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Gladwell's Line: Kiwi Olympic selections cut but maybe not so dried

by Richard Gladwell, 19 Feb 20:47 PST 16 February 2020
Peter Burling and Blair Tuke - 49er - Day 3 - 2020 World Championships - Royal Geelong Yacht Club - February 2020 © Jesus Renedo / Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Centre stage the first couple of weeks in February has been the four Olympic class world championships being sailed in Australia. Three finished yesterday, with Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, coached by Hamish Willcox, winning an unpredecented sixth World Championship.

For New Zealand the regattas in the Mens Laser, Mens 49er, Womens 49erFX and Mixed Nacra 17, are not relevant for Olympic Qualification, however, they are vital for individual selection within those classes. Three World Championships (49er, FX and Nacra) were sailed at Geelong, and got under way earlier this week after losing the first day due to strong winds. Following the first day gale, the course was plagued with sea weed for the rest of the week

The situation is the same for most of the crews competing - except for the British - who announced their first group of selections, nominating 12 sailors in eight of the ten Olympic events. The only events which the British decided not to nominate in October 2019 was the Laser and Laser Radial, and presumably will make those announcements after the conclusion of the 2020 Worlds.

Most top sailing nations keep their selection systems and pinnacle regattas secret - for the reason they don't want other competitors influencing the outcome.

But despite the secrecy, most know that it would be surprising if the 2020 Worlds results were not being aggregated with the 2019 Worlds results to form the basic Olympic nomination decision for almost all countries.

The 2019 Worlds for the 49er. 49erFX and Nacra 17 classes were held in Auckland in early December and were effectively the second and final regatta for a country to qualify for the 2020 Sailing Olympics in Enoshima, beginning in late July.

For New Zealand two of the selection decisions are cut and dried.

It would be a shock of apocalyptic magnitude if the current Olympic and World Champions, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were not nominated in the 49er skiff.

Not that they don't have any competition. On the contrary, the New Zealand fleet is the strongest in the world - both in numbers of boats regularly racing in Auckland, and also with three of the top five placegetters in the 2020 Oceania Championships. Most countries would be happy to send any of those three crews to Enoshima and would probably go even deeper than that into the Kiwi 49er fleet.

Having just won their sixth 49er World Championship, Burling and Tuke are the odds-on favourite for the 49er Gold medal. However the signs from the Auckland and Geelong Worlds are that their competition is chasing them down. But in both regattas, as in the 2016 Olympics, they sailed a very consistent, well-managed series. While others may reach their heights occasionally, being able to stamp their authority on a fleet to the degree that Burling and Tuke are able to do will be no easy task.

In the 49erFX Womens skiff, it would be equally surprising if Molly Meech and Alex Maloney were not also given their ticket to Enoshima.

Unfortunately, Alex Maloney broke a bone in her foot while training between the Oceania Championships and the 2020 Worlds. The decision was wisely taken to withdraw from the Worlds to allow her foot to recover properly. After a mildly disappointing, by their standards, sixth place in the 2019 Worlds, the 2016 Silver medalists finished second overall in the 2020 Oceania Championships, 12pts out of winning the Gold medal, but 20pts clear of the Bronze.

The fifth placegetters in the 2020 Oceania Championship, Charlotte Dobson and Saskia Tidey, were one of the 12 sailors nominated by Britain back in October, and have just finished second overall the 44 crew fleet in the Worlds.

In the Nacra 17, the New Zealand Olympic nomination became more certain on the final day with Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson placing seventh in the 34 boat fleet.

A collective crew shuffle, last year, amongst three of the New Zealand Nacra 17 crews has seen the whole fleet take a slide backwards from the 2016 Olympics where Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders finished 4th, after winning the Medal Race. Jones was the top placed female helm. The pair got off to a bad start in the opening day of the 2018 World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark with a boat breakdown resulted in them coming away with two maximum points DNF's on their scorecard.

They recovered to finish 12th overall in that regatta, just one place behind NZ's Micah Wilkinson and Olivia Mackay whose performance qualified New Zealand for the 2020 Olympics.

The top three Kiwi crews, all changed from those who had competed in the 2018 Worlds 16 months earlier, placed 17, 19 and 20 in the 2019 Worlds in Auckland. While each had their highpoints, it was a disappointing collective performance.

In Geelong with the 2020 regatta at the half-way stage, Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson lay in fifth place overall - one of a group of four boats contesting third overall - covered by a spread of just two points. But in the fresh breeze of the Medal Race they finished 10th in the 10 boat fleet for seventh overall. 2016 Gold medalists Santi Lange and Cecilia Carranza were 10th overall.

Weed in the water at Geelong was a big factor. It may be that the Olympic selectors have to unravel the placings and check for any that were weed affected. With Enoshima expected to be a moderate to fresh air regatta, rescoring the two worlds for moderate to fresh breeze results could be another option.

Sailing at the northern end of Melbourne's Port Phillip, Olympic Bronze medalist Sam Meech and Thomas Saunders have picked up from where they left off at the World Laser Championships last July in Enoshima. Currently, they lie eighth and tenth place respectively. George Gautrey who beat both in the 2019 Worlds, is back in 20th overall after nine races have been sailed.

The Laser is probably the hardest to pick at this stage - a stellar performance in Melbourne from one of those three Kiwis should sway the Olympic selectors, unless they decide to pick on past results more than current form.

America's Cup Match Conditions confirmed

While sifting through an America's Cup website, mid-afternoon yesterday, the outcome popped up of the Mediation Hearing over wind limits for the 36th America's Cup and Prada Cup.

This shining light in the black cave of secrecy that surrounds America's Cup disputes, revealed that the parties had opted to meet halfway and settle on 23kts as the wind limit for the America's Cup. The Defender had sought 24kts and the Challenger 22kts for the Match and a lesser limit for the Prada Cup.

Quite what was achieved by the Challengers is a little hard to understand. The significance of a knot or two of True Wind Speed sailing in boats that are experiencing up to 60kts apparent, is dancing on the head of a pin.

Even more so adjusting the wind speed for the tidal direction and speed being experienced on the Committee Boat based not on a reading on the boat, but on the basis of a forecast published over a month before the start of the Prada Cup. The rule is baffling at best.

Live mainstream TV coverage of the premier New Zealand Match Racing was discontinued after one series in which the race officer refused to start in conditions that were eminently sailable but not to the liking of a race officer who sought near-perfection. And after a couple of hours of inexplicable delay, normal programming resumed, never to return. The TV Producer, who was very sailing sympathetic, was still fuming the day after when called for his views on the situation and said his recommendation would be to not cover that event in the future, which is what happened.

While that situation will not arise in the 2021 America's Cup coverage the lesson of that incident and also the 2000 and 2003 America's Cups in Auckland is that conservative wind limits do not work in the best interests of the event. Further, while IACC boats towed home in those Cups while Optimists raced in the backdrop, a few years later in the 2009 Louis Vuitton Pacific Trophy the same IACC boats raced in winds that were close to or above 30kts. It was spectacular.

These sailors are the top professionals in the sport, we should be able to see their skills under conditions which are extreme but not unsafe.

Mike McCormick

Yesterday in Tauranga, at the yacht club, a service was held to celebrate the life and passing of Mike McCormick, one of the true characters of New Zealand yachting.

I had the pleasure of sailing only one regatta with Mike - an Admirals Cup in 1983, when we were in Cowes for about six weeks. Mike was picking up from where he left off in 1981 with Ian Gibbs in Swuzzlebubble, when they finished top boat in the 1981 Admirals Cup - a remarkable achievement.

Mike was an old school navigator, at home jammed under the companionway stairs usually with bilge water flowing around his feet and with a well-thumbed book of English tidal charts and diagrams to hand. They are not like the tidal charts of New Zealand, but a book showing the rotation of the tide hour by hour for various locations.

Those were in the days before any serious electronic navigation, but a decade or two after most had put away their sextants. The skill of a racing navigator was to be able to predict the wind behavior (given that it veered with the sun in that part of the world), and the direction and strength of the tide at crucial times to be able to avoid or catch a tidal gate - which inevitably made the winning or losing of the race - with tides running at up to 14kts off Alderney, and 4-6kts being the norm around most major headlands.

Navigation in those waters was a black art understood by few Kiwis, and only a few more Brits. That was why offshore racing off the South Coast of England is the most challenging in the world. It doesn't have the bash of the Sydney Hobart, but it was too easy to park up for five or six hours through a navigational error or bad decision - and all the clever sails and gear would never get you out of that one.

Mike never really slept during a race. He always kept his sense of humour - despite being trodden on during the odd occasion he sought a few minutes shut-eye in the early hours, on a wet sail bag, when he thought there was a quiet moment in the race.

Mike was distinctive for his white beard - earning him the nickname of Gorse Jaw, or Santa Claus. He was always good-natured, if completely incorrigible, and if you ever got tired of working on the boat, Mike always knew of a handy pub, to slake your thirst, and would generally beat you to it.

Outside of being a racing navigator, involved with many of New Zealand's teams when offshore racing was a full-on international team sport, Mike ran a rigging business in Tauranga and undertook yacht deliveries. He was the solid quintessential seaman.

Last December I was approached by a volunteer biographer working with the Waipuna Hospice in Tauranga, looking for a sailing shot of Don St Clair Brown's Anticipation on which Mike sailed. It was for a biography the Hospice put together for the family of people with serious or terminal illnesses. I sent back the Anticipation shot, together with a couple of others from the '81 Admirals Cup, and a series of Mike's various watering holes around Cowes - shot on impulse six months ago. Hopefully he recognised his old haunts.

The biographer came back with a classic understatement: "Boy, have I had an education on yachts working with this amazing guy!". Everyone who worked, sailed or knew Mike had a similar experience.

Good sailing!

Richard Gladwell
NZ Editor

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