Sailing gets underway Monday at Paralympics

Great Britain’s sailors got off to a steady start as the 2008 Beijing Paralympic regatta got underway in Qingdao Monday. A record 80 sailors, competing across three Paralympic classes, from 25 nations have converged on the Olympic Sailing Centre for the six-day regatta, with all three British boats harbouring hopes of a podium finish.

Early leaders are France’s Bruno Jourdren in Sonar, American duo Nick Scandone and Maureen McKinnon Tucker in Skud and Canadian Paul Tingley the 2.4mR.

With almost a two-hour delay for the SKUD-18 and 2.4mR fleets due to a lack of wind, it was the 14 boats of the Sonar three-person keelboat class, featuring Paralympics GB’s John Robertson, Stephen Thomas and Hannah Stodel, that got away first.

The British Sonar crew, gold medallists at the Paralympic Test Event in May, opened their 2008 Paralympics campaign with a disappointing ninth place in race one.

However, they showed great resilience in race two when having had to go back over the startline after breaking the line early and subsequently reaching the first mark some 30 seconds behind the rest of the fleet, the trio battled their way back through the fleet to score a nail-biting third place.

The Brits, who finished sixth in the Sonar at Athens 2004, ended the opening day in sixth place overall with 12 points as France’s Bruno Jourdren, Herve Larhant and Nicolas Vimont-Vicary head the pack on five points.

Skipper Robertson said: 'It was a tough day but our boat speed was very good and if we can just put the boat on the startline at the start time tomorrow we should be well placed for the rest of the week. A ninth and a third is a perfectly reasonable, conservative start in this fleet.'

After eventually getting underway with an Easterly breeze building from six to nine knots, Niki Birrell and Alex Rickham were involved in a five-way battle for line honours in both opening day races in the 11-strong SKUD-18 two-person keelboat class.

Paralympics debutants Birrell and Rickham, who also won Test Event gold, posted two race fifths to sit fifth on the overall leaderboard with 10 points. American duo Nick Scandone and Maureen McKinnon Tucker lead the fleet with three points in what is the SKUD’s first appearance at a Paralympic Games.

Crew Rickham said: 'It was certainly a difficult first day of the Paralympics. It seems it is quite normal for us to have a tough first day at every regatta and we usually get better as the event develops. We’ve worked extremely hard to prepare for this event and therefore I don’t expect it to be any different this time. We remain optimistic about the rest of the week.'

Having been reserve for the Sonar crew in Athens four years ago, Helena Lucas also took her Paralympics bow in earnest in Qingdao today competing in the 2.4mR one-person keelboat.

Lucas, the 2006 IFDS Worlds silver medallist, scored a 10th in her opening race, but like the Sonar crew, enjoyed better fortunes in race two, holding on to fifth position from start to finish to end the day on 15 points in seventh place overall. Canadian Paul Tingley, winner of Sonar bronze at Sydney 2000, is the early 2.4mR leader courtesy of his two opening race bullets.

RYA Olympic Manager, Stephen Park said: 'It’s certainly going to be a very close regatta in all the fleets and if conditions continue as they were today we are going to see some very high scores and some very low scores posted by all boats across the fleets. As we saw at the Olympic Games consistency could end up being the key at the end of the regatta.'

The Paralympic Regatta is scheduled to consist of an 11 races series for each of the three classes. Three races are scheduled for all classes tomorrow with racing due to start at 1pm local time (6am British time).

Unlike the Olympic Regatta, there is no double points’ medal race sailed on the last day of the regatta rather the sailor(s) finishing on the lowest number of points at the end of the series wins the gold medal.