New Zealand's sailing prowess gets another examination when the International Sailing Federation world championships start in Santander, Spain tonight.

There is an important undercurrent to these championships, too, as half the Olympic places in the 10 classes at the Rio Olympics in 2016 are on the line.

For some New Zealand crews this will be, er, plain sailing.

It would a great surprise if Olympic and world champions Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie, or Olympic silver medallists and defending champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, or Alex Maloney and Molly Meech - inaugural winners of the 49er FX class at last year's worlds in Marseille - don't grab this first qualifying opportunity.

Advertisement

They are among sailing's elite and have produced supreme performances on the sport's grandest stages.

But there's more to the New Zealand squad than them.

There are other crews who have touched heights, and some still striving for them.

And there are Jason Saunders and Gemma Jones, aiming to make a statement in a new class at Rio.

They are sailing in the mixed multi-hull Nacra 17. It is 5.25m long, with a 2.56m beam.

There have been encouraging early signs - they were sixth at the Rio test event, and Saunders noted that "going into the last race we had a good chance to get on the podium".

Two years ago Saunders contested the 470 with Paul Snow Hansen at the Olympics, finishing fifth. He decided on a change, and the Nacra fitted his thinking.

"I was looking for a change from the 470 because Paul and I had outgrown the boat together and the Nacra 17 looked to be a good fit for me," Saunders, a 23-year-old from Tauranga, said.

Advertisement

"For me it's much more physical than crewing on a 470, which I like a lot.

"The Nacra is a one-design boat. Everyone's got the same equipment and it's much more about trimming the boat right and racing well as opposed to the 470, which can be a lot about finding the right type of sail and mast combination that suits you. So we enjoy that as well."

We?

"Gemma asked if I wanted to go for a sail in the Viper 16 catamaran she was using and after finding I really enjoyed it we started off from there," Saunders said.

The Nacra called for a mixed crew so having figured out they liked the design and sailing together, they rolled their sleeves up.

They first sailed competitively at the Princess Sofia regatta in Palma, Spain in March last year.

Saunders, part of the Youth Americas Cup New Zealand crew, was new to catamaran sailing and out of his comfort zone, which he liked.

"That was a big part of it. I knew it was going to be a big challenge. There were a lot of unknowns about it, but I thought that was quite cool."

Jones, a 20-year-old from Murrays Bay, has been sailing cats since 2011 and sailed at the youth world championships in 2012 in an SL16 catamaran, finishing fifth.

So who calls the shots?

"It's a team effort," Saunders said. "We both have our roles on the boat, for example Gemma calls the start, I call tactics, but we work together on a lot of areas as well, and the better we communicate everything, we've found the better we go."

There are 20 in the Olympic Nacra field, and the top 10 qualify in Santander. So that's the first priority. The pair finished ninth at last year's world championships and want to build on that.

They have been at Santander, on Spain's northern coast, for the past couple of months, training on the world championship waters and competing in regattas around Europe. Their first race is late Monday night (NZT).

There have been two changes to the Olympic classes from London. Gone are the men's Star and the Elliott 6 women's match racing. The 49erFX is in with the Nacra.

In five of the 10 classes in Santander, New Zealand will be mob-handed, adding an extra measure of interest of in-house rivalry.

The remaining Olympic spots will be decided at the class world championships next year, and in a series of continental qualifying events.

Title time

• The world championships are being held at Santander, Spain. The first classes into the water will be the Lasers and Laser Radials tonight (NZT).
• New Zealand will be represented in all 10 classes. Half the places in each Olympic class being decided - on a one per country basis.

New Zealand team
MEN
Laser: Andy Maloney, Sam Meech, Thomas Saunders
RS:X: Jon-Paul Tobin
470: Paul Snow-Hansen and Daniel Willcox
49er: Peter Burling and Blair Tuke; Marcus Hansen and Josh Porebski, Logan Dunning-Beck and Jack Simpson
Finn: Andrew Murdoch, Josh Junior, Karl Purdie.
WOMEN
Laser Radial: Sara Winther, Susannah Pyatt, Ali Nightingale
RS:X: Natalia Kosinska
470:
Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie
49erFX: Alex Maloney and Molly Meech; Erica Dawson and Ellie Copeland
Mixed:
Nacra 17: Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders.