Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Olympics: Fickle winds of fate

New Zealand sailors Hamish Pepper and Jim Turner. Photo / AP
New Zealand sailors Hamish Pepper and Jim Turner. Photo / AP

It's an unusual Olympic sport where paying spectators can help affect the outcome of the event - but that's what New Zealand Star class sailor Jim Turner says could happen at the Weymouth regatta if fickle winds blow, as expected.

The nub of the issue is the choice of course for sailing's medal races, which change so ticketed spectators can be accommodated. Once Olympic fleets have been trimmed down to the top 10, races are worth double points. The course, known as The Nothe (after the nearby fort), is one of five being used at Weymouth but medal races tend to be over less distance between marks.

Issues like the wind bouncing off the nearby cliffs on The Nothe can pose problems. The wind can be fickle and inconsistent, instead of the more consistent breezes sailors prefer.

But Turner says the course is favoured by Olympic organisers because it allows spectators to attend, as many regattas are held offshore, making viewing difficult.

Turner is as familiar with the venue as anyone in the New Zealand team.

Born in Bridport (around half an hour's drive from Weymouth) he only recently became a New Zealand citizen after living in the country for eight years with his Kiwi wife.

"You can certainly get some wacky winds on that medal race course," Turner says. "Without being too controversial, it's the way sailing's gone, having a double points-scoring race to decide the medals on the sketchiest wind course.

"That's been the way of the last two Olympics. You've got to make it close to the spectators otherwise the sport mightn't be at the Games. Fortunately most of our races are held out in 'the back paddock' which feels like you're halfway to Bournemouth so they're on open, what might be considered fairer, courses even though there is still tide and current to deal with."

Turner and the experienced Hamish Pepper launched a late bid for selection, teaming up in the Star only last October, and put together a compelling case for selection. They qualified the boat with their seventh placing at May's world championships at Hyeres, France.

That came on the top of their fifth placing at the Princess Sofia regatta in Spain in March - they were leading the event until they received a controversial penalty in the final race - and eighth at the prestigious Bacardi Cup in Miami.

Pepper was set to race in the Star class with America's Cup sailor Craig Monk before a battle with Yachting New Zealand to get enough funding to race saw Monk pull out of the campaign. Pepper had to get another partner at late notice and find $300,000 in funding.

Turner says of the medal races: "They're pretty much start-and-see-who's-ahead-after-the-first-shift event which can last only around half an hour. You take a deep breath and go.

"We won a medal race at a World Cup event in Miami and led the World Cup medal race at Palma before being disqualified so I think our style of racing is suited to a rip-shit-and-bust approach. Over time, we've done four medal races on the course here; we've won two and come last in the others. Go figure. We didn't do anything different in any of them."

Laser Radial sailor Sara Winther agrees with Turner but believes the course and unknowns give New Zealand a competitive advantage.

"There are definitely going to be fickle conditions at times [on that course] but most of us have raced Lake Pupuke and Takapuna for years, so we would welcome the variety. Some of the Europeans hate it."

Coach of the men's 470, Hamish Willcox, also believes the venue (including The Nothe course) suits New Zealand sailors: "It's just a case of good sailors adjusting. This is the best venue sailing's dialled up at a Games since 1992. There is a great range of conditions they need to adapt to, and generally can, because many of them have sailed off the East Coast Bays where they strike any type of condition one day to the next. Weymouth gets swept by fronts and low pressures, then it'll be sunny, before blowing its tits off and raining.

"This course is more familiar for New Zealanders than for any sailor from another continent. If you come from the Mediterranean, or North or South America, you end up with a continental climate where you're dictated to by the sea breeze. Here, England is an island like New Zealand with what can be a fast-changing weather system."

Yachting team leader and 49er coach Jez Fanstone says: "The first Sail for Gold regatta was held here in 2009 and there was also a test event last year. Our teams have put in lots of hours training and racing to get familiar with the surrounds."

- Herald on Sunday

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