With just four months before the Olympic Games, tension is running high in the boat park of Nautica Club Katikon Vouliagmenis, Athens for the 49er world championship

The world’s top skiff sailors have converged on Athens for the 49er World Championships, due to take place from 14-19 April. With just four months before the Olympic Games, tension is running high in the boat park of Nautica Club Katikon Vouliagmenis. A total of 81 teams from 28 different nations have come to battle it out for supremacy in these historic waters.

Some nations have yet to qualify for the Olympic Games, and this regatta represents the ‘last chance saloon’. Ireland is one such nation, and Tom Fitzpatrick and Fraser Brown are determined to be back in Athens this August. “We have been training for this for over three years,” said Fitzpatrick, “and we plan to do everything in our power to gain one of those qualifying places.” The Irish have come close to qualifying in previous World Championships, but a 24th in Cadiz last September wasn’t good enough. They have since employed the services of Ian Barker as their coach. “Ian won a Silver medal at the Olympics in Sydney four years ago, so he knows what it takes to win at this level,” commented Fitzpatrick. “He has been helping us improve some technical elements of our game to give us the edge of boatspeed that we’re looking for.”

Other nations yet to qualify include Finland, France and New Zealand . For others, the nation may have qualified but the team may not yet have been selected. A case in point is Denmark, where there are many high quality teams looking to claim their return flights to Athens. On paper, former European Champion and Olympic representative Michael Hestbaek has the strongest record, but there are many other teams vying for Danish supremacy. Aside from Hestbaek, four other teams finished in the top 20 at last year’s World Championships. Most intriguing is the recent change around in set-up of Jonathan Persson and Thomas Iversen. Helmsman Persson has swapped roles with Iversen, who is now doing the steering while Persson does the hard work pulling ropes in the front of the 49er. It’s a brave move to have made so close to such a crucial event.

For other teams, the pressure is off in some respects, because they have already qualified for the Olympics. Reigning world champions from Great Britain, Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks, can afford to look upon this is a practice regatta. But this is still a world championship, and you can be sure they’ll be looking to claim a second crown. “We are really excited,” said Draper. “We haven’t raced an important regatta for a while. And we start with a big one. These worlds will be more like a good training race – the Games are much more important to us.”

Marcus Baur and Max Groy may have been selected for Germany, but Markus Steeg is determined to give them a run for their money. “The adrenaline is pumping for this one. Of course Marcus and Max are seen as the best Germans, the ones that will go to the Games, but we will beat them,” he laughs.

Nothing is certain at such a tricky venue, however. Stéphane Christidis hasn’t been in the class long, but crewing for Marc Audineau he is aiming at winning the French trials and qualifying France for the Games. He is expecting a tough fight. “It won’t be easy on the water because the bay has got many islands and the wind can be influenced by the topography, such as the Meltemi wind (Northerly wind). It will mean that we must have a sharp eye outside the boat and react really quickly.”

Three days of qualifying races begin today, followed by three days of final racing.