Age seems to have less and less to do with success in sailing, even if the fitness levels continue to climb. The latest impressive example of this is Geoff Carveth almost winning the most competitive Solo National Championships of recent years. Now in his 50s but still as fit as a butcher’s dog, Geoff went into the final day at Hayling Island in the lead and normally in those high pressure situations he comes out on top. Not this time though, as Geoff failed to find a way through to the front, leaving the younger guns to battle it out, with Charley Cumbley just edging Andy Tunnicliffe for the title, and Geoff settling for third overall.
There would have been a wonderful symmetry to Geoff’s near-victory in 2013, as it would have come exactly 30 years after his first Solo national title in 1983, which he dominated to win on the very same waters of Hayling Bay. What an incredible lifespan at the top of the sport.
If 30 years at the top of the national game is impressive, then maybe 20 years at Olympic level is equally so. That’s where Robert Scheidt is headed, the legendary five-time Olympic medallist from Brazil who is now, at the age of 40, reacquainting himself with the Laser after almost a decade of Star sailing. I got the chance to talk to Robert while in Kiel where he finished runner-up to Germany’s 24-year-old Philipp Buhl in a competitive international fleet, most full of sailors half his age. Not only is the body not as willing as it used to be, but now married with two young sons, he has less time for training too.
“When I was 23 and all my energy, my fitness, I could push hard for days and days without getting tired but I was also a very anxious sailor, I was making a lot more mistakes,” Robert told me. “I wasn’t starting so well. So I was making a lot more mistakes on the race course than I do today. But I had the fitness side on my advantage and I think in those days also, except for Ben Ainslie and maybe Michael Blackburn, people did not do it as professionally as people are these days. Now the top 20 guys in the world are full time sailors, they have coaches, they have analysed every part of their performance, they have videos, it is much more professional.”
Mentally, Robert believes his 40-year-old self is much stronger, however. “I think I can hold pressure much better after so many big events, and big decisions on the last day. Dealing with pressure is a big part of the game. When you have been through many situations before you don’t have all the answers, but you have almost all the answers.”
Someone who continues to have all the answers in the 505 class is Dr Wolfgang Hunger who, with his crew Julien Kleiner, won Kiel Week for something like the 20th time. Wolfgang still has a bright blue steel in his eyes that shows he has lost none of the passion, drive or determination for success that he showed in the 80s and 90s when he was at the top of the 470 class, winning three world titles and widely acknowledged as one of the finest sailors never to have won an Olympic medal.
I was doing TV commentary at Kiel Week with America’s Cup commentator from New Zealand, Peter Lester, and Marcus Baur, a former 49er European Champion who now works for Sailing Team Germany. Watching the 50-something Doctor Hunger take apart the 505 fleet was impressive. He didn’t have it all his own way by any means, but downwind he had an extra turn of pace as well as picking some great angles. The addition of a bigger kite a few years ago to the Five-Oh has turned into a virtual asymmetric racer and it’s amazing to see how similar the tactics are to skiff racing. Hunger has adapted better than anyone.
After a brief spell reporting in Sweden at the Stena Swedish Match Cup it was back to the TV commentary with Peter and Marcus, this time for the final few days of the SAP 49er & 49er FX European Championships. The Europeans was an opportunity for the class to experiment with a new race format. On the day we started commentating, the men’s and women’s fleet had been whittled down to 32 on a medium-sized course, then the final 16 on a smaller course for the penultimate day, and then just the final 8 for three double-points races on a very short, 500-metre course limited on each side by a rope boundary. Not only did the spectators love it, particularly the locals seeing the Danish girls Ida Neilsen and Marie Olsen win the inaugural 49er FX European Championship on home waters, but the sailors seemed to enjoy it too. In the light winds it was not nearly as processional as I had feared, and in the strong winds at the conclusion of Kiel Week, there was lots of capsizing and place changing throughout the races.
There is a lot of scepticism around some of the experimentation going on in Olympic formats at the moment, and rightly so. But the 49er fleet might be on to something here, something that might fulfil the demands of the International Olympic Committee to make the racing engaging to watch, but without turning the result into a total lottery. The Danish girls were certainly the class act in the FX, and few would argue that the Olympic silver medallists from New Zealand, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, were the class act in the men’s 49er, even if Britain’s own Dylan Fletcher and Alain Sign pushed them all the way to the final race. Provided the right people are still winning, the format is worth further investigation.
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