Having been rather tough on the Medal Race format in my previous column, I have to confess it really did come up trumps for the 49er Men at Kiel Week. So often the gold medal is wrapped up before the final day, but at Kiel, nine out of the ten teams went into the final race with a shot at gold.
Pete Burling and Blair Tuke have made an impressive comeback to the 49er fleet since winning the 2017 America’s Cup and so very nearly winning the Volvo Ocean Race in 2018. They have already won the mostly windy 49er European Championships in Weymouth this season and were leading at Kiel for a good chunk of the week. However when the breeze dropped light, the famous Kiwis didn’t look any worse than anyone else, but they didn’t look any better either.
Burling and Tuke went into the Medal Race in fifth overall and while the fortunes of different teams ebbed and flowed they moved briefly up into podium contention before slipping back to fifth overall again. Not a disaster by any means, but it’s a chink in their cloak of invincibility which proved impenetrable during the four years leading up to Rio 2016.
It was another Kiwi duo, Logan Dunning Beck and Oscar Gunn, who took gold in Kiel. This young team beat Burling and Tuke at the New Zealand National Championships at the start of the year and they are looking like a real threat.
Of course they’ll need to be beating the reigning Olympic Champions consistently to have even a sniff of displacing Burling and Tuke from the Olympic berth for Tokyo 2020. These aren’t the only high-performing alternative to the big guns; New Zealand seem to be conjuring top-quality skiff crews out of thin air right now. Being based on the other side of the planet from the epicentre of the Olympic circuit, the Kiwi ‘niner squad is proving what can be achieved if everyone pools their knowledge and experience and trains intensively together.
It’s reminiscent of the 1980s when New Zealand ruled the world in 470 racing, not least with the three-time World Champions David Barnes and Hamish Willcox who pioneered the whole concept of raking the mast to depower the rig – a ground-breaking innovation that pretty much every competitive dinghy sailor takes for granted today. Willcox has been Burling and Tuke’s coach for the past few years, no doubt Willcox has been keen to pass down that spirit of innovation which continues to be a key part of Kiwi success, just as it has been for Emirates Team New Zealand.
The learning curve remains very steep in the Nacra 17 class, and commentating on the mark roundings at Kiel Week it was notable just how differently the crews approach the bear-away. One of the top-ranked teams, Vittorio Bissaro and Maelle Frascari, seem to be all about keeping the boat hydrofoiling consistently through the bear-away, with the crew Frascari waiting to run in to choose her moment to start the gennaker hoist.
Other teams send in the crew to stand on the trampoline and get into hoisting the kite as quickly as possible, even if it means dropping off the foils. The top Austrian team keeps both sailors on the trapeze throughout the manoeuvre, with Thomas Zajac steering while Barbara Matz hoists without ever stepping off the side of the boat (see below).
In the breezier weather, the local crew of Paul Kohlhoff and Alica Stuhlemmer looked like the fastest through the water. At one point they were neck and neck with a Spanish crew for the lead but in a lifting gust on the upwind leg, Kohlhoff and Stuhlemmer stepped back in unison, kicked the Nacra up on to its foils and added an extra 5 knots of boatspeed for no discernible loss of pointing ability. They put 200 metres of distance on the Spaniards in less than a couple of minutes.
It begs the question why we don’t see the Nacra 17s foiling more often upwind, but Kohlhoff says if you get your timing wrong you can end up giving away a lot of height (pointing height, not height above the water) for no gain whatsoever.
Some of the teams are frustrated that the Nacra 17 is basically only a downwind foiler, whilst low-riding is still the most common way upwind. Actually I think it makes things more interesting. Watching the AC50s – and now the F50s – foiling non-stop all the way around the race course was exciting for a while, but then it all starts to look very ‘samey’.
There’s not much of a difference watching a foiler go upwind or downwind, whereas the two modes on a Nacra 17 are very distinct, and more interesting in my opinion. Having that occasional silver bullet of upwind foiling is an intriguing option which might or might not work, which poses a fascinating dilemma for the crews.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been very down on the Nacra about safety concerns, and I’m still worried for the sailors’ wellbeing. These are dangerous boats, although it’s quite clear that the fleet has developed techniques to keep them safer more of the time. The crews doing the gunnel running is the most obvious technique to maintain steady flight downwind, although there’s a lot of subtlety in the steering, the trim, and the basic setup of the boat.
There were two Woman Overboard situations at Kiel but fortunately no one sustained a major injury. It’s interesting to note that CP Lubeck, who was fortunate not to sever his ankle 18 months ago after falling off the side of his Nacra, has the beefiest trapeze gear I’ve ever seen. It looks absolutely bomb proof, and other foiling sailors would be well advised to copy what the Dane has done.
Meanwhile, the European circus is pretty much over for the season as the Olympic fleet decamps to Japan both for some World Championships, the World Cup event in Enoshima, and the Olympic Test Regatta.