unable to stay anchored in a sea that was running at a metre and a half, and in winds that were around 18kts, maybe more in rain squalls.

Yesterday two medal races were scheduled, for the Ynglings and Finns. As reported the Finns misfired after reaching the halfway point, with the two protagonists, Zach Railey (USA) and Ben Ainslie (GBR) tussling at the back of the fleet in drifting conditions. The Yngling medal race, you may recall, was not even attempted. Both were rescheduled for today along with the Medal race for the 49er class.

Racing was scheduled at start at 1300hrs for the Yngling, 1400hrs for the Finn and 1500hrs for the 49er - and ambitious program on a good day, let alone one like today's.

The rain started at around 1000hrs and at the morning media briefing we were told that the winds were expected to stay the same and the rain which was steady to get heavy.

Questions at the media conference hinged around the windstrength and the racing prognosis. The breeze at that time was stated to be 25kts, and the stated 'top end' limit for racing was said to be 30kts - 5kts more than we were told a few days ago, when the bottom limit was under question.

There is a standing joke around the media centre when wind strength is discussed - 'are you talking Qingdao Knots' or 'real Knots'. The reference to Qingdao knots being the suspicion that wind strengths were cooked at the time the Olympic venue was being appraised, and that subsequently the real truth is coming out.

But we digress.

All fleets took to sea today, with a good breeze - certainly one that wouldn't have caused too much trouble for race committees in a regular international racing venue. However in Qingdao we only got single races in some classes, and two races in others much to the chagrin of those who slogged a long way out to their race areas, and were keen to both race in a good breeze, and catch up some of the racing that has been lost due to light winds.

On Course A, where the Medal Races were sailed, the combination of the tide and nearby seawall created a fairly precipitous sea. However unlike other areas the Race Committee got a firm hold on the seabed and set up for racing.

Steady rain became driving rain for a time with a couple of very solid squalls hitting the fleet, however racing got underway in winds estimated to be around 20 knots, but stated to be 11kts at the start and 16kts for the race.

The event was pretty well a match race for the Gold medal between the British crew and the second placed Dutch crew. In the end, while the two hooked up at one stage of the prestart, the race itself was every woman for herself, and the British crew of Sarah Ayton and friends did what they had to do which was to take the race by the scruff of the neck, and just go for it. This they did and led around the first and second marks, dropping back to second to the Germans on the second beat before moving back into the lead on the final run and taking the first Gold Medal of the 2008 Olympics.

After a couple attempts at starting, the Race Committee gave it away in the Finn class due to a white-out rain squall and set the fleet back to shore. After an hour it was game on again and the Finn class set off for their Medal Race with Ben Ainslie following their Yngling sailors' lead and controlling from the front.

Again the Committee called the breeze at just 16kts, which seemed to be into Qingdao knots territory to this scribe. Ainslie did what he had to. His rival Zach Railey (USA) was tucked away mid fleet and the second Gold for Britain was in the bag.

Next up were the 49ers, with the main focus being on who in the top five overall going into the Medal race would actually take the Gold. The tail-ender for this exalted group was none other than the World Champions of Matthew Outteridge and Ben Austin (AUS).

This race turned into everything that a Medal Race is supposed to be, with the eighth placed crew from Austria rounding the first mark in second place and moving through to the lead - which they held for the next three legs of the course setting up a mad game behind them for the Gold Medal. The Australians were in eighth and looked dead and buried.

The race reports have it that the understrength was 14 knots, Qingdao knots, we presume - the real strength was nearer 25knots judging by the sea state and handling problems for the top ten crews in this Olympic event.

After rounding the top mark for the final time in first place - Outteridge and Austin (AUS) looked set to write one of the great comeback stories in sailing. As the Southern Cross emblazoned spinnaker emerged from the murk of another rainsquall, it was clear that the Gold medal was on the table for the taking.

About 200 metres from the finish, setting up for what could have been the final gybe of the leg, the Australians stuck a wing into the steep sea and capsized. From there it was a test of boathandling and just who was capable of getting through that final gybe and make it to the finish.

To their credit the Australians had a big lead and looked for a time that it was sufficient to maybe come back and win the Gold medal.

After may heart stopping moments, usually ending in a capsize or pitchpole, with the fourth rounding Spanish crew of Iker Martinez and Xavier Fernandez being the first to successfully run the gauntlet crossing the line to take first place, with handshakes and backslaps all round. Their reaction was like they had won the Gold Medal, which as it transpired ashore, later, they may well have done just that.

The Australians recovered and looked to have a good run home for maybe a medal, but repeated the wing dip on a very courageous gybe, and had their second swim on the wrong side of the Finish Boat, putting paid to a great comeback.

Ashore the Medal Ceremonies took place in the marina alongside the International Media Centre. These two ceremonies too place in the grey murky typhoon like conditions accompanied by light rain and held at around 6.00pm.

This was the first medal ceremony I have ever been to in person, and sadly while it is undoubredly a great and uplifting experience for the winners; for the audience you see much more on television because you can see the competitor’s joyous emotion.

The ceremonies were accompanied throughout by Chinese music, broken only briefly for the raising of the Union Jack and British Anthem.

The three Yngling crews were the first to receive their medals followed by the Finn competitors. The ceremonies took place on an island created on the marina, which put a good chunk of water and remoteness between the fans and supporters and the athletes, ensuring the detachment between audience and medal recipients.


Good Sailing!

Richard Gladwell
http://www.sail-world.com/47862