Excitement is building for the 80 Finn sailors from 32 nations heading into next week's Santander 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships. Not only will a new world champion be crowned, and receive the coveted Finn Gold Cup, but also the first 12 nations will qualify for a place at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Since the last ISAF Worlds in 2011, the Finn scene has been through a period of transition with a number of seasoned campaigners calling it a day after the London 2012 Olympics, while a larger number of incoming sailors, both young and experienced, have been putting their marker down early in the cycle leading up to 2016.
After a string of major victories over the past 18 months, the favourite has to be Giles Scott (GBR). He won the European title back in May by an unprecedented 50 points, and hasn't been beaten in the Finn since April 2013. Due to other commitments, Scott hasn't sailed a Finn World Championship since Perth in 2011. He won that of course, though the event will always be remembered for other reasons. “The last Finn Gold Cup I did was Perth and that was actually quite a while ago. It’s a little odd to think I haven’t competed in a world championships since 2011 because I’ve done quite a lot of Finn sailing since then.”
However, Scott will no doubt be keen to pick up a second world title without the distractions that Perth produced. “We've done just under three weeks in Santander now, with two before Rio and one after. I think it is one of those venues that could throw up anything but more likely than not we should get light to moderate sea breezes, but it depends of course.”
Does he feel it helps to be the favourite? “I wouldn't say it particularly does. Obviously I can take confidence from my previous results but you need to be able to go there and prove yourself like you do at any regatta, which is exactly what I'll be trying to do.”
“In honesty, I'm just keen to get out there and start racing.”
While Scott is undoubtedly favourite, he comes as part of a very strong British team that also includes 2010 World Champion Ed Wright (GBR) and Mark Andrews (GBR).
Vasilij Zbogar (SLO) won the Europeans in 2013 and placed second behind Scott in 2014. He is up against Gasper Vincec (SLO) who has returned this year after losing the 2012 trials to Zbogar. Zbogar is the top sailor at the Dinghy Academy in Valencia and trying to qualify for his fifth Olympics. He placed sixth in London in the Finn after winning two medals in the Laser in previous Games. Zbogar leads a strong, and growing, group of sailors who have based themselves at the Dinghy Academy over the past two years and the results are starting to show. Another Dinghy Academy student, Zsombor Berecz (HUN), placed seventh in last year's Finn Gold Cup and is certainly one to watch.
The defending world champion is Jorge Zarif (BRA), the first sailor to hold both the junior and senior world titles in the same year. For him Santander is not about qualification, as Brazil gets an automatic place as host, but more about testing himself against the world class field as he prepares to qualify himself for a place in the Brazilian team.
The bronze medalist from London 2012, Jonathan Lobert (FRA), placed fourth at the Europeans this year before picking up the silver at the first Rio test event last month. He has faced strong competition from teammate Thomas Le Breton (FRA) this year, who performed well at the early season regattas in Palma and Hyeres. Lobert said, “I spent some time in Santander in June and at the end of August and I felt good there. The racing will be very tight, we will have groups and the race course will be not so long so I think it's going to be very intense.”
“I think it a very interesting place with a lot of different waves conditions. It can be big swell sometimes but it also can be very messy when you sail more close to the shore. For the wind it's hard to say because it can be very different day after day.”
On the competition he said, “I think Giles and Ed will be for sure two of the strongest sailors there but for the rest it's hard to say. Some were in Rio and some stayed in Europe to keep on training. The last race we did all together was the Europeans in La Rochelle in May, a long time ago. We might see some new faces fighting for the top ten and maybe the podium. But I am very excited and I am looking forward to race next week.”
Another battle is likely to be seen between the Swedish sailors Björn Allansson (SWE) and Max Salminen (SWE). While Allanson has had the upper had most of the year, Salminen, who won gold in the Star class crewing for Fredrik Lööf (SWE) at London 2012, is fighting back and overcame Allansson in Rio.
Following his so-called 'retirement' after winning the silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics, Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) is back. His long terms plans are as yet unclear, but he's not sailing in Santander just to make up the numbers. He said, “I was asked a number of times to help the Danish sailing team get the results they needed and especially in the Finn. It fits well into my schedule and it was a chance to get a bit into shape. Also I just love the sport and when you haven't sailed in two years you really miss it. So mostly it is for the love of the sport.”
“Since the Games I have done two days in May for a weekend regatta in less than 5 knots. Then I have done four days in Santander and will be back sailing from the 11th. That is all the sailing I have done since the Games, in any boat.”
Høgh-Christensen famously took a year off after the 2008 Olympics, came back for the 2009 Finn Gold Cup, without training and out of shape, and won. Two years after his silver medal in Weymouth he is back, so could he do it again? He says it's not exactly a comeback but...”For now there are no plans for an Olympic comeback, but I have said that before. To be fair this is where I stand until I change my mind or in reality it becomes a real opportunity in my life.”
Another sailor who could have been elsewhere next week is Pieter-Jan Postma (NED). After failing to secure a place in the Volvo Ocean Race he is back full time in the Finn and hungry for more success following his first ever major win in Hyères earlier this year. After his disappointment of not being selected for the Volvo, when did his hunger for Finn sailing return? “Actually I didn't know just after, but in the last six weeks the hunger is bigger than before. The training is done. I can not do any more, so I am curious where I stand. We have done three weeks in total in Santander, with lots of great light wind training, though it can be quite wavy. One day we had 25+ knots with great sets rolling in. It would be superb if we get that one day.”
“After the Olympics this is the most important regatta for us. No excuses. Time to be strong.” On the prospects ahead he said, “Could be anything. But as you know the Worlds is always intense, and everybody will be ready.”
The Italian team includes two former Olympians, Giorgio Poggi (ITA) and Filippo Baldassari (ITA), as well as Michele Paoletti (ITA). All three have produced form at some point over the past year.
Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO) is trying to qualify for his third Olympic regatta. Twice a European Champion, he has never really produced his best at an Olympics. A fifth at London 2012 was as close as he got to the podium, but he is fully focussed on reaching his goal in 2016. “I would be really happy with podium finish in Santander. As always, it will be very tough, all the guys have been working very hard so we will have some exciting hard racing.”
Unlike some other sailors he has only spent limited time in Santander. “I've not done too much training there. However in the middle of August I did two nice weeks. So far I saw light to moderate breeze, but any weather can happen, so hard to say what it will be like.” Commenting on the long time since the last major event. “It is for sure one strange season. We surely miss some great events and this will bring a bit of excitement at the Worlds. But for sure the top guys will always be there.”
Another team of note over the past 18 months has been that of New Zealand, with a mix of youth and experience making for interesting racing. Andrew Murdoch (NZL) has produced some great results after two fifth places in the Laser at the last two Olympics, while in contrast Josh Junior (NZL) is much younger, bigger and on a fast learning curve. He picked up ninth place at last year's Finn Gold Cup, and also won the Santander test event this time last year, though in a much reduced fleet. They have both been training hard, to make the best of the championship.
From Australia, Jake Lilley (AUS) placed an impressive 15th at the Europeans in May, and took the junior title in the process. Last year Oliver Tweddell (AUS) was the more dominant of the two, but Lilley is improving fast and has turned the tables in most events so far this year. Lilley is under no illusions of his goals and is definitely one to watch in Santander.
The five strong Russian team includes the 2007 European Champion and twice Olympian Eduard Skornyakov (RUS) and the young hopeful Arkadiy Kistanov (RUS), who like Lilley, is still a junior. After winning the world junior title in 2011 at the age of 17 Kistanov has also matured as a sailor in the last few years and is now pushing the seniors.
Other names to watch include Greg Douglas (CAN), Deniss Karpak (EST), Tapio Nrkko (FIN), Caleb Paine (USA), Ioannis Mitakis (GRE), Milan Vujasinovic (CRO) and Piotr Kula (POL).
In pure figures, the fleet contains five world titles, eight European titles, and more than 20 sailors with Olympic experience in any class. It is a deep field of talent with at least 25 statistically capable of winning races. It will be an epic battle, as befits the Finn.
The Santander 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships opens on Thursday 11 September, with racing for the Finn beginning on Monday 15 September. The Finns will have an opening series of four races followed by six races in the final series and a medal race for the top 10 on Sunday 21 September.
It's been a long wait, but the event of the year is about to begin.
Event website is at:http://www.santander2014.com