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Tough & Tempestuous Golden Day in the SSL Gold Cup 1/4 Finals

by Mark Jardine & Benedict Donovan / SSL Gold Cup 30 Nov 2023 12:44 PST 10 November - 3 December 2023

The 1/4 Finals started in a calm manner, but came to a crescendo early on Thursday in Gran Canaria.

The golden double points finale started in the highest, gustiest and shiftiest winds seen so far in the SSL Gold Cup, but settled into a more stable rhythm soon after.

Fleet 2, Race 4, Take 1

What a way to start the day! Qualification to the semifinals was on the line with Hungary, Germany and The Netherlands separated by only 2 points.

Crashing through the waves, Germany started beautifully, flanked by The Netherlands and Hungary, while Chile only just squeezed round the pin end of the line.

With some powerful gusts, these were full-on, hard conditions, with the mainsails regularly spilling wind, trying to depower, testing the skill of the sailors to the absolute limit.

The German 'Unbreakables' looked to be controlling the race when a massive windshift left them head-to-wind, handing the 'Dutch Lions' the lead, but the wind was swinging so wildly it was becoming impossible to sail.

The unstable conditions left the race committee with no option but to abandon the race, and the fleet was sent back to restart.

Fleet 2, Race 4, Take 2

It took two hours for the wind to settle, but finally we were back under way again soon after 1pm in a calmer 10 knots from the opposite direction. At the start Germany were squeezed out by Hungary at the committee boat end, while Chile started mid-line, with The Netherlands at the pin.

Excellent speed helped the German 'Unbreakables' squeeze out from beneath the Hungarian 'Shamans' to clear their air, with all four teams powering out on starboard in a drag race to the left hand side of the course for the first five minutes.

The 'Unbreakables' rounded the windward mark first, but their fine work on the upwind leg was all undone when they pulled their spinnaker pole out too early and had to complete a penalty, dropping them to the back of the fleet. At this point the 'Shamans' and 'Dutch Lions' filled the qualifying spots.

While the 'Shamans' were calm and composed at the leeward gate, Chile's 'Finis Terrae Sailors' had problems with the jib hoist and the 'Unbreakables' were untidy with the spinnaker drop, which all played to the 'Dutch Lions' advantage, moving them up to second in the race and firming up their qualification spot.

With the Germans on the attack, The Netherlands kept a close cover on them, defending their spot with vigour in a tense tacking duel, before taking a huge gamble, going left while the German and Chilean teams went right. Would this prove to be a huge mistake?

As Hungary rounded with a comfortable lead, the three other teams were neck and neck on the final mark rounding. The second qualification spot would all be decided on the downwind leg to the finish!

The 'Dutch Lions' luffed the 'Unbreakables' but then both teams fluffed their spinnaker hoists and split gybes. On equal points, it was all going to come down to which side paid. While the wind was dropping, heart rates were hitting the red line as the tacticians looked for the best breeze as the two teams converged.

As the Hungarian 'Shamans' won the race and qualified top, the 'Dutch Lions' crossed ahead of the 'Unbreakables'. Chile's 'Finis Terrae Sailors' finished second, but The Netherlands sealed the second qualification spot by finishing 9 seconds ahead of the Germans. Such are the margins between success and failure in the SSL Gold Cup.

Hungarian helm Robert Bakoczy was relieved to seal qualification for the semifinals:

"The first part of the race, just after the start, we had a disadvantage as we didn't have the speed, and he had to adjust our setup quickly. As we progressed we got faster and faster, and on the second upwind we went right and all we wanted then was to control the fleet."

Dutch helm Nicholas Heiner was smiling from ear to ear after their close battle:

"When the Germans were leading at the top mark and we were last we thought 'we've got a bit on here', but luckily Bart (Lambriex) called a really good gybe set in a right shift, so straight away we were bow forward, and of course the last lee-bow tack at the top mark put us in a really strong position, knowing we could luff them.

"After that last cross on the downwind the relief finally came, knowing we'd done it. It's a great feeling and I'm happy the team is continuing to move forward, but we've still got another two rounds and the competition is only going to get tougher."

Fleet 3, Race 4

In another fleet with a tight points situation, an aggressive prestart saw Brazil trying to control the fleet. New Zealand were under pressure early and had to restart due to being over the line at the start. The 'Brazilian Storm' led Australia's 'Boxing Kangaroos' and Portugal's 'Navigators' out to the left, with New Zealand's 'Guardians' rolling the dice heading right, trying to make gains after their poor start.

The 'Guardians' clearly rolled double sixes, going from last by a long way to rounding the windward mark on the tail of the 'Brazilian Storm', getting themselves right back into the picture for qualification.

At the leeward gate New Zealand had overtaken Brazil, with Australia and Portugal battling for third, with Portugal choosing an alternate route, splitting left while the other three went right, which proved a bad call for the 'Navigators', effectively pushing them out of contention for a qualifying spot.

Going into the final downwind leg, New Zealand held their lead from Brazil, with Australia close behind. As things stood, Brazil would be joined by New Zealand in the semifinals, just a single point ahead of Australia, but with the 'Roos' splitting from the 'Brazilian Storm' and 'Guardians' anything could happen.

As the Australian team came in on starboard, New Zealand were clear, but the 'Roos' had caught Brazil, forcing them to gybe. In an extraordinary photo finish, reminiscent of the Tokyo 2020 49er Medal Race, Brazil's bow crossed the finish line millimetres ahead of the Australians, sealing Brazil and New Zealand's place in the semifinals. The margin between success and failure had incredibly become even tighter.

The odds were totally stacked against New Zealand, but helm Nick Egnot-Johnson said they had a plan: "Going into today we knew it was going to be tough, but we had a chat about it last night and figured out what we had to do. With the double points it was still achievable, so we pushed as hard as we could. The whole team was sailing amazingly, everybody was just putting absolutely everything into it, and we managed to get across Brazil at the end, so we're pretty stoked!"

When asked if he thought 'Brazilian Storm' could go all the way, main trimmer André Fonseca is keeping a level head:

"We are very happy to be building the team during the event, and I'm looking forward to the next round. But it's race by race, you know, it's hard. Sometimes you start well and sometimes not, so it's important to stay focused on the next race, and sail all races like it's the final."

Fleet 4, Race 4

With Switzerland and Italy on equal points, this race was all between the 'Helvetic Lakers' and the 'Gladiators' to make it through to the semifinals.

The teams lined up perfectly for a clear start with Switzerland's 'Helvetic Lakers' on the pin and Italy's 'Gladiators' at the committee boat end, and the first to tack away on to port. Meanwhile, the Spain 'La Armada' team sat above the Lithuanian 'Ambers'.

The 'La Armada' team took the early lead from the 'Gladiators' with the 'Ambers' and 'Helvetic Lakers' battling for third.

At the leeward gate the two leaders split, with the 'Gladiators' again going right and 'La Armada' choosing the left. The Italian route worked, pulling out a 90 metre lead over the Spanish. As it stood Spain would qualify with 17 points with Italy just behind on 16, but both well ahead of the Swiss and Lithuanian teams.

At the last moment, Lithuania's 'Ambers' managed to slip ahead of the Swiss to take third, but apart from that, the race ended up being unusually uneventful for a golden double points race. Spain and Italy made qualification look relatively straightforward, particularly 'La Armada' who sailed a near-flawless round on 19 points.

Spain's Silvia Mas said on another win for the team:

"In the end, it wasn't that easy! We had a good battle with the Italian team, and it was a tricky race with a big boat in the middle of the course. But we had a lot of fun, and we are super proud and happy to sail at home in the Canary Islands."

Italian captain and tactician Vasco Vascotto says they need to gear themselves up for the next round:

"It was not that easy, let's just say that. We did a quite nice job, but I still think we can improve because we made a couple of little mistakes. And now it's becoming very tough!"

Fleet 1, Race 4

With Great Britain effectively qualified, and Denmark out, the focus was all on the battle between the Malaysian 'Monsoon' and French 'Les Bleus' with just a single point separating them in the ranking. France inflicted a penalty on Malaysia in the pre-start, giving 'Les Bleus' the initiative from the off.

The 'Monsoon' started late on port after their penalty, and 'Les Bleus' immediately tacked, ducking the 'Danish Dynamite' to keep a close cover on the Malaysian team.

With the British 'Spitfires' in their customary lead, Malaysia put in an early gybe on the first downwind leg which the French mirrored, but 200 metres apart, giving the 'Monsoon' a chance to sneak through.

When Malaysia gybed to re-engage with the French, they had closed right on to the tail of 'Les Bleus'. As the wind decreased and the sun went down, the battle for the last semifinal place was on.

The French pulled out a 27 lead at the leeward gate, with Malaysia crucially just behind Denmark, which handed control back to 'Les Bleus', who once again kept a close cover on the 'Monsoon'.

Maintaining their advantage, 'Les Bleus' were briefly held up by the 'Danish Dynamite' having spinnaker trouble, which again allowed the 'Monsoon' to split gybes. Could the Malaysians find a route through in the dying breeze? 'Les Bleus' were taking no chances though, gybing twice to put themselves in line with the 'Monsoon' yacht.

As Great Britain's 'Spitfires' recorded a perfect 20 in the 1/4 Finals, the 'Monsoon' again gybed away in a desperate move to overtake 'Les Bleus', but the French held strong to finish second in the race and seal qualification to the semifinals.

The Malaysian 'Monsoon' progressed through the 1/32 Finals, the 1/16 Finals and the 1/8 Finals, but the quarterfinal is where their superb campaign in the SSL Gold Cup came to an end. They have captured the hearts of the Malaysian nation, all the way up to the King himself, as well as collecting fans around the world, and will no doubt come back stronger in future events.

Great Britain's Kate Macgregor said after their perfect round:

"I wouldn't say it's easy! Watching the races beforehand they were all really close, and we've had tricky conditions all week, so you definitely have to stay on your toes. It looks like we're going to be in quite a hard group in the semifinals, so it's all going to be hard at this next stage, but we're looking forward to it!"

French trimmer Hugo Studler describing their showdown with Malaysia:

"We have a great helm [François Brenac], a really great match racer, who's also helmed in the America's Cup. So yesterday we did a briefing and it was quite clear that we wanted to kill them at the start, to do whatever we could to try to put the penalty on them from the start. So that's what we did.

"And then it was still tough because they were super fast on the downwind. On the two legs they came back, so it was just a race of trying to make sure that we were faster and that we were protecting the racecourse and doing better manoeuvres than them. They fought all the way, but we managed to control them through to the finish line.

"We're really happy going into the next round. Now it's just a bonus I would say, to go into the semifinal, raise our level and sail the best that we can. If we can manage to do that, that would be great."

In the evening at the 1/4 Finals Closing Ceremony, Regatta Director Paul Hutton-Ashkenny summed up the feeling of everyone by saying that each round we have incredible drama, only to be surprised when the next round surpasses it. We can only imagine what the semifinals will bring on Saturday.

Follow us LIVE each day as we present you with all the latest SSL Gold Cup news from on and off the water:


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