Light, hot and shifty, the opening day of the Olympics provided several shuffles of the fleets. Matthew Sheahan reports
Today was no day to get buried in the fleet. With just 5-7 knots of breeze and a knot of tide sweeping the fleet towards the east, clear air was key in both of the two classes that kicked of the 2008 Olympics here in Qingdao.
After two short postponements, the Finns were the first to claw their way into the haze upwind, followed a few minutes later by the Ynglings. On this leg at least, both fleets were aided slightly by the building fair tide that helped to boost the apparent breeze, but what went up had to come down and the run back down to the leeward gate looked agonising.
Towards the end of the first downhill shuffle, Ainslie had managed to extricate himself from the pack to round the leeward mark in the lead, a move that paid dividends as the tide catapulted him into clear air on the second beat. Ainslie was in familiar territory, but not for long.
“On the last run the breeze shut down, probably down to about three knots and shifted 20 degrees to the left,” he explained. “When you’ve got as much separation between the boats and the tide’s that strong, that kind of shift makes a huge difference. You can’t really cover everyone and I’m not sure what I would have done differently again.”
With nine sails in front of him at the finish, this was not the best start to Ainslie’s Olympic campaign, although neither was it his worst.
The second race saw the breeze remain steady throughout, even building slightly towards the end and after a conservative mid-line start, Ainslie built his lead throughout the race to take a comfortable win come the end. The relief on his face was clear to see when he stepped ashore.
“I had visions of it all happening again with two bad races on the first day,” he said referring to his early nightmare at the 2004 Olympics. “But this was much better than the last one. I was a little bit relieved as the first race was pretty disappointing.”
With a 10th and a 1st, Ainslie is currently 3rd overall, 6 points behind the overall leader Rafal Szukiel (Pol) and 4 points behind second place Zach Railey (USA), both of whom read the conditions well to earn finishes in the top five on both occassions.
For Greek sailor Emilios Papathanasiou, the day had been more about boom and bust, scoring a well deserved win in the first race and a DNF in the second.
Meanwhile in the Yngling fleet the British trio were experiencing similar boom/bust experience with a number of visits to both ends of the fleet, fortunately in the right order. Holding their nerve and sailing a cool, calm and collected pair of races rewarded the Ayton/ Webb/ Wilson combo with a 2nd and a 3rd to put them firmly in command by the end of the day.
“It was all about keeping it together and working as team to work our way through the fleet,” said Sarah Webb. “It was incredibly tight, everybody goes much the same speed. We went from last to second on the last run.”
So, after several years of comment and speculation, just how typical was today’s weather?
“It’s pretty typical,” said Ainslie with a smile. “Boiling hot and not a lot of breeze. It’s pretty testing for the sailors. You can be 20m away from someone else and be in completely different patch of wind or tide and make pretty staggering gains or losses. It’s a bit of brain tease.”
Which is pretty much the understatement of the day. Just watching the fleet turn inside out as the fickle conditions toyed with the fleet was nerve wracking enough for spectators. Coping with such conditions when your future depends on it would be most people’s nightmare.
“I think we’re all going to have a tough time,” said Ainslie. “It’s going to be a game of patience and being tough. We’ll need to deal with the disappointments and work on coming back.”
Tomorrow’s weather forecast suggest more breeze, somewhere in the region of 5-10 knots, in Qingdao terms, a whole world of difference.
On the water the 49ers will have their first race of the Olympics.
Racing is due to start at 1300 local (6am BST).
Here’s a video preview of the 49er British team.
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