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Saving the best for last in the Gran Canaria SSL Gold Cup 1/16 Finals

by Mark Jardine & Benedict Donovan / SSL Gold Cup 19 Nov 12:10 PST 10 November - 3 December 2023

What a scintillating Sunday we had lined up to conclude the SSL Gold Cup 1/16 Finals. With double points on offer everything was to play for, and Fleet 1 was set to be a thriller with three teams tied on points.

Alas, the wind, or more specifically the lack of it, meant we had to wait, with hunger building, before the first course was served.

Sailors enjoyed the delights of the SSL Gold Cup Race Village, chatting with fellow teammates and their competitors, while trying to maintain focus ahead of the upcoming golden double points races.

As all sailors know, we are dependent on the vagaries of the wind to partake in our sport. So far Gran Canaria has delivered every day, so to have only one day so far with a delay shows how ideal the island is for sailing.

In the end, who can blame the breeze for having a lie-in on a sunny Sunday morning? When many in Spain were thinking of a siesta, the wind piped up, and the Race Committee wasted no time to get the action under way.

Fleet 2 - Race 4

A clean start for the fleet with Hungary managing to get their nose ahead of their competitors. Tahiti chose to tack away early, favouring the right hand side of the course, which proved to be a rare bad move, leaving them in an unfamiliar position at the back of the fleet.

The Hungarian 'Shamans' took full advantage of their excellent start, controlling the fleet behind them with well placed covering tacks to round the windward mark a healthy 27 seconds ahead of the Bermudan 'Privateers', the Finnish 'Northern Magic' 13 behind them and the Tahitian 'Black Pearls' a further 15 seconds adrift.

At this point 'The Black Pearls' will have been cheering 'The Shamans' on, buoyed by their huge lead, as if they won it would ensure both teams progress to the 1/8 Finals thanks to their superior points tally going into the golden double points race. 'The Privateers' and 'Northern Magic' needed a win, with Tahiti remaining last, to qualify themselves.

'The Shamans' weren't about to oblige either Finland or Bermuda's wishes, sailing a perfect race to win ahead of 'Northern Magic', with 'The Black Pearls' finding more breeze offshore on the final downwind leg, to overtake 'The Privateers'.

Joy for Hungary and Tahiti, sorrow for Finland and Bermuda.

On learning the teams the 'Shamans' will face in the next round, Hungarian helm Róbert Bakóczy seemed thrilled:

"USA and Argentina are both very big sailing nations! We are happy to sail against them and we're curious to see what we can do. After every single race day, I think our team has developed a lot. Compared to four days ago, we're way better SSL47 sailors! So I think now we have a chance against - maybe not everybody - but most other teams."

Finland's Captain Oskari Muhonen was proud of his team's performance, despite not progressing further in the competition:

"We sailed a decent race today, our start was alright, but we were lacking a bit of upwind speed, and gaining on the downwind legs. We did all we could, but it wasn't quite enough. I think we've been improving every day, the first day we were pretty rusty and struggling a bit, but the past three days we had pretty decent sailing and were getting better and better. We're looking forward to the next SSL event, the format is really nice with four boats and high-level teams."

Fleet 3 - Race 4

A slow approach to the line for the fleet with all lined up early, but Antigua & Barbuda's 'Rum Runners' were squeezed out at the committee boat end, starting late.

The drama started at the top end of the course, with 'The Rum Runners' coming in from the left to lead at the windward mark by 70 metres with the chasing bunch of Croatia, Portugal and South Africa tightly packed behind.

Antigua & Barbuda lost some speed on their hoist after rounding Mark 1, compressing the fleet even more. At the leeward gate Antigua & Barbuda led from Croatia, which would mean them going through to the 1/8 Finals with South Africa trailing at the back of the fleet.

Team Portugal temporarily failed to live up to their 'Navigators' moniker, banking hard left while the rest of the fleet took a more conservative upwind leg playing the shifts, ending up trailing the fleet at the windward mark by a massive distance.

Everything looked set for Croatia and Antigua & Barbuda to qualify, but the final metres of the downwind leg saw everything change. Portugal grabbed back their 'Navigators' moniker with both hands, finding breeze on the left and going from last to first in moments, while on the right South Africa overtook Croatia. In a shock twist on the finish line it was Portugal and South Africa through to the 1/8 Finals.

A quite extraordinary end to the race, the likes of which we haven't seen since the legendary Star class Medal Race at the London 2012 Olympics.

Despite the situation they were in, Portugal's Mariana Lobato Pitman was always confident of success:

"You need to believe always until the end. Of course when you are last by 300 metres it's not a good signal, but we did our manoeuvres like we were near to the others, with a good hoist, and fast to bring the jib down, we then gybed and tried everything on the left side downwind. It was beautiful!"

South Africa's Michaela Robinson describing those final moments:

"As a team, we believe that you sail until the last minute of the last race, and today was evidence that literally anything can happen right up until the end. I don't think I've ever heard the boat so quiet, but everyone was just laser-focused, and we managed to pull it out of the bag. Honestly, everything goes out to the team, but specifically to our tactician Mark [Sadler]. He is a genius, and there's part of me that knows it was all part of his plan."

On facing newcomers Switzerland and Norway in the upcoming round, as well as fellow 1/32 contenders Chile, Michaela added:

"I definitely believe that time on the water and time on the boat pays. You can be a great sailor, but if you're not used to the boat that you're sailing, you're always going to be on the back foot because you're focusing on what you're doing in the boat instead of looking out at the weather conditions and the boats around you. As you go along each round, the fleet gets more and more competitive, and you just have to up your standard against the guys that you're racing against.

"It's a childhood dream to race against Olympians on a standard boat. And we're here, and we're here to show everyone what we've got. You can't count your chickens before they've hatched, but we're ready."

Antigua & Barbuda's Trimmer Rhone Kirby was understandably devastated after the race:

"The final seconds were really, really depressing. After working so hard the entire race, seeing Portugal, who were miles behind, coming and snatching first place, for me there were tears inside, but I had to be strong and help the team to be strong, because we've seen this happen to lots of teams before."

On sailing for SSL Team Antigua & Barbuda in the SSL Gold Cup Rhone added:

"I am proud, and I know for sure that my teammates are proud. It is depressing not qualifying, but I want to say that we'll never give up, as you never know what will happen in the end.

"The title 'the football world cup of sailing' couldn't have been any better. It's just like the last World Cup, where we saw Argentina versus France, where the players gave it their all, and in the last moment Argentina snatched it from France - it was just like that at the end of our sailing today."

Time Out for Fleets 4 and 1

With that drama, the 1/16 Finals were complete, as no races can be started after 16:00 hrs. This means the results for Fleets 4 and 1 were finalised after three races.

From Fleet 4 the Lithuanian 'Ambers' and Slovenian 'KRPANI1860' teams qualified, well ahead of new arrivals Canada and Japan on points.

Meanwhile in Fleet 1, it was heartbreak for the Estonian 'Icebreakers', who despite sharing the top spot with Chile and Malaysia, lost out due to their lack of wins this round. The Chilean 'Finis Terrae Sailors', after scraping through the 1/32 Finals as Lucky Loser, will be going ahead to the 1/8 Finals alongside the Malaysian 'Monsoon'.

So now we know the teams going through to the 1/8 Finals to face the seeded teams of USA, Argentina, Poland, Brazil, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and France.

Alongside the podium ceremony, Team Tahiti prepared their national dish: a delicious supper of ia ota, or Tahitian marinated raw fish, which all the teams savoured. On this Super Sunday the best truly was saved for last.

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