Five of this year’s World Champions from the Hempel Sailing World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, are set to compete in the Star Sailors League Finals this December in the Bahamas.
Three of the five have competed in Nassau before, Pavlos Kontides (Laser, Cyprus) in 2015, and Šime Fantela (49er, Croatia) in 2016. Zsombor Berecz (Finn, Hungary) also competed in 2016, crewing for his friend, the three-time Olympic medallist from Slovenia, Vasilij Žbogar. As for the other two, they are set to compete in the 25-boat Star fleet for the first time: Kevin Peponnet (470, France) and Ruggero Tita (Nacra 17, Italy).
Three of these world class sailors come from small sailing nations, and are used to punching above their weight. They aren’t easily intimidated, not even by the likes of big name legends such as Paul Cayard, Lars Grael and Freddy Loof.
Kontides has become a hero of his country since becoming the first Cypriot medal winner in any Olympic sport when he took silver in the Laser fleet at the London 2012 Games. The 28-year-old has since gone on to win the Laser World Championships in 2017 and again this season in Aarhus.
In similar fashion, Šime Fantela has overcome any small-nation disadvantage, forging a spectacular career in the 470 class that resulted in the Croatian dominating the 2016 season with his friend and sailing partner Igor Marenić, and which culminated in a dominant gold medal performance at Rio 2016. Since then, Šime has teamed up with his brother Mihovil and in the space of just 18 months has mastered the challenge of the 49er skiff to win the World Championship earlier this year. It’s an incredible feat of transformation, proving that Šime Fantela is one of the best sailors of the modern era.
Aarhus also threw up another surprise in the Finn class when Zsombor Berecz became the first ever Hungarian to win gold at a Sailing World Championships. Unlike Kontides and Fantela, this will be Berecz’s first time helming in the Star Sailors League Finals, although traditionally Finn sailors have proven very adaptable to the two-man hiking keelboat. His experience crewing for Zbogar two years ago will have been a useful introduction to the SSL.
Kevin Peponnet has been knocking on the door of the top tier in the 470 fleet, but this year the Frenchman sailed out of his skin to beat the favourites and take a world title won by his uncle, Thierry Peponnet, back in 1986. Now Kevin hopes to emulate his uncle at Tokyo 2020, to see if he can win an Olympic medal like the bronze Thierry won in 1984, or the gold he won in 1988.
After a 49er campaign for Rio 2016 where he finished 14th for Italy, Ruggero Tita has found a boat that really suits his aggressive style. Utterly fearless, Tita drives the foiling Nacra 17 catamaran faster than anyone else right now, having won just about every major event on the Olympic circuit in 2018. Will he be able to carry those winning ways into the slower pace of Star racing? Last year, his British Nacra rival Ben Saxton proved to be one of the most adaptable sailors in Nassau, steering the Star to 8th despite no prior experience in the boat.
Of course Paul Goodison was another Star class rookie who went on to win the ultimate prize last year, beating his former Laser class rival Robert Scheidt by just 1 second in the winner-takes-all four-boat final. Kontides draws great encouragement from the performance of Goodison, the 2008 Olympic Champion from Great Britain and reigning Moth World Champion.
“It was really nice for the sport to see someone from outside of the Star class win it. I know that Goodie did some training before, but what he did is not comparable with the years that the Star sailors spend speed testing and training. The format of racing at the Star Sailor League Finals really allows everyone to be competitive, because the races are shorter than they are at the Star World Championship and starts are really crucial.”
One sailor who got to grips with the SSL format very quickly was Fantela. He won three of the last five Qualifying races in 2016 and went on to finish 10th overall, crewed by fellow Croatian Antonio Arapovic. “I love the format, I love the venue, and you get to sail against the legends. The Star is really tactical, so you fight your opponent with your brain, not just with your muscles although you have to be strong and hike a lot. If you win, for sure it was not luck.”
Will this be the year for Fantela or one of the other heroes of Aarhus to round off their year with victory in Nassau? Goodison proved what is possible. It will be fascinating to watch it play out at the Star Sailors League Finals, taking place from 4 to 8 December.