Sam Meech has never been a smoker but he sounded like one on his most recent stop in Melbourne so he's more relieved than most the smoke from the bushfires has largely cleared up.
The 28-year-old is one of five Kiwis returning to Melbourne to contest the Laser world championships. His last trip there wasn't the most enjoyable and he contemplated returning to New Zealand between the Australian Laser Championships and Sail Melbourne this month as illness at the height of the bushfires took its toll.
He soldiered on and finished 12th in Sail Melbourne. That might seem respectable in a quality fleet but Meech has a record of incredible consistency and his worst result in the previous two years was sixth.
"I don't know if the smoke got to me or what, but I was pretty crook at the last event in Melbourne," he said. "I made it through the second event but I was lucky I had enough time when I got home to get better.
"I was coughing pretty badly. I was pretty sick. It's only been five days or so at home but I'm coming right now."
Meech knows he needs to be at his best to claim a first Laser world title in what is arguably the most competitive of all Olympic classes. More than 130 boats will line up on February 11 for the start of six days of racing and all the world's best will be there as the Tokyo Olympics loom.
New Zealand has a strong Laser squad, with Tom Saunders and George Gautrey also near the front of the fleet. Gautrey was third at last year's world championships in Japan, Meech fourth and Saunders 10th, and the trio will be joined in Melbourne by Josh Armit and Luke Deegan.
Saunders will be contesting his eighth Laser world championships and goes in on the back of some solid form, finishing fourth at the Australian nationals and eighth at Sail Melbourne.
"I'm tracking pretty well," he said. "I definitely feel confident and comfortable in Melbourne. We've spent a lot of time there and that's a big part of it, so I'm excited for the next few weeks. This is crunch time now in terms of [Olympic] selection, so it's now or never."
Gautrey has emerged as a contender after his breakthrough performance at last year's world championships and he collected bronze despite dislocating his knee halfway through the regatta.
"Looking back on it, it almost took the pressure off," the 22-year-old said. "After the third day, I was sitting in second or third and I was like, 'holy moly, I'm right at the front of the fleet'. You start to put all this pressure on yourself but something like what happened to my knee takes all that pressure away. You want to be able to try to recreate that but I don't want to do that to my knee again.
"It was a big step up for me all of last year. It's about building up a base of results and experience that Tom and Sam have over me. I'm getting there but I still feel there are things Tom and Sam do a lot better than me. I'm nowhere near the peak yet but we'll try to get there eventually."
Melbourne has delivered largely strong winds in recent weeks, which will suit the New Zealand sailors. Meech will be happy with almost anything, though, as long as it's not smoky.
● Michael Brown is communications manager for Yachting NZ.