IFDS Disabled Sailing Worlds 2011 are currently underway in Weymouth and Portland and the chase for the SKUD sailing World Championship title is emerging as a two-horse race on the 2012 Paralympic waters.
Britain’s defending world title holders Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell have staked a four point lead over Australian rivals Dan Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch at the halfway stage of the regatta (Tuesday 5 July).
The Skandia Team GBR crew and their Antipodean challengers shared one race win apiece from the two races held on Tuesday’s third day at these IFDS Disabled Sailing World Championships in Weymouth and Portland, with Rickham and Birrell picking up a fourth in their second race of the day to extend their lead from Monday to four points after six of the scheduled eleven races in the series.
For John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas in the three-person Sonar event, a solid day on the water turned to disappointment ashore when a protest by their American rivals turned against them, dropping them from their overall series lead to second in the results table, while Helena Lucas and Megan Pascoe remain medal contenders in the one-person 2.4mR event, in third and fourth respectively at the mid-way point of this six-day regatta.
The sunny summer conditions which had greeted competitors for the first two days of competition took a gloomy turn on Tuesday, with the weather front passing across the Dorset venue providing a chilly and rainy backdrop to racing on Portland Harbour.
Rickham and Birrell, chasing their third straight world title, had a strong start to the day to win their first race in the SKUD, with Fitzgibbon and Tesch giving the British crew some headroom when they sailed the incorrect course. But the Australians hit back in race two to take the victory, with the defending champions Rickham and Birrell finishing fourth in shifting conditions to end the day with a four point buffer at the top of the leader board.
With five races still to go, the margin between the Brits and the Australians and the rest of the fleet appears to be widening – a situation which comes as no surprise to the 24-year-old crew Birrell.
'I kind of knew before we started that it was likely to be us or Dan,' the Knutsford sailor explained.
'I knew that if we didn’t sail well then he would win, and I think he probably knew the same.'
'We’ve had some ups and downs in the series as the results have shown – every time we thought we were in control, we’ve thrown a bigger score in so that’s a bit frustrating.
'But to be four points ahead with five races to go – you can’t argue with that and if we sail well for the next three days then we’ll win the Worlds, and if we don’t, we won’t. We’ll see what happens.
'I’d always like to be further ahead, but it’s been good so far.'
John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas went into the third day of racing in the three-person Sonar fleet with a four point lead, and in spite of a solid 3,7 in the shifting wind conditions which would have retained their top spot on the leader board, they found themselves in the protest room with the American crew of Rick Doerr, Brad Kendall and Hugo Freund.
The USA team alleged the British boat failed to sail its correct course on one of the downwind legs in the first race of the day. The British team firmly disputed the claim, but with the jury ultimately finding in the visitors’ favour, the GBR crew were disqualified from the race and relinquished their gold medal position to the French trio, helmed by Bruno Jourdren, and are now in overall second with three days of the regatta to go.
'Sadly things didn’t quite go our way. The jury found that the Americans broke the overlap coming into the leeward mark, which their crew said they didn’t, and also that we sailed above our proper course,' the 25-year-old Stodel explained.
'We go home, we sulk for a bit and then we get on with it,' the Colchester sailor added resolutely.
'Five races to go, four points, that’s not a lot actually when you think about it. The big breeze is in tomorrow and the Frenchman doesn’t like breeze so he’d better watch out on the startline!
'It could be so much worse – we’re four points off of a gold medal – that’s what we have to keep thinking and come out fighting tomorrow.'
In the 2.4mR fleet, Dutch defending champion Thierry Schmitter continues to lead the pack with a three point lead, but Skandia Team GBR’s Helena Lucas and Megan Pascoe remain in touch of the podium spots after six races.
Lucas, the world bronze medallist in 2006 and 2009, is in third overall – four points off of the silver medal position occupied by American John Ruf – while Pascoe, who claimed bronze at the 2010 World Championships, is hot on the heels of her teammate in fourth place overall, just two points away from third.
Lucas, who scored 6,7 from her two races today, is happy to be in contention at the halfway stage of the regatta, but knows that the hard work is far from over with the points margins so close at the top of the table.
'I’ve got to just keep plugging away. Every single point counts, it’s so close and I think that’s why I’m so frustrated about my first race today when three or four points were kind of just thrown away.
'I’ve got to keep it cool – there are going to be snakes and ladders, I’ve had my comebacks and you’re going to have wins and losses really, so just keep going, keep it solid and see what happens.
It’s a sentiment that Pascoe, who finished 9,6 in her two races today, shares: 'It’s all about trying to pick up every place as you never know what your discard is going to be. You never know if you’re going to get that disqualification or be over the line, so it’s all about hanging on and trying to get back something reasonable.
'It was tricky today, but I had some really good comebacks to get in two top ten results which most of the fleet were struggling with so I was really happy with that.'
Racing at the IFDS Disabled Sailing Combined World Championships continues until Friday 8 July. There are 11 races in total scheduled for each class (two races per day Sunday-Thursday and one race on Friday 8 July). Skandia Team GBR squad for the IFDS Disabled Sailing World Championships:
Name Born Place of Birth Lives
SKUD18 (two-person keelboat)
Niki Birrell 16/08/1986 Manchester Knutsford
Alexandra Rickham 11/09/1981 Kingston, Jamaica Epsom, Surrey
2.4mR (one-person keelboat)
Megan Pascoe 29/11/1986 Shoreham-by-Sea Portland
Helena Lucas 29/04/1975 Redhill, Surrey Southampton
Sonar (three-person keelboat)
John Robertson 11/02/1972 North Haven, Sunderland Portland
Hannah Stodel 27/08/1985 Colchester West Mersea
Stephen Thomas 05/01/1977 Bridgend Cardiff
Team GBR website
IFDS Worlds website