A total of 37 countries are represented at the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta which started today

Though they are distinguished as the current Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year, Augie Diaz and Hannah Swett, will have to work as hard as anyone this week to rise above the stellar fleet of Olympic hopefuls, America’s Cup veterans and world champions who have assembled in Coconut Grove for the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta.

The annual event, which runs from Tuesday, 27 January, through Friday, 30 January, is in its 15th year and hosts ISAF Grade 1 racing in the classes chosen for the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Regattas. With over 300 boats and 700 sailors ready to start tomorrow, the racing will feature athletes already chosen for the 2004 Olympic Regatta in Athens competing alongside others who are still working toward being their country’s representative. Represented on the roster are 37 countries.

Diaz, though not shooting for the 2004 Olympics himself, will compete in the Olympic Star class, which has 67 entries and is shaping up to be one of the largest and most competitive classes of the 11 participating. In fact, with the two-person, 22ft open keelboat due to have its US Olympic Team Trials from 18-28 March at Coral Reef Yacht Club, it was a given that this country’s best sailors in that class would turn out for the Rolex Miami OCR. The regatta gives the US athletes not only a chance to test the trials venue but also the opportunity to tune up against their top American rivals. Also, because of its importance on the international sailing calendar, the Rolex Miami OCR pits the US Star sailors against the foreign competitors they are most likely to battle if they go on to the Olympics.

Diaz has pegged as the fleet’s greatest international threats three Star World Champions: Xavier Rohart (current) from France; Iain Percy (2002) from Great Britain; and Fredrik Loof (2001) of Sweden.

From among his own countrymen, Diaz will be on guard for three California skippers: Paul Cayard (Kentfield), Howie Shiebler (San Francisco) and Mark Reynolds (San Diego). Both Cayard and Reynolds are Star World champions, with Cayard known better for his America’s Cup sailing of late. Reynolds counts three Star Olympic medals, the most recent a gold in 2000, among his accomplishments.

Hannah Swett, who is one of USA’s leading contenders for an Olympic Yngling berth, sees Karianne Eikeland from Norway as one of the biggest overseas threats at this regatta. “She’s speedy and she’s been going the right way,” said Swett, who beat Eikeland by only one point in a local regatta held this past weekend in Miami. “Her team’s not just coming out of anywhere; they were their country’s representative at the pre-trials.”

Denmark’s Dorte Jensen is another Olympic hopeful, whose third at the 2003 world championship was consistent with her world-class ability, but Swett’s toughest competition may come from her US compatriots. Teams led by Jody Swanson, Betsy Alison, Carol Cronin and Sally Barkow are constantly mixing it up with Swett on the international Yngling circuit, and it is anyone’s guess which one of these Olympic hopefuls will put the others behind them.

When the Rolex Miami OCR concludes, sailors from four of the competing classes will stay nearby to prepare for their upcoming Olympic Trials. In February, the Lauderdale Yacht Club will host the Europe and Finn classes, the Key Biscayne Yacht Club will host the 49er and Yngling, and Miami Yacht Club will take on the Tornado trials.

The Rolex Miami OCR will feature six racing circles on Biscayne Bay. Regatta Headquarters will be located at the US Sailing Center in Coconut Grove. Other Hosts for the event are the Coral Reef, Key Biscayne and Miami Yacht Clubs; the Coconut Grove Sailing Club; and Shake-A-Leg Miami.