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Gladwell's Line- Reflections on the Olympics - the Venue

by Richard Gladwell on 1 Sep 2012
Silver medal winners GBR at the gybe mark at the end of Leg 2, Race 1 on Weymouth Bay in fresh breezes and 1-2 metre seas © Richard Gladwell www.richardgladwell.com

We came away from the 2012 Sailing Olympics with mixed feelings.

Compared to Qingdao four years earlier, the Weymouth Olympics were a step sideways rather than a step ahead - from a working media perspective.

Some things worked, and others didn't.

The venue itself had pluses and minuses. But first a bit of geography.

Technically speaking the regatta wasn't sailed from Weymouth, but rather from the Isle of Portland approximately 6km long and 4km wide. It houses an old naval base stemming back to the 1848 and is one of the largest man made harbours in the world.


The top of the island houses two prisons. The naval base was closed in 1995 and the Royal Navy Air Station closed four years later. There is a short runway within the complex.

In terms of population, Qingdao City had just under 9 million residents, while Portland has just 13,000 souls.

Weymouth is an old English town, typical of many that dot that part of the southern English coast. It is about 8km by road from the Olympic Regatta Centre at Portland. Too far to walk or bike. The area is known as Weymouth and Portland. A shuttle double-decker bus system connected the towns, for the Olympics. Qingdao ran golf carts inside the sizable sailing complex.

The area is dominated by the limestone tied island of Portland which is about 150 metres high, and has a substantial effect on the breeze, as does the low lying Chesil Beach over which the westerly breeze tumbles.


As would be expected of a town orientated around a naval base and a couple of prisons, Portland doesn't have a lot of character, it is quite a bleak, windswept, almost desolate place, typical of somewhere that is exposed to Atlantic gales. Weymouth, and Weymouth Bay, is a different story entirely.

Qingdao was dotted with tall apartment buildings festooned with colourful sailing banners down the banners their walls. There was no rush of photographers down the dock, in Portland, to catch the yachts leaving dock against the town backdrop - for two reasons - the backdrop was rather unwelcoming, and the yachts left further down the marina and the sail past just didn't happen.

Portland was functional, Qingdao was functional and beautiful, Weymouth Bay was both functional and stunning - England at her best.


Many of the buildings at Portland were temporary Structureflex type buildings, including the media centre. After the Olympics, the area will return to being a marina and sail training centre. Qingdao had a media and regatta centre which was in a newly constructed, two level building which became the Qingdao Yacht Club in the typical Chinese way of managed, structured life.

The security issues which boiled over just before the start of the Olympics, with G4S being unable to supply the requisite numbers of staff, had no discernible impact in Portland and Weymouth. The Marines ran the show, with some Bobby's, and were just great. Friendly, could give you information, and everything they touched ran like clockwork. God only knows what they had been through in Afghanistan - but they were all terrific in Weymouth.

Afloat it was a different story, with a ship - said to be with a drop stern, James Bond style into which the armed RIBs could be driven. We only saw a couple of the boats together, but we were told that a ring of them encircled Weymouth Bay, well out of our sight. Seventy was the number we were quoted. Whether that was right, who knows? But it would have been a hell of a patrol for the two weeks of the regatta, given the seas we say some days and we weren't even on the outer course.


Three courses

Moving out onto the harbour, three basic course areas were used.

The first was in Portland Harbour (and area enclosed by a seawall - with a narrow entrance to the sea at one end, and a lagoon at the other - meaning there was a flow of water in and out with the tide, but no real sea.


The wind was reasonably straight in that it came around the side of Portland and then over the low lying Chesil Beach. You would expect wind bends rather than shifts in an area like this.

On the map the Portland Harbour area looked to be a dreadful place to sail. In reality it seemed (from an on the water spectator perspective) to be quite acceptable. For those who have been around a while, it is the area in which the John Player Speed Week was held - where various sailing speed contraptions and craft gathered to set one direction speed records. The flat water and strong winds were ideal for the likes of Crossbow - a proa which held the world speed sailing record for a time, and could only sail in one direction.

For the Olympics, Portland Harbour had a course radius 1nm - which was fine - if a tad cramped. It was bounded by a sea wall on one side, and the land on the rest, and was effectively a saltwater lake or lagoon.


The weather for the regatta was very un-English. There was little rain for the 14 days of the regatta. Most of the rain that did occur was a downpour or two at night and gone by mid-morning. Only one day was lost in the entire regatta - due to a lack of wind.

The wind was near constant in strength and direction for the duration of the regatta - peaking at around 20kts, and mostly being in the 10-14kts range. Some of the Medal races dropped below that with the Women 470 being sailed in 4-5kts.

Temperatures were not warm - and there was none of the warm breeze that is often associated with the English summer. Wet gear hung outside, dried only slowly. Air temperatures were not too different from the New Zealand winter we had left.

Moving out beyond the seawall, the next and second course was the Nothe course.


Nothe means Nose, which describes the protrusion of land out into Weymouth Bay. At its end was a fort constructed in the 1870's used for the protection of the harbour.

This nose of land formed a sailing stadium allowing short course racing. The stadium capacity was about 6,000 and was said to be a sell-out for the duration of the regatta. Surrounding the Nothe were many other vantage points, and the crowd for the Finn Medal Race in which Ben Ainslie won his fourth Gold Medal peaked at around 30,000. There was a big screen in the Nothe (attached to the walls of the fort) with commentators, and the incomparable Hannah White revving up the fans. The roar of the crowd was an amazing sound to hear at a sailing regatta.

There was a spectator area in Qingdao - a long seawall which was packed only once - when the Chinese were competing in the Womens Laser Radial Medal race and the Womens RS:X - but it wasn't a paying gallery.


On the Nothe, it was UKP55 for a day at the sailing. This sellout was a good effort, considering Weymouth is a three hour train trip from London, and probably even longer car ride. Other venues were giving away seats just before the Olympics started after a ticketing snafu. The sailing looked packed, every day.

As a piece of water the Nothe wasn't great - one competitor said you had to go up one side or the other, but never the middle - which is probably a fair comment. Middle courses probably didn't even get a middle place. It was fine for Match Racing, passably OK for skiffs, and probably not that great for anything else.

Others have been reported as saying they would be well pleased if they never had to sail on the Nothe course again.

The course length of the Nothe was just 0.6nm - which is real stadium racing. It looked to be a crap shoot, but the good sailors always seemed to win.

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Moving out into Weymouth Bay, there were three course areas - what you would expect of Olympic sailing courses - open water, big seas, and no real impediments. Only two of these areas were used, with the outermost course being redundant. Water depth was said to be 80ft with quite strong tides at times. in the westerly wind, the racing was often started off the lee shore making a spectacular backdrop of English countryside, or the Weymouth town, and various scenes in between. It was a real contrast to the bleak vista back to the west.

A trick for the photographers was how to work a church spire, or a White Horse cut into the crops growing on the hill, or the chalk cliffs of the Dorset coast into the shots of competitors sailing fast in fresh breezes. Successfully mix the sailing action with the background spectacle, and you have a great shot.

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Overall the three course areas and their distinctively different water worked very well, indeed. The racing wasn't the crap-shoot that it seemed it would be. Our gut feeling was that if you could win a medal across these three quite different environments, then you were truly a champion.

One thing that was noticeable was that even though they did very occasionally round the first mark in the bottom half of the fleet, the medalists could all pull through to get into the top five or so. Those who could not weren't on the podium at the end of the regatta. It was not so much about how well you did in front, but in how well you could recover. And some of those recoveries were extremely impressive.

Next we'll look at the media and surrounding issues, of which there were plenty.


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