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British seize early lead in 49er Europeans

Yacht Racing Podcast

British teams took the lead on both sides of the qualifying draw at the 49er European Championship on day one of the competition. With three Olympic class championships taking place alongside each other in La Grande Motte in the South of France, day one on the Mediterranean Sea hurled some difficult but exhilarating conditions at the 148 international teams.

49er Men: Fast start for Peters and Sterritt

After a lacklustre performance at the World Championships in Lanzarote a couple of months ago, James Peters and Fynn Sterritt are keen to make amends in La Grande Motte this week. Britain’s Olympic representatives for Paris 2024 opened their Europeans with a stellar day, winning races one and three of their three-heat outing in yellow group of qualifying.

“We had the boat well set up today and we were going fast,” said Peters. “I don’t think anyone knew what was going on with the wind, and when no one can work it any pattern, it generally pays to be fast. With a bit more speed it makes you feel like you’ve got a chance to have another look over your shoulder, another second to make a better decision. It makes you able to relax and get away from the other boats a bit, a bit of breathing room which makes for a much more enjoyable day’s racing.”

Only recently teamed up in a 49er together, James Grummett and Rhos Hawes created instant chemistry when they sailed to fourth place at the Worlds earlier this season. Competing on the other side of the qualifying draw from their British teammates, Grummett and Hawes notched up almost identical scores to Peters and Sterritt, also winning their first and last races of the session and taking a not-quite-so-good-but-still-very-respectable ninth in the second race.

This stunning opening day places the British teams in first and second overall ahead of a world-class field. Best of the rest were the New Zealanders Isaac McHardie and Will McKenzie. They were relieved to have come through the day in good shape after the Kiwis suffered a shaky start to their 2024 season, as McKenzie explained: “We haven’t had such a good run at other events lately so we’ve been changing a few details of how we work together and today it felt pretty good how things went in the races. Three counters on a tricky day, so we’re happy with that.”

Having missed out on Olympic selection for France despite coming to this event as the defending European Champions, Lucas Rual and Emile Amoros are back in the saddle and looking to enjoy the week.

“It’s a very hard part of Olympic sailing that only one team gets to go to the Games for each nation, but I enjoy sailing with Lucas and being with our coach, our chef and my father, and it’s nice to be back after a bit of a break from the boat. We’re sailing in France, we enjoy what we do and that’s why we do this sport, because we love it.”

They’re sitting in fourth place overall, just one place and two points ahead of the team that beat them to the Olympic spot, the recently crowned World Champions Erwan Fischer and Clement Pequin.

While the British managed to make some sense of the wildly shifting offshore breeze, the unpredictability was catching out many of the great and the good. Even the Croatian legend Sime Fantela was moved to describe the day as “a game of Snakes & Ladders”, a reference to a British board game that was particularly apt for the up-and-down nature of the racing. Brothers Sime and Mihovil sit in 13th overall but know there are plenty more snakes and ladders to come in the next five days.

49erFX: Italy take the early lead

While the wind shifts were the primary cause for concern in the men’s 49er fleet, by the time the 49erFX fleet finished a little later in the afternoon there were bigger problems to deal with. Nosedives and capsizes were proving increasingly hard to avoid in the choppy seaway and very few came ashore without having got their mast wet at some point in the three-race session.

In the absence of some of the leading 49erFX teams from Sweden, Brazil and The Netherlands, Italy’s Jana Germani and Giorgia Bertuzzi are among the favourites for a podium finish this week. The Italians scored a set of three fifth places to take the early lead ahead of Finland’s Ronja Grönblom and Veera Hokka in second overall.

The Finns won the last race of the afternoon, putting them a point in front of third-placed American veterans Steph Roble and Maggie Shea. The other race winners were Poland’s Aleksandra Melzacka and Sandra Jankowiak, and winners of the opening race, local heroes Sarah Steyaert and Charline Picon. Actually the two French friends are from La Rochelle on the Brittany coast of France, but Steyaert said that sometimes La Grande Motte can feel a bit like sailing at home on the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s nice to have the sunshine again and to be sailing on this stretch of water which can sometimes be quite wavy,” said Steyaert. A capsize in the final race of the afternoon saw the French team drop from fifth to 16th across the finish line but they’re still in fifth overall thanks to the first and ninth places earlier in the day. “The tactics were there, the onboard communication was great and we’re happy with our speed. I’m enjoying every moment, even the capsizes, because we’re coming to the end of this campaign and the end of my career in this sport.”

Nacra 17: Germany stumbles while Italy races ahead

Paul Kohlhoff and Alica Stuhlemmer opened their Nacra 17 World Championship in the best way possible, the German crew winning the first of three scheduled races in their half of the qualifying groups. But things started to go wrong in the second race, as Kohlhoff explained.

“We made a couple of silly mistakes after winning the first race and a nice battle with the Italians. The jib sheet snapped, so the jib was flapping upwind, and then an unforced error coming into the finish, gybing too soon.”

That misjudgment led to a pitchpole and subsequent capsize right before the finish line, resulting in major damage to one of the rudders and a minor injury to Kohlhoff’s leg. This put them out of action for the rest of the day, dropping the Germans to 30th overall. “I guess we were a bit overexcited,” smiled Kohlhoff, smiling ruefully before returning to a mountain of boat work and repair jobs.

After finishing second to the Germans in the opening race, Italy’s Ruggero Tita and Caterina Banti surged away to victory in the next two heats, avoiding all the pitfalls and capsizes that were engulfing other Nacra 17s. As they have shown so often over the years, the reigning Olympic and World Champions are capable of turning on an extra gear, particularly when it comes to foiling upwind.

It was also a very good day for Ida Svensson and Marcus Dackhammar whose scores of 2,1,6 from the other qualifying group place the Swedes in second overall. With the Swedish Olympic selection set to conclude after this event, Svensson and Dackhammar’s performance closes the gap on Emil Järudd and Hanna Jonsson who are in eighth place after today, albeit the points gap from second to 10th overall is tiny at this early stage.

Sitting in third after day one are the New Zealanders Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson, just two points ahead of Britain’s John Gimson and Anna Burnet in fourth overall.

With more moderate breeze blowing directly off the shore for Wednesday’s forecast, day two of qualifying is set to be another big challenge for minds and bodies in La Grande Motte.

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