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Nerves of steel in the 1/8 Finals SSL Gold Cup at Gran Canaria

by Mark Jardine & Benedict Donovan / SSL Gold Cup 21 Nov 2023 11:41 PST 10 November - 3 December 2023

Light wind sailing is tense at the best of times, but in the high stakes of the SSL Gold Cup - with the title of World Champion of Sailing Nations on the line - the tension ramps up to a whole new level.

The sailors were confronted with a big swell coming in from the south, which proved a real challenge for the teams, requiring huge skill to keep the SSL 47 yachts at top speed over the waves.

Fleet 1, Race 1

A great start for USA's 'Golden Eagles', with helm Chris Poole coming in late to the line with speed to find a gap between the Hungarian 'Shamans' to windward and Argentina's 'Condores' to leeward, leaving the Malaysian 'Monsoon' floundering head to wind. The battle upwind between Argentina, USA and Hungary was superb, with barely a boat length separating them, while Malaysia went hard right, rolling the dice to try and get back in the game.

A quick first lap of the course for Teams USA and Argentina, with 'The Golden Eagles' rounding the leeward gates just 1 second ahead of the 'Condores'. Upwind the leading pair split, with Argentina and Hungary making gains on the right, relegating USA to third.

The communication between helm Juan Ignacio Grimaldi and tactician Gabriel Pablo Marino was calm as the 'Condores' plotted their course, using the wind shifts to the best, as well as keeping a loose cover on their opponents. The 'Shamans' rounded the top mark 13 seconds ahead of 'The Golden Eagles' after forcing the USA team into a double tack on the final upwind leg.

With the wind dropping on the final downwind leg, the 'Condores' took a huge risk by splitting from the 'Shamans' and 'Golden Eagles', but the Argentinian team managed to hold off the charging Hungarians to take the win. USA finished third, while the Malaysian 'Monsoon' never came back into contention after their poor start.

Argentinian tactician Gabriel Pablo Marino spoke of his relief to get their first win on the board:

"The crew was very good today and we did a good job with our speed. The race course was very tricky, with a very shifty wind, but overall we are very happy."

On managing the crew, especially how they moved around the boat, Gabriel added:

"The coordination is between the helm, myself as tactician, and the pitman. We try to move the weight as a pack as it's a heavy boat."

Ernesto Rodriguez, tactician for the USA 'Golden Eagles', on their first race of the competition:

"I think we made a mistake staying too far left when the wind had already died down, and we paid the price for that. The wind dropped even more on the downwind and we did the best we could, but it's a really short race facing really strong competition. The other teams, they're good teams, sailing at a really high level. And it's really hard to find a hole in their armour!"

Fleet 2, Race 1

In a very light wind start, Brazil won the pin end, while Tahiti and Lithuania lined up just to windward, with Poland a boat length back. While it may have looked like the crews were having a nap on the foredeck, the aim was to keep the weight forwards and low to help the yachts keep moving, using every zephyr of wind available to the max.

However, with so little wind the race was abandoned then restarted once the wind came back in.

After the restart, it was a game of proverbial snakes and ladders on the first upwind leg. Brazil lost out on a big left windshift, so the Lithuanian 'Ambers' rounded the top mark first, followed by Tahiti's 'Black Pearls' and the 'Brazilian Storm', with the Polish 'Sea Wolves' again lagging behind.

The battle downwind was intense, with both Brazil and Tahiti finding a low mode to sneak past Lithuania, only for 'The Ambers' to find more breeze on the right. Brazil's Olympic superstars Robert Scheidt and Martine Grael then conferred, deciding to gybe on to port, bringing them to within 9 seconds of Lithuania at the leeward mark, while Tahiti followed a further 30 seconds behind.

'The Ambers' sailed a beautiful second upwind leg, leaving 'Brazilian Storm' and 'The Black Pearls' to battle it out for second, with them rounding the top mark in that order.

Tahiti couldn't match the lower mode that Brazil were finding on the downwind legs, so gybed away early, while Lithuania's Captain Rokas Milevicius kept a close eye on the fleet behind to ensure they stayed ahead, taking the first win of Fleet 2 with a joyous celebration.

Despite Tahiti coming in fast to the finish line on starboard, Brazil just managed to gybe ahead, securing second place.

Brazilian Captain, the legendary Robert Scheidt, was pragmatic about the conditions:

"It was really tricky. We had one start in very light winds earlier today, right on the limit. We were leading the race, so we were pretty happy about that, but the wind got even lighter and they abandoned the race. In the second try the wind went right and picked up a bit, so it was a pretty decent race, where Lithuania did a very good job, but I think we sailed a pretty good race."

On his team's choices on the final downwind leg, choosing between attacking Lithuania and defending against Tahiti, Robert added:

"It was a really difficult choice, but I think with these light and fluky conditions in the end you cannot cover everybody or do too many manoeuvres. It was a good call from Martina (Grael) to let them gybe and for us to gybe later."

Coming in last were the Polish 'Sea Wolves', whose team have extensive combined experience in both big and small boats. It wasn't enough to make a difference in today's conditions, but helmsman Dominik Buksak is determined to come back fighting:

"I think the teams that sailed in previous rounds have a little bit of an advantage, but if we draw smart conclusions from today we can make the gap smaller and smaller. So in the next days of racing hopefully we'll be able to catch them."

Fleet 3, Race 1

The South African team came in strong and fast on the line, just above Chile, with Switzerland squeezed out and having to tack twice, and Norway having to tack away early. At this level, perfecting the time on distance is key, so the Swiss and Norwegian teams put themselves on the back foot straight away.

The wind dropped in Leg 2, but the onboard tension heightened, with the teams attempting to take advantage of every gust given them. South African 'Team Ubuntu' rounded the windward mark over 20 seconds in the lead, with Norway, Chile and Switzerland tightly bunched in pursuit.

The experience of the South African and Chilean teams started to pay, leading on the second upwind while the Swiss and Norwegian teams struggled 200 metres behind as the wind dropped once again. The focus needed in the light conditions, combined with the confused sea state, was intense.

Ian Ainslie calmly steered South Africa's 'Team Ubuntu' rounding the final windward mark first, with Eric Monnin's Swiss 'Helvetic Lakers' somehow overtaking Pablo Lorca's Chilean 'Finis Terrae Sailors' in the now very calm conditions. With small patches of wind appearing and disappearing, nerves of steel were needed to avoid rushed decisions.

The final metres to the finish felt like a herculean task of concentration, even if the physical aspects were negligible in the lightest of winds the fleet was now in. Like a chess grandmaster, thinking five moves ahead, Eric Monnin's Swiss team put Ian Ainslie's South African team in checkmate, outmanoeuvring his opponents to take the win. 'Team Ubuntu' will be disappointed to lose a race they were leading for 90% of the time, but a second place is still incredibly useful on a day such as this. Norway also overtook Chile, to make it a bad day for the 'Finis Terrae Sailors'.

When asked how it was to be sailing in Gran Canaria, Swiss tactician Jean-Marc Monnard replied:

"We also have tricky and patchy conditions in Switzerland. So today was something we're used to!"

Fleet 4, Race 1

The final race of the day was looking unlikely, but the wind picked up to 5 knots allowing the race committee to quickly get the 4th fleet under way. The Swedish 'Vikings' got off to the perfect start, with France shut out on the startline.

The Portuguese 'Navigators' battled it out the entire upwind leg with 'The Vikings', while Slovenia's 'KRPANI1860' and French team 'Les Bleus' fought for third.

With the 'Navigators' tacking on top of 'The Vikings' on the lay line to the windward mark, 'Les Bleus' came back into contention, making for a tight battle downwind, while 'KRPANI1860' sailed on their own 200 metres astern.

Leeward gate leaders Portugal then picked up a penalty for leaving their bowsprit out at the leeward gate, dropping them to third and giving 'The Vikings' a clear lead. 'Les Bleus' were then convinced the 'Navigators' tacked too close to them, but the umpires saw it differently, flying the green flag for no penalty.

The 'Navigators' then timed their tack to perfection on the lay line to leeward of 'The Vikings', taking the lead at the windward mark, with 'Les Bleus' then pressurising 'The Vikings' from the windward side, forcing the Swedes into an early gybe downwind.

Portugal's move was decisive, with Sweden just pipping France on the line for second, and Slovenia bringing up the rear. When asked how he keeps his cool, Swedish tactician Jesper Sta°lheim said after:

"It's all about the pressure and keeping the speed of the boat. For example, during the start, it's so easy to get pulled into the boat-on-boat stuff and caught up in the fights. And then you're doing five knots instead of seven knots. So we just try to stay on the side and keep it clean."

The form guide may not have been written in today's tricky and light conditions, but getting points on the board early is great for morale. Nerves may be shredded now, but the teams will need to be razor sharp for tomorrow's racing.

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