Matthew Sheahan reports from the radio RIB in Weymouth on the opening day
One way of levelling the playing field at any regatta is to send the wind from an unusual direction. For the visitors at least, reducing the impact of local knowledge can square up the racing, especially at a venue notorious for its wide variety of breeze as well as the tidal factors.
For the opening day of ISAF’s World Cup event in Weymouth, previously known as Sail for Gold, that is precisely what happened today. An easterly breeze that had been blowing for several days, (and had been pretty strong too), sent a large swell into Weymouth Bay.
In addition, with the offshore breeze coming over the downs to the north of the course there were always going to be puffs and shifts. And with the bright sunshine and clear blue sky above, there was also the potential to really mix things up with thermal activity ashore that dumped extra bags of breeze onto the race courses from time to time, as well as boosting the gradient breeze with a sea breeze in the afternoon.
As a spectator, or a visiting competitor, you couldn’t ask for more.
For those watching 49ers and 49er FXs firing downwind in big waves or 470s launching off the tops of waves as they planed upwind, there was plenty of action to gawp at.
Indeed, for those that ventured over to the far side of the racing area in Weymouth Bay East under the cliffs at White Nothe where the Nacra 17s were racing, there was even more action and drama.
With gusts well into the 20kts blasting through the course at the weather mark, bearing away and getting the kite up proved particularly challenging. Here, there were capsizes, broken masts and pitch poles as some teams struggled with the breeze and sea state.
One of the two new classes for the Rio Olympics, and marking a return to multihulls after the Tornado was axed from the Games for 2012, the high performance Nacra 17 cats are spectacular to watch. The only mixed gender boat in the Olympic fleet, they are blisteringly quick downwind and fascinating to watch.
In the radio commentary boat we tracked Frank Camas, yes he of Groupama fame, on the way back after racing when he and his crew were having a ‘relaxing ride home’, at a steady 20kts in just 17kts of true wind.
When they are fully wound up it is difficult to keep pace in a RIB with a 115hp outboard. But they also have some strange characteristics, not least their eagerness to launch themselves out of the water, with a bow up attitude that makes them look like they are about to take flight, as the C section foils generate sudden amounts of vertical lift. But their bow up attitude doesn’t last long and the next few seconds are not pretty as they then take a nosedive towards the water’s surface.
These are clearly tricky boats to master, but fascinating to watch.
The other new class is the women’s 49er FX, a slightly cut down sail plan on the normal 49er platform.
Given that the women have had far less time to get to grips with these over powered, low freeboard, wild-child skiffs, it is particularly impressive to see these boats being sailed so proficiently and competitively.
Much as I love watching the 470 as a dinghy classic, I couldn’t help feeling that this class is nearing the end of its useful life in the Olympics after watching the full-on, full bore, flat out racing in the 49er FX class. I defy anyone to remain calm when watching a windy weather mark rounding.
And then there were the kites.
Not officially part of the Sailing World Cup, a fleet of racing kite boards took to Portland Harbour after the main racing had finished for some exhibition racing on the RSX: windsurfer course.
It was the first time I had seen kites race and I have to admit I was very impressed.
Since the idea of kite surfing being an Olympic class was originally muted there has been plenty of criticism. From questions about how kites could possibly go upwind, to how a fleet could possibly sail without getting lines tangled up, the questions and objections have been wide and varied. But watch it for real and you quickly realise how potent these kite boards are.
Upwind they appear to out perform a windsurfer, pointing higher and sailing faster. Downwind their pace is blisteringly quick too.
Sure there’s an issue with identifying the sailors and figuring out who is attached to which kite, but that could be resolved with branded kites. But along with the speed and the fact that they sailed on the same windward leeward course used by many other conventional classes went a long way to convincing me that kites could well be an Olympic class in the future.
When it came to the results, the unusual wind direction and difficult sea state had indeed shuffled the pack, removing some of the home advantage that would normally play a large factor in such a notorious venue. While there were several classes that saw the big names at the top, there were plenty that saw some surprise results.
With just one day completed in this five day regatta, the individual results will matter to the competitors, but for those of us watching it was a perfect way to open the event.
Tomorrow, Wednesday sees a particularly fruity forecast with a string easterly breeze that will doubtless pump up the sea state even more.
I’ll be out once again providing live on the water commentary which you can listen to online. I hope you do as the conditions along with the standard of sailing here in Weymouth promises to provide another exciting and revealing day, while also delivering a hint of who might be in the frame for the Games in Rio next year.