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Perfection & Pain in Phénoménale SSL Gold Cup 1/8 Finals

by Mark Jardine & Benedict Donovan / SSL Gold Cup 24 Nov 2023 11:09 PST 10 November - 3 December 2023

Just when we thought we'd seen it all in Gran Canaria, the SSL Gold Cup took it to a whole new level on the Golden Day of the 1/8 Finals. Double points meant it all came down to today's performance on the water.

We witnessed perfection, we experienced pain, and were left stunned after one of the most extraordinary finishes ever seen in yacht racing. Fabulous Friday delivered on so many levels!

Fleet 2, Race 4

With the Lithuanian 'Ambers' effectively qualified, and Poland's 'Sea Wolves' whimpering, this race was always going to be focused on the battle between Brazil's 'Storm' and Tahiti's 'Black Pearls'.

'The Ambers' started perfectly, establishing their usual dominance in the fleet right from the get-go. Tahiti were late and tacked away, and Brazil immediately matched them. Game on.

For the first leg 'The Black Pearls' and the 'Brazilian Storm' were locked in a tacking duel, the crews looking focused and coordinated, each vying for the slightest edge over the other. While initially the 'Storm' had the advantage, 'The Black Pearls' managed to split away, and they came into the first mark just a boat length apart.

Mistakes are costly at the best of times, today more than ever, and Tahiti lost vital seconds with a poor spinnaker hoist, but interestingly Brazil gybed away early, splitting from 'The Black Pearls', possibly giving them a chance to atone for their bad hoist.

When they crossed, 'Brazilian Storm' maintained their advantage, but again they gave 'The Black Pearls' some room, letting them separate to the offshore side of the course.

If there's one thing you gain as multi-time Olympic medallists, it's confidence in your decisions, and the afterguard combination of Robert Scheidt and Martine Grael on 'Brazilian Storm', who have 7 medals between them, sailed the run to perfection to vie for the lead with the 'Ambers' at the leeward gate.

By this point, the pressure was showing on board the Tahiti yacht. Crewwork again hurt them with a slow spinnaker drop further hampering their chances to qualify for the 1/4 Finals.

The second lap was relatively uneventful. Lithuania sailed the 1/8 Finals to perfection, scoring a flawless 20 points, while Brazil's superstars finally overcame the challenge of the tiny South Pacific island of Tahiti to qualify second. It's been a dream run for 'The Black Pearls', but the fan favourites are out.

Lithuania are up against Spain and Italy in the next round. This was news to pit Kristoforas Akromas, but he's keeping a level head:

"Our approach is the next race is the most important day, so we're going to be checking those teams tomorrow. Today is time for some time off to recover our brains and muscles. Tomorrow we'll start the preparation, checking what's going to be happening on Monday."

Brazilian Captain Robert Scheidt was elated to qualify to the 1/4 Finals:

"It was really tense. We were really focused on today, as yesterday we made a lot of mistakes. We had a good debrief with the team, and today was a beautiful day with good sailing conditions, we executed our plan pretty well, had a great match racing duel with the Tahiti guys, Martine (Grael) made some very good calls downwind, so a lot of positives and a big relief."

Robert had warm words for 'The Black Pearls':

"Big congratulations to Tahiti, I'm going to go and give a big hug to those guys as they fought really hard and have been sailing really well. It was very hard to beat them and they put on a great show."

On the opponents Brazil have to face in the next round he added:

"We're against Australia and New Zealand, which are big sailing nations, so it doesn't get any easier!"

Fleet 3, Race 4

This fleet was all to play for going into the final race, and we witnessed super tight racing throughout, with only a few metres separating the teams.

South Africa's 'Team Ubuntu' gained a big tactical advantage early on, boxing in Switzerland and Chile, and forcing the 'Helvetic Lakers' to tack off to the right. Towards the windward mark, South Africa managed to create a small gap ahead of the fleet, rounding 15 seconds before Chile's 'Finis Terrae Sailors'.

With the 'Helvetic Lakers' at the back on the first downwind leg, it was looking good for 'Team Ubuntu' and the 'Finis Terrae Sailors'. Could they keep it clean and avoid any errors though? The 'Lakers' came right back into it at the leeward gate, but a poor spinnaker drop nullified their gains. There simply is no margin for error at this level.

The second upwind leg saw South Africa and Chile battle for the lead, and potentially winning their group, while Norway hung on to their coattails.

The 'Finis Terrae Sailors' rounded the final windward mark a few seconds ahead of 'Team Ubuntu' setting things up for an epic downwind battle to the finish.

Unbelievably the 'Helvetic Lakers' came right back into it, overtaking 'Team Ubuntu', which put the Swiss into the second qualifying spot. The South Africans put in a desperate gybe with 500 metres to go.

Chile won the race to qualify top, Norway finished second, but Switzerland stayed ahead of South Africa to snatch the second qualifying spot. An extraordinary final leg by the 'Helvetic Lakers' led to wild celebrations on the Swiss yacht, while the South African team looked utterly stunned.

Looking ahead to the next round, Swiss grinder Nelson Mettraux is more wary of their experienced competitors than the high-ranking newcomers:

"I think Italy and Spain will have to come and do the first races, learn a bit more about the boats, because it's different from what we're used to doing. But Lithuania, we know they are the best for the moment - we can see that on the water - so for sure we have to improve a few steps for the next stage. But we are really happy to qualify. It was a hard race!"

Chilean Captain Pablo Lorca was full of praise for his team and the event in general:

"We kept focus on our jobs, we managed our strategy, we followed our plan and we are confident in ourselves. I think this team is an amazing group of athletes, who have been sailing together for a while, and also amazing sailors in their own classes. Now we are feeling strong for the next round.

"I would like to thank all of the SSL organisation: the shore crew, the umpires, the media team and all the people who are making this extraordinary event happen."

Fleet 4, Race 4

In another fleet where it was all to play for, Portugal led on 11 points, Slovenia on 6, Sweden on 4, while France needed a certain finish combination in this race to have any chance of qualifying.

We saw a great start from Thursday's winner Slovenia's 'KRPANI1860'. France's 'Bleus' tried to luff the Portuguese 'Navigators' on the line, with red flags waving wildly, but the umpires saw nothing in it.

The first windward mark saw 'KRPANI1860' ahead of 'Les Bleus', with group leaders the 'Navigators' third, and finally Sweden's 'Vikings', with all completing clean spinnaker hoists. With this order it was looking good for Slovenia and Portugal to qualify to the 1/4 Finals.

The French had a quick downwind leg, pushing Slovenia at the leeward gate, but Sweden put the spinnaker in the water, dropping them back from the main fleet by nearly 400 metres.

The upwind leg was uneventful, but everything changed on the final downwind leg. 'Les Bleus' took the lead, but knew they needed to push 'KRPANI1860' into third to qualify themselves, so they tried to lock the Slovenians out on the inshore side of the course.

The two engaged in an intense battle, with the most incroyable situation unfolding as France held Slovenia back, finished first themselves whilst also letting Portugal and Sweden finish behind them, pushing Slovenia into last place.

The Portuguese 'Navigators' finished at the top of the scoreboard, but won't be resting on their laurels in the next round. Mainsail trimmer Pedro Costa, on facing what will potentially be the 'Death Group' of Brazil, Australia and New Zealand:

"The more the competition goes on, the tighter the racing is. And then it starts being the small details that make a big difference, and that will be a challenge for everyone."

For 'Les Bleus', who were at the bottom of the leaderboard, everything went exactly to plan, smashing the odds to qualify for the 1/4 Finals with the 'Navigators'! Extraordinaire!

Xavier Rohart, Mainsheet Trimmer for 'Les Bleus' tried to explain how they pulled off the comeback of the event so far:

"It's not an easy answer, for sure. With the team we had a few scenarios, and one was to push the Slovenians out on the racecourse. We tried to create the opportunity, and just at the end, the final gybe before the finish line, we succeeded in this, and everything went well for us."

Squeezing Slovenia out on the finish line was the icing on the cake, but Xavier was reluctant to take credit for this:

"We don't call it perfection, we call it chance or luck, but as we say in France 'luck smiles on the one who creates it'."

Slovenian captain Vasilij Žbogar gracefully conceded defeat:

"We tried to keep things simple towards the end, but obviously, our lack of experience was shown today from bigger teams like France, they definitely have a little bit more experience. And today, in a panic situation, we were not really able to react as a team. It's a bitter taste, because we sailed well. But we can't complain. We are a very young team and just came together this week, so I think we can leave with our heads held high."

Vasco is already looking forward to the next edition of the SSL Gold Cup:

"When it comes to match racing, we are not ready yet. But we will be ready next time."

Fleet 1, Race 4

A beautiful start, with Malaysia winning the pin, while USA at the committee boat end with pace. With an even leaderboard and double points on offer, it was anybody's guess who would make it through to the 1/4 Finals.

By the first mark, USA had gained a comfortable 17 second lead over Malaysia in second, closely followed by Hungary, then scoreboard leaders Argentina trailing in last.

The Malaysian 'Monsoon' stayed hot on the 'Golden Eagles' tail on the downwind leg, and rounded the second gate just 7 seconds behind Team USA, far more smoothly than the Americans whose kite dragged in the water.

In the third leg, Malaysia established a slight lead over USA, with Hungary coming back into contention as the three frontrunners entered a tacking duel 100 metres from the windward mark. Malaysia made it to the mark just in the nick of time to maintain their lead, with Hungary and USA only seconds behind.

While the Argentinian 'Condores' were forgotten at the back of the fleet, just metres separated the other three as they jostled for first place down the final leg. But the Malaysian 'Monsoon' managed to gybe defensively to secure the victory, only beating the Hungarian 'Shamans' by 3 seconds. Celebrations for both teams as they go through to the 1/4 Finals, while bad luck for new arrivals Teams USA and Argentina who already have to go home.

Malaysia's helm Khairulnizam Afendy was overjoyed to top the group and progress to the 1/4 Finals:

"Today I felt a bit nervous and tense, as we were losing going into the day. I think I'm used to the pressure though as I sail in the ILCA class, so I can absorb the tension. Today was just fantastic for the team, we sailed the boat as fast as we can, made less mistakes, and we did it!"

Asked if there was any moment he doubted their chances, Hungary captain Zsombor Berecz replied:

"No, there's not such a moment in sport, especially in sailing. I said to the guys before we went into this race that it was all going to happen on the last downwind and it went down exactly like that."

On facing Germany, Netherlands and Chile in the 1/4 Finals:

"It's our dream group! We are happy. We'll make it through to the next round. That's why we are here."

So after a truly breathless day which will go down in the history books, our 1/4 Finals are set. The final 8 top ranked teams enter the competition to take on our 8 qualifiers. It's difficult to see how today can be topped, but we said that after the last round!

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