Roll Tacks September 2011

Variety is the spice of life, and maybe it's also the spice of sailing success. The starkest example of this was at the Olympic Test Regatta in Weymouth at the end of August when, for a good chunk of the week, Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez were leading the 49ers and ended up with a silver medal. The Spanish finished on equal points with the eventual winners, Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, but lost out to the Aussies on countback.

Iker and Xabi are perhaps the most decorated skiff racers in the Olympic skiff. A gold and silver medal from the last two Olympics, and reigning World Champions. But that world championship win was more than 18 months earlier in early 2010. Going into Weymouth they hadn't raced the 49er since then. Instead they've raced around the world together in the doublehanded Barcelona Race, in which they finished second and beat many offshore veterans with loads more experience in that branch of the sport.
 
Immediately after finishing the Barcelona Race last Spring, they immersed themselves in the Telefonica Volvo Ocean Race campaign, of which Iker is also the skipper. So, plenty of sailing, but nothing that bears much resemblance to sailing a 16-foot twin-trapeze skiff.
 
Yes, they did put in 10 days of training to reacquaint themselves with the quirks of the 49er, but considering how windy the Test Regatta was, it was a phenomenal piece of sailing to come right back in at the top of their game.

Few have got close to the Australian team in the past few years, with the odd exception of Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes who took gold off Outteridge/Jensen at the Delta Lloyd Regatta earlier this summer. So for the Spanish to have matched the current top dogs after an 18-month lay-off makes you wonder if this Spanish team will be selected for the Games next year.

Of course they will, you might be thinking. As obvious a selection as, say, Ben Ainslie for our own Olympic team. But bearing in mind that Iker and Xabi will barely have a month between the end of the Volvo Race and the start of the Olympics, it will require a rapid transformation of physique and mindset, let alone getting used to the 49er again.

When I spoke to Iker earlier in the year, he really wasn't expecting to do the Olympics next summer, but after this performance, you wouldn't bet against it.
 
Then there is Nathan Outteridge who has been racing SB3s at the Worlds in Torbay with his mate Tom Slingsby, the Laser World Champion. And at the beginning of the year Nathan won the Moth World Championship.

The Aussies and Spanish are two great examples of when sailors pursue diverse careers within the sport, they often get better at the core part of their career as well.

For the Brits, it's not so easy, as one ex-49er competitor told me. With the constant pressure of needing to justify your place in an already overcrowded 49er squad (before it was recently pared back), there's a feeling that you can never step away from any of the major regattas. Getting so single-focused leaves sailors at risk of losing sight of the bigger picture, and emotionally it means they're putting all their eggs in one basket.

It's great to see the new America's Cup World Series offering an escape valve for the lucky few that get picked for AC45 sailing. At the other end of the scale, 470 crew Stuart Bithell is a great example of a Skandia Team GBR squad sailor who regularly throws himself back into national competition. Last year Stu won the Merlin Nationals and this year he's been seen competing in the ultra-competitive RS200 fleet.

Talking of Merlins, and talking of a variety of challenges, multiple champion Geoff Carveth turned his hand to the Merlin Nationals this year. Sailing with Graham Williamson, Geoff won the first two races at Hayling Island. He finished the third race in third place but was found to have been over the line on a black flag start.

However it was while standing at the urinals, idly chatting about the day's racing when Geoff heard that he hadn't been spotted from the committee boat end of the line, but from the pin end, even though Geoff believed he was well obscured by other boats that hadn't been called over.

When Geoff asked to hear the tapes of the starting procedure from the committee boats, there was no clear evidence that Geoff had been over after all. After much deliberation and debate, the protest committee eventually decided to give Geoff redress by way of average points for all other races in the series.

Geoff was surprised that his 3rd place from that race wasn't reinstated, but was in shock at having successfully gained redress at all. "I could have understood average points if they had pulled us out of the race at the windward mark, but they didn't, so I thought they would have reinstated our finishing position, the 3rd place."

However, after Geoff and Graham had won race four the next day, average points on three bullets was looking pretty nice. Three bullets had now turned into four. Others in the fleet weren't happy and protested Geoff's successful seeking of redress.

In race 5, Geoff finished 4th, and if his 3rd place had stood from race 3, he would have won the Nationals with a day to spare. Still, another day, another dollar, and Geoff would just need a good final race to secure victory.

On the other hand Andy ‘Taxi' Davis and Tom Pygall who were lying in 2nd overall, had one final chance to knock Geoff and Graham off top spot. That would be if they could match race their rivals down the fleet. If they could do that, it would ramp up the average score and leave Geoff counting a bigger number from race 3. A big ask, but Taxi and Tom gave it a go.

Taxi (so called due to some ears that used to stick out like taxi doors - Andy says the rest of his head has since grown to catch up with his ears) commented on his match race in the pre-start: "Geoff made it quite a bit easier for us by sailing beyond the pin end of the start line, so he made it hard for himself." This meant Geoff would have to get back to the line on the vulnerable port tack. In match racing terms, this is a schoolboy error. This side of the start box in a match race is known as ‘coffin corner', because once you go there, you're dead. "I haven't done much of this kind of stuff, so I realise now that I might have made it easier on myself if I'd started at the committee boat," said Geoff ruefully.

As it was, the boys from Blithfield tied the Hayling Island crew up in knots, pegging them to the back of the fleet and racking up the score on those average points. Geoff needed to be knocked back to 27th or worse for Taxi and Tom to take the title. As it was they took the Hayling crew back to 37th. This increased the average points on race 3 to 8.8 points. Geoff and Graham finished the series with 52.8 points, Taxi and Tom won the Nationals with 52 points. This is the second Nationals Taxi has won this season, the other crewing for Tom Jeffcoate to win the Scorpions.

Geoff was not happy with the way in which the championship was decided, but respected the fact that Taxi and Tom did such a thorough job on him. In a tight battle for a championship, not many get one over on Geoff Carveth, otherwise known as ‘Half Man, Half Boat'. When it was a race-off for the SB3 Worlds earlier this year between Geoff Carveth's crew and Rob Greenhalgh's team, even a pro-racer like Rob came off second best.

Still, on this occasion, it was Geoff that had to settle for second best. Not bad for a first assault on the Merlin Nationals, but disappointing after such a dominant week. Is this the right way for fleet racing championships to be decided? I don't think so. Over the past few Olympics, we've seen British heroes like Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and Paul Goodison all apply thoroughly ruthless match racing tactics on their closest rival to make sure the gold medal was secure. It has left some silver medallists being relegated to bronze, while another sailor has been able to race clear to win the silver.

I don't blame our Olympic stars for being so ruthless, and nor do I blame Taxi and Tom at the Merlins. Within the rules, you do what you do. Taxi points out that there was nothing personal involved. "I would have done the same thing whoever it was," he said. "I've been on the wrong end of the same thing myself, like at the Solo Nationals. It's hard, but it's part of the game."

The protest committee at Hayling probably could not have been expected to predict the can of worms that their decision opened at this year's Merlin Champs. But open a can of worms it did. And the lid isn't closed yet. Geoff is appealing the decision with the RYA. If his 3rd place in race 3 is reinstated, then Geoff would win the Merlin Nationals after all. Doubtless that will leave a bad taste in the mouth for some in the Merlin fleet. But as we've already seen, Merlin sailors take their racing as seriously as the Olympians.

 



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