Typical of an Olympic year, the World Championships were held early as part of a season culminating with the Olympics in summer. For the sailors it’s not just another year, it has a different feeling of momentum and pressure about it. For some it’s the last chance to become World Champion, for others it’s a fight for Olympic selection against their own team or for others their very first attempt at the most competitive sailing race it’s possible to do.
The 2020 World Championships were held at Sandringham Yacht Club on the Eastern edge of Port Phillip Bay. At an initial glance on Google Maps, one could be forgiven for thinking that it would be lake sailing, but in reality the enclosed bay is huge – 50 miles at its widest point. When sailing out the marina into huge steep breaking waves it felt like more like the North Atlantic.
Seeing as the Worlds were in February a lot of sailors, myself included, opted to do a month of training before the event began, rather than training in Europe as I usually do. Flying shortly after New Year, I jumped from a bleak British winter to a hot and ever-so-slightly smoky Australian summer.
Sail Melbourne regatta was held in January as a very high quality “warm-up” regatta. We had a reasonable amount of strong winds over 5 days, sailing ashore more than once in thunderstorms and torrential rain. In what I can only consider as a grade A unforgiveable error (self-proclaimed arbitrary scale for rating my mistakes), I got a BFD in race 1. Even for an event where the main goal is to try and get a handle on a particular venue and get a little bit faster, it is still very annoying. After this I settled into the racing and tried to take the opportunity to get better at starting. In the end I finished a rather unemphatic 22nd. Whilst the regatta felt tough, only 5 of the top 10 in Sail Melbourne were in the top 10 at the Worlds, and just one person won a medal at both events.
Following on from the regatta I had a whole host of things to work on. When I first envisioned the trip before travelling, all 6 weeks of it, it seemed like an abundance of time to train and improve, however I always felt this day-to-day feeling of urgency to get things done. Every day there were different conditions to sail in, different weak areas that I might be able to address and different guys to train with. Some days were good, a real confidence boost from speed runs or small races where I could beat really good guys, other days were more debilitating for my confidence.
A week before the regatta I handed back my charter boat that I had used for a month and picked up a brand new boat for the Worlds – one of 130, that I was to use for the Worlds. It’s definitely an anxious time when all the sailors arrive on that day to collect their boats. Concerned faces staring down gudgeons, trailing edges of foils, masts, gunnels or you name it, everyone wants to know that there is nothing visibly wrong, for their head as much as anything else.
Travelling all around the World to sail, as I am so fortunate to do, one thing I regularly hear is the sentiment – “Oh this weather? This isn’t normal!”. Ironically the last 3 days of training before the regatta were those exact days, with a howling offshore Easterly that wasn’t going to reappear during the regatta I took a few rest days, which was lovely.
In contrast to Sail Melbourne, in the opening race of the Worlds I got a smooth start and slowly extended a first mark lead to win the race with uncharacteristically low levels of stress. The whole entry of 130 boats was split into 3 fleets, so this meant for the 6-race qualifying series the name of my game was to use no more than one discard. This was something I actually did so clinically I almost surprised myself. 3 days into the event my discard of 17th was from race 2 due to a bad start and more bad decisions, but overall I was sat in 7th and ready to take on the beast that was gold fleet.
Day 4 of the regatta, the first of final series was cancelled due to thunderstorms, which were – to the credit of the Race Committee, predicted with remarkable accuracy. This meant we were to have 3 hour-long races a day, for 2 days, an intensely painful flurry of hiking to finish the event off. It’s easy to underestimate how much energy it takes to do an hour of racing against the best in the world, it can be up to 20 minutes flat-out hiking at a time with slim odds of a successful outcome.
Day 5 brought horrendously steep waves that I found quite disorientating, I spent a lot more time than normal staring at my Velocitek compass as the steep waves and grey weather made it impossible to have any other references to gauge the wind shifts. The day passed in a tiring and frustrating blur of waves that I should have surfed, starts that I couldn’t hold my lane in and marks that were hiding between waves. I slipped to just outside the top ten.
The final day brought 8 – 18 knots, steep offset swell and wild shifts. A few minutes before each start the majority of sailors were stood up in their boats with de-powered sails looking like meerkats, trying to see where the next band of pressure would fall on the bright green sea. Whatever decision making process everyone else was following, mine appeared to be obsolete in comparison, I kept unknowingly finding myself at a corner sailing a header back on the layline. The first 2 races of the day were nothing short of disastrous and I knew it, on the last day of the regatta it was a real personal battle to ignore the consequences of these bad races, for my day, regatta, season and year.
For the final race I set myself the simple objective of a good start, which I managed. I told myself to not worry about the fleet, find the marks, find the pressure and use my compass with smart moderation… I found myself back at the front and all of a sudden it was like putting on a shoe. I couldn’t catch the leader of the race because he had a huge jump by the first mark, but I sailed steadily through the top 10 to finish 2nd in the final race. This race probably saved my regatta, bringing my result out of the realms of disappointing to something I can honestly respect, 13th overall. Given it’s still fresh in my mind; all the mistakes I made and chances I couldn’t make the most of, it’s hard not to be frustrated. It’s a fine line between pushing myself and my own aspirations, versus respecting that the fleet I’m trying to race is phenomenally good (it’s been nearly 8 years since any top level sailors retired – and stayed retired, the fleet really is stacked).
Phillip Buhl sailed what can realistically be described as the perfect race, for near enough 12 races to win the regatta ‘comfortably’, it was very impressive to watch. For someone who is renowned for sailing at a much higher standard in regattas than training, he outdid himself.
For me a final few thanks – to the British Sailing Team & RYA for the opportunity of a lifetime and everyone I met in Australia who were without exception helpful and kind. Thanks to everyone who puts up with me after good days & bad and finally to Southeast Sailboats for a setup that is second to none, it really makes sailing the boat a pleasure.
Many thanks to Team GBR sailor Michael Beckett for this great article. Michael is one of our sponsored sailors and uses our signature 8:1 downhaul system, our double puller outhaul system; the Allen XHL kicker top block, and Velocitek PRISM compass.