For a dozen of New Zealand’s leading sailors, the Olympic test event in Marseille will be as much a reconnaissance mission as it is a chance to battle the best in the world.
The regatta starts on Sunday night and serves as a dress rehearsal for competitors, support staff and organisers a year out from the Paris Olympic Games.
For many of the NZL Sailing team, it is also their first top-level event since the Hyeres World Cup in April.
New Zealand will have 12 sailors competing in nine of the 10 Olympic classes in Marseille.
One of those is ILCA 7 (Laser) sailor George Gautrey, who booked his spot with an impressive showing at both the Princess Sofia Regatta in Mallorca, and in Hyeres.
While results at the test event have no bearing on selection for the Olympics, it provides a valuable fact-finding opportunity as the same venue will be used for sailing at the Games and the Kiwis are likely to face many of the same competitors in just over 12 months.
It also precedes the sailing world championships in The Hague (in August), where New Zealand will have a first opportunity to qualify classes for the quadrennial showpiece.
“Marseille is super important. It’s preparing us for next year, having support staff on the ground, documenting all the weather and all the types of days and things like that,” Gautrey said.
“It’s going to be invaluable for whoever may come back next year for the Olympics. I think we’ve gathered some really important information that will definitely come in handy when racing here. It’s also an awesome opportunity to take another step forward against an Olympic-size fleet, which is quite a different style of racing for us.”
Gautrey is hoping to continue his strong start to the European season at the test event. The 25-year-old won the silver medal in a quality fleet in Spain and followed it up with 14th place at the World Cup a fortnight later.
It was enough to beat compatriot and former world champion Tom Saunders (fifth and 11th, respectively) to the sole ILCA 7 spot in Marseille.
“Palma and Hyeres were good steps forward, but it also showed that I still had a few areas of my sailing that I wanted to tidy up – like increasing my hiking capacity and fitness and just making sure my campaign was rock solid in all areas.”
Conditions have already proven a challenge, according to top Kiwi kitefoiler Justina Kitchen.
“It’s a pretty important regatta because this is a real test of how you can perform in Marseille, which is a very tricky and unique venue,” she said.
“We’re finding water conditions and wind conditions really variable here, and every day is something new. I don’t think I’ve had any two days here that have been the same.”
Other NZL Sailing team members who missed out on competing at the test event have also been training in Marseille in recent weeks and having the cream of the country’s sailing talent all in one place, is invaluable, Gautrey said.
“We’ve built a really strong team of individuals across multiple classes and it’s good to be feeding off other members of the team.”
The NZ team for the Olympic test event in Marseille (July 9 – 16):
49er FX: Jo Aleh/Molly Meech, 49er: Isaac McHardie/Will McKenzie, ILCA 6: Olivia Christie, ILCA 7: George Gautrey, Nacra 17: Micah Wilkinson/Erica Dawson, Kitefoil (women): Justina Kitchen, Kitefoil (men): Lukas Walton-Keim, Windfoil (women): Veerle ten Have, Windfoil (men): Josh Armit.