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Razor-thin margins in the SSL Gold Cup Semi-Finals

by Mark Jardine & Benedict Donovan / SSL Gold Cup 2 Dec 2023 10:28 PST 10 November - 3 December 2023

With the first rainclouds we've seen in Gran Canaria since the start of the competition, this was no normal day in the SSL Gold Cup. Everyone understood it was all on the line.

Semi-Finals Day is where the last eight nations in the competition become the final four. There is no room for error, with a single race for each fleet to determine the finalists.

Show time.

The four nations lined up perfectly on starboard in the 12 knots breeze in a battle of boatspeed, with the British 'Spitfires' squeezed between the 'Dutch Lions' and Italy's 'Gladiators', while the 'Brazilian Storm' were slightly separated to the left.

The onboard cameras were just showing feet as every sailor was hiked over the side, trying to power the SSL 47 yachts to the maximum.

It was nearly six minutes before we saw the first tack, with 'Brazilian Storm' crossing over first, having to duck the 'Gladiators' and 'Spitfires', while the 'Dutch Lions' followed suit and also tacked away. The Italian and British teams delayed until they were near the port lay line.

The 'Dutch Lions' showed a turn of speed to move ahead of the 'Brazilian Storm', as the 'Gladiators' started to control the 'Spitfires'. Could the top two break away and seal a place in the Final?

The 'Dutch Lions' rounded first with the 'Gladiators' having to make a huge last-minute duck on port, tacking just in front of the 'Brazilian Storm' with the 'Spitfires' on their tail in last.

Downwind the powerful yachts were surfing the waves, testing the trimmers and grinders to the limit. Brazil went left, Great Britain went right, while Italy and the leading Netherlands team went down the middle.

When the 'Dutch Lions' gybed on to starboard they forced the 'Gladiators' across with them, bringing the 'Brazilian Storm' and 'Spitfires' back into the game. The teams evenly split at the leeward gate; The Netherlands and Great Britain choosing the offshore right hand side of the upwind leg, while Italy and Brazil went inshore.

The 'Spitfires' then tacked on to starboard in a lift, forcing 'Brazilian Storm' to tack away. In the increased swell each manoeuvre was proving costly, and this engagement came at the price of vital metres, handing the initiative back to the 'Dutch Lions' and 'Gladiators'.

The Italian 'Gladiators' took the lead, tacking on top of the 'Dutch Lions', but the top two had pulled out a 100 metre lead over the 'Spitfires' and 'Brazilian Storm' at the final windward mark.

The 'Spitfires' had 19 seconds to make up on the final downwind leg, but the 'Dutch Lions' gybed away early - would this open the door for a comeback?

The Netherlands team gybed in towards the finish with 500 metres to go, Italy just ahead of them, and the 'Gladiators' and 'Dutch Lions' surfed across the finish line and into the final.

Italian tactician Vasco Vascotto admitted that their upwind choices weren't in the initial plan:

"I promise you, the reality is that I prefer to take the right, but we decided not to play the committee boat end. I think that we managed our time on distance really well on the line. The other call is that we had space to leeward in order to sail the boat fast and we had enough separation from the Brazilians - that was one of the keys.

"I didn't take the risk to cross in front during the first beat at the top mark with the Dutch. I made the call too late possibly, and that is where we lost a few metres compared to the other guys, but then after that I think that we sailed the boat fast."

Things on board also weren't incident free, as Vasco explained:

"We had a little problem in the manoeuvres at the bottom mark and we also lost a person overboard. On the first downwind, [trimmer] Stefano Ciampalini lost control and went in the water, but we grabbed him just in time to get him back inside the boat. At a certain point I was worried that we would have his team jersey on board and the man in the water, but luckily we took care of both!"

Bart Lambriex, The Netherlands' tactician said:

"We lacked a little bit of boat speed over the last few days, but we made some improvements today, and these conditions definitely suited us well.

"This is crazy. We were never expecting to get this far to be honest. We've gradually been getting better, but we haven't won a race yet, so hopefully we can do it tomorrow!"

Ian Williams, Captain of Great Britain was philosophical in defeat:

"After the Dutch tacked off I felt that we hit a bad set of waves and we really struggled to recover after that. You only need to lose that one or two lengths, and from then you're on the back foot, there aren't many passing lanes out there."

"I'm really proud of the guys, we kept fighting, we managed to get past the Brazilians, but obviously the lead two just got that little jump, and it was very hard to then come back into it. That's how it goes in knockout sailing."

On the two finalists Ian added:

"It was a fantastic job by both of them. They obviously got their boats locked in and going fast. Congratulations to them and good luck for the final."

Robert Scheidt, Captain of Brazil talked about the crucial choice they had on the first upwind leg:

"We had a conversation on board as we had two options: go all the way to the lay line and then be pinned on the lay line or take an early tack, duck a few boats and try to squeeze in and create a situation. The duck looked like it was the right thing to do, but in the end the Dutch squeezed us and we had to sail the boat high and slow for two minutes, and that put us on the back foot."

On the final Robert shared these thoughts:

"The Italian guys have been sailing together for a long time and are a very, very strong and experienced team. It looks like they and the Spanish are the favourites, but the Dutch are very energised and I think they're going to give it a good shot."

After a cagey line up the Hungarian 'Shamans' had the best start at the committee boat end with pace, the French 'Les Bleus' were in the middle and New Zealand's 'Guardians' winning the pin, but it was a terrible start for the home nation Spain, in the fleet's disturbed wind and late.

The Spanish 'La Armada' team tacked early on to port, hitching up 200 metres to try and get back in the game, while 'Les Bleus' were also forced to tack away after falling into the 'Shamans' cover.

With the rain clouds coming through, there was a big drop in the wind, followed by a left wind shift, resulting in the 'Guardians' and 'Shamans' reaching on port into the windward mark with 'La Armada' just behind. 'Les Bleus', who had gone right, were 600 metres behind at the windward mark and out of contention.

Disaster then struck for New Zealand's 'Guardians', who pulled their spinnaker pole out early and were awarded a 360 degree penalty, dropping them from first to third. Advantage to the 'Shamans' and 'La Armada'.

The 'Shamans' executed a perfect spinnaker drop in the rainy conditions at the leeward gate, with 'La Armada' choosing the left buoy in second and the 'Guardians' following the same upwind course as the Hungarians.

At the first cross 'La Armada' had caught right up to the 'Shamans', tacking on top of them and forcing the Hungarian team back on to starboard. Every tack was causing the yachts to slow, but with the shifting wind, being in the right place at the right time was key. The 'Shamans' couldn't afford to separate too far from 'La Armada' and the 'Guardians' so later tacked back on to port, trying to protect their qualifying position.

As the Hungarians returned on port to meet the Spanish and New Zealand teams it couldn't have been closer, with the 'Shamans' splitting the two and just 6 seconds separating the three at the windward mark.

The Spanish 'La Armada' team led the fleet downwind, but it was so tight between the Hungarian 'Shamans' and New Zealand's 'Guardians', with just a couple of metres separating them.

The Spanish executed a perfect gybe into the finish line, with Hungary holding off New Zealand to seal the second qualifying spot. Wild celebrations erupted on board both yachts, especially the Hungarian 'Shamans' who have been in the competition since the 1/16 Finals.

Spanish grinder Elas Aretz spoke after racing about his team's win:

"I'm really happy. It was really good work by the team, and we just need to keep going! The start was tough, but the race is long, so we knew we had some chances - we just needed to keep it tight and make it happen."

Hungarian helm Robert Bakoczy was elated to make it through:

"What a race! It was really hard conditions out there because when the wind dropped down it was crazy in these waves. It was so stressful going upwind, but downwind it was super-fun catching the waves and surfing with them. I'm still so full of adrenaline!"

Nick Egnot-Johnson, helm for New Zealand, talked about their penalty and the moment that perhaps cost them the race:

"Going in today, we knew exactly what we needed to do. It's a really tough format, you have to be top two in one race to go through. At the start we were really happy with how we were sailing, but obviously it was a bit tricky coming into the top mark. There was some miscommunication, and a simple mistake."

Nick is acutely aware that, at this stage, there is no room for error:

"The level of everyone here is just so high, one small mistake and you're out the back."

When asked whether they had an unlucky windshift, French captain Xavier Rohart replied:

"No, it was nothing about luck. We had the plan and the afterguard just forgot it. The wind changed a lot along with big waves, so they were a bit unconfident. It's incredibly frustrating. We said things before and when you don't do it, it's only our fault. The other important races, they were exactly on plan and did the things very efficiently. And suddenly in this one it fell apart."

Despite being out of the competition, Xavier can't wait to see which country takes the SSL Gold Cup title tomorrow:

"I'll be watching the final tomorrow with a lot of passion, because it's an incredible format and we have only very, very good teams left. It will be a big fight, and I have no doubt that the best team will win."

This elimination format semi-final provided drama and excitement in abundance, captivating spectators on the livestream and had those in the Race Village on their fleet, cheering and gasping as fortunes ebbed and flowed.

It's now down to the last. Tomorrow, Italy's 'Gladiators', The Netherlands' 'Dutch Lions', Hungary's 'Shamans' and Spain's 'La Armada' face each other on the water for one final race to decide the team that will lift the SSL Gold Cup for the first time and be crowned the World Champion of Sailing Nations.

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


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