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Letter from the Antipodes: Rebuilding for Paris2024 despite the Lockdown

by Richard Gladwell/ 25 Feb 2022 00:57 PST 25 February 2022
Jo Aleh and Molly Meech - 49erFX - Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta - Day 4 - Takapuna BC February 20, 2022 © Richard Gladwell / / nz

While New Zealand, and sport, in particular, is struggling to cope with the current COVID restrictions, Sailing seems to be faring much better than most.

The Auckland championships for the Starling and Optimist classes were staged a couple of weeks ago, with a combined fleet of 180 boats. Last weekend the Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta was conducted, with a combined 120 boat fleet of Olympic and Youth classes.

The Oceanbridge regatta was originally scheduled to be run out of a single venue - Wakatere BC - who handled the Auckland Starling and Optimist champs at a single venue. But the COVID mandates triggered a change resulting in the combined fleet being split into three, with Wakatere, Takapuna and Murrays Bay clubs being used.

Much effort goes into devising work-arounds, but that is a way better option than cancelling the regattas altogether. Sailors are keen for a break from the COVID media barrage and want to go sailing.

Club racing also seems to be continuing under near-normality.

For Kiwis, the Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta was an important step up the Paris2024 ladder.

Starting a couple of years ago, World Sailing turned the Olympic regatta events inside out, changing five of the ten Olympic events for Marseille in July 2024. That degree of change is a big challenge for all nations, particularly for those on state-funded programs, like New Zealand, whose continued funding depends on results and Olympic medals won.

The Kiwi dilemma is exacerbated by a relatively poor performance (Medals won) at Enoshima and representation in only six events despite qualifying in all ten sailed at Tokyo2020.

There is a shake-up going on in Olympic sailing in New Zealand for several reasons.

The recent announcement of a break-up between the long-time 49erFX pairing of Molly Meech and Alex Maloney came as a surprise - even against their missing the cut for the Medal Race at Tokyo2020.

The Rio2016 Olympic Silver medalists and former world champions had been with the 49erFX class through its development and testing phase before its Olympic selection in 2013. Arguably they were the most experienced crew in the 49erFX class.

It was a pleasant surprise to see both return for the Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta as part of two new crews in the 49erFX. Meech and Maloney's split change robbed the 49erFX event of the benchmark of an established Olympic combination. But on the positive side, it was an opportunity for new talent to come to the fore.

That talent development process has been accelerated by Yachting New Zealand drumming up the numbers in the 49erFX fleet by encouraging the older sailors to step out of the 29er and Youth classes and into the FX.

Some of the gear that YNZ had in their locker from the previous Olympic campaigns was shared around the crews - lifting the racing standard.

At the Oceanbridge regatta, the Open 49erFX fleet had nine crews - three Women, two Mixed and four ex Youth crews. That's a much bigger fleet than would otherwise have been the case and again lifted competitive levels.

The 49ers had five boats. Olympic Gold and Silver medalists and six-time world champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were notable for their absence. But two other crews, Isaac McHardie/William McKenzie and Logan Dunning Beck/Oscar Gunn, are top talents. For them, the regatta was a good warm-up for whatever lies ahead of them in the coming European season.

Despite the bigger fleet, the 49erFX had no such benchmark.

To our eyes, based on the last two Olympics, Jo Aleh and Molly Meech looked to be world-class in the mainly light, marginal trapezing conditions that prevailed, which were maybe not that much different from Enoshima six months earlier.

Even better, as the regatta progressed, Aleh and Meech scored four wins from the last six races.

Jo Aleh has been around the Olympic scene for about 15 years, beginning with the Laser Radial in 2008 at Qingdao. In monohulls, she is the best women's sailor NZ has produced. If she makes 49erFX selection, then Paris2024 will be Jo Aleh's fourth Olympics and third class.

Aleh is a very gritty, relentless competitor. While she won a 470 Gold Medal in the 2012 Olympics, in a canter, arguably her Silver Medal win in Rio2016 was the better effort.

At Rio, Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie turned around a poor first half of the regatta by taking the rest of the series one race at a time. They became a clear winner of the Silver medal, behind a long time rival and the GOAT of Women's Olympic sailing, Hannah Mills (GBR).

Aleh brings to the 2024 Olympic equation the experience of sailing a highly tactical class at Olympic level in the then Laser Radial (2008), the tactical and twitchy 470 (2012 and 2016), and now the 49erFX with its focus on speed settings, boat handling, and the challenge of sailing as fast as you dare.

At the Oceanbridge regatta, Aleh and Meech looked good in the light, with Aleh fully balancing the boat, while the heavier and taller Meech crouched on the centreline - with both keeping their weight well forward. The other crews did the same on occasions, but seemed keener to get both crew on the wings of the 49er hull. For Aleh and Meech, it didn't seem to be such a priority. The reduction in crew windage/drag was very apparent.

These light marginal trapezing conditions at Tokyo2020 proved to be the undoing of similar-sized top British crew Charlotte Dobson and Saskia Tidey. The Brits were very well placed after the breezier first two days/six races of Tokyo2020 but couldn't put it together in the light breezes that prevailed for the regatta's second half.

The Brits' Achilles heel in the light air was apparently a known issue in their repertoire and was supposed to have been remedied before the Olympics. That crew have also split since Tokyo2020.

Maybe, just maybe, this new 49erFX combination will be the goods for Paris 2024. There's a long way to go, obviously, but Aleh and Meech - even at this early stage - compare well with what we saw on the water at Enoshima. And the Kiwi's 49erFX medal chances improve further if another New Zealand crew can rise up and beat them for Paris2024 selection.

The other Oceanbridge Mixed fleet, in the ILCA6, Olympic and Youth singlehander aspirants also raced in an Open fleet. Caleb Armit did more than enough to book his ticket for the 2022 Youth Worlds at The Hague in July. He dominated the 27 boat ILCA6 fleet, with his worst place being 5th out of the 12 races sailed, including five race wins.

George Lee-Rush and Seb Menzies were also confirmed in the 2022 Youth Worlds team. They gave the proverbial sailing lesson to the 18 boat 29er Open fleet - winning nine of the 12 races.

The other standout of the Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta was Caleb Armit's older brother Josh, who won six of the eight races sailed in a shortened Windfoil Nationals.

The 2019 World Youth Champion, in the then Laser Radial, previously had his sights set on the Finn class but switched to the iQFoil when that class was chosen to replace the RS:X in the windsurfer event for Paris 2024.

The iQFoil attracted 34 competitors, spread across Gold and Silver fleets. Given that the Oceanbridge regatta drew a fleet of 120boats, 28% of the entries came from the iQFoil class, and World Sailing would seem to have made the right choice in that regard.

In New Zealand, a strong program has been set up around the Windfoilers (before the class gained Olympic selection) with coaching and backup support from top sailors out of the RS:X and other windsurfing classes.

The foilers - which will be the fastest class at Paris2024 - raced in an Open fleet that covered all breeds from Youth to Masters, Male and Female. That had the great benefit of benchmarking the sailors against each other - if they had raced in younger age or gender-specific fleets, there would have been no objective performance measurement.

There were notable performances in every fleet at the Oceanbridge regatta, and thanks to COVID and its associated noise ashore, life can be glum. But on the water, the racing is as keen as ever, maybe more so.

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