It was a day of stadium racing for the rock stars of the Finn class in Fremantle, at the Finn Gold Cup at the Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships, with two gold fleet races sailed just off a grandstand, which was almost filled to capacity with action hungry spectators. They got far more action than they expected.
After regatta leader Ben Ainslie (GBR) was disqualified from both races today under a Rule 69 hearing, Giles Scott (GBR) takes a two point lead from Pieter Jan Postma (NED) and a nine point lead from defending world champion Ed Wright (GBR) into Sunday's deciding medal race.
As well as being a controversial day, it was also a scorching hot day with a solid sea breeze building around midday to reach 16-18 knots by the time the Finns started. It was ideal conditions for some full on Finn racing, right in front of a willing audience.
For the first time this week the Finns were racing on the Centre course, with the grandstand viewing platform next to the massive PERTH sign, and a confined leeward gate to give the spectators there, and on the beach in Bathers Bay, the best view of the racing. There was also a new course configuration, with three windward-leeward loops with a final dog leg to the finish.
After losing the overall lead on Friday, Pieter Jan Postma (NED) needed to do something special today to close the gap on the leaders. Race nine start after a general recall with a lot of river sailing tactics called into play as the fleet played the left side of the course, tacking, and calling for water to tack, near the sea wall. Postma emerged to round the top mark just ahead of regatta leader Ben Ainslie (GBR) and Jonas Hoegh Christensen (DEN) close behind.
Postma and Ainslie battled tooth and nail throughout with Ainslie closing up on the third beat. However Postma proved faster downwind and won his fourth race of the week, while Giles Scott (GBR) moved through the fleet from around eighth at the top mark to third at the finish.
After crossing the finish line, Ainslie boarded a camera boat after almost being swamped by its wake during the final leg and and had an animated discussion with some of the crew before diving out to rejoin his Finn. Ainslie said, “On the final downwind leg of the race, I was hindered by a media boat, the actions of which I felt were seriously impeding my progress in the race.” Though apologies were later offered from both sides, a Rule 69 protest hearing was held and Ainslie was disqualified from both the day's races. This has dropped him out of the medal race.
After another general recall, race ten started under a black flag. Unbeknown to Ainslie, he was its only victim, but carried on sailing unaware of the penalty. His plan seemed clear before the start and he sat on Postma throughout the race to push him as deep as possible.
Tapio Nirkko (FIN) emerged as the early leader in the race but dropped back after the first lap. Eventually Rafa Trujillo (ESP) broke through to the front and held on for his second win of the regatta. Hoegh Christensen was having another great race but lost second place to Zach Railey (USA) on the final downwind.
A capsize for Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO) on the final downwind not only cost him a broken mast tip, but also, at the time, had lost him enough points to slip to 11th overall, which meant that Deniss Karpak (EST) filled the final slot in the top ten for Sunday's medal race. However, with Ainslie's double disqualification which cannot be discarded, the Croatian is back in the medal race.
Trujillo said, “In the first race I went swimming at the bottom mark. I slipped in the boat and when I was about sixth. But I am really happy after a difficult day as in the second race I had a good motivation to do a good race to finish the championship. It was one to one downwind, borderline capsizing but I am happy that I won. It was nice out there. I think it was a good show for everyone.”
Former double world champion Hoegh Christensen also had a good day. “I am not that happy with my week but I am happy with today. A fourth and a third is a good day. I had a chance to win the second race but on one downwind Rafa came down with big pressure on the inside and I was on the outside and lost about seven boats. I fought my way back up to second at the windward mark , but Zach managed to pass me on the last downwind, but it was all good.”
The new overall leader Scott had another up and down day. “I rounded deep in the first race, about 15th, and had a good first downwind. I worked my way through and found myself in third which was good, and then the second one was not good. I got caught in the 20 boats fight along the sea wall and didn't come out of that very well.”
“People were calling for water and you'd tack back again and it got a bit tricky. It was a bit like river racing. For the medal race it think its OK but for 40 boats trying to race in such a small tight area, it was a bit marginal at times. And then there was the helicopter. It came a bit close and I saw all the water flying up in the air and PJ was sailing straight towards it. I really thought he was going to capsize. It was way to low and directly over where you were going.”
On Sunday's medal race, “It's quite tight at the top so I am sure that will be a spectacle tomorrow. I will have to look at the points tonight and decide what the plan is.”
Railey said of his day “It was a much better day for me today. I was a little frustrated in the first race. I was in 9th and lost a couple on the downwind, but then I corrected what I was doing wrong in the second race and was able to pass a few boats from seventh at the first mark to second at the finish. All the boats I passed were on the downwind, so it was just an adjustment I made from the first race.”
“So I made the top ten and that was the goal going into today. It feels good as Olympic qualification is all done now. Today was definitely different to where we were racing all week. It was very, very favoured on the left hand side of the course and having the sea wall come into play created a lot of different situations, with rules and stuff and when to tack, which was very interesting. There were a lot of situations out on the course, with close racing, right in front of the stand so I think they got a good show today, that's for sure.”
The end of the gold fleet today also marked the end of the first stage of qualification for countries for next year's Olympic Games. Nothing much changed after today's races, with Australia, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine and the USA filling the first 18 slots.
Jorge Zarif (BRA) said, “At the end of the race I heard people shouting from the grandstand but I didn't realise it was for me. Then I came closer and saw all the Brazilian team cheering up for me. Now I understand why...I had just selected Brazil for the Olympics in the Finn. This is good. Now I have to win the trials. I win one point here for qualifying the country, I need to win the trials in Buzios in January. If I don't then it will be the first Brazilian in Palma.”
“Now I need to work more on the fitness and at the gym. I am young and can't put on muscle so easily. Then I have to train my downwind technique. In January we will have some guys coming to train in Brazil. Then I will come to Europe for the Europeans and Palma.”
The 18th and final slot went to Russia, with 2007 European Champion Eduard Skornyakov (RUS) securing the place. He said, “Now we have qualified the country, our sailor selection is simple. Whoever is the first Russian sailor in Falmouth next year gets to go to the Olympics.” The Finn Gold Cup in Falmouth, UK in May is the second and final Olympic qualification event, where the last six places will be determined.
In the silver fleet today, racing on a separate offshore course, race wins went to Tomas Vika (CZE) and Brendan Wilton (CAN). Vika was the top sailors in the fleet with Timo Haggort (NED) and Lauri Vainsalu (EST) some way behind.
The medal race is scheduled to start at 16.10 on Sunday, the last of four medal races scheduled and perhaps the one that everyone has been waiting for. With Ainslie out, the field is wide open. Scott has a two point lead over Postma and sits just nine points ahead of defending champion Ed Wright. While only the top three can wind gold, the next three sailors – Hoegh Christensen, Trujillo and Jonathan Lobert (FRA) - are all within reach of bronze. It is going to be some show.
Follow the Finn racing on the class blog at: http://www.finngoldcup.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2&Itemid=6 which includes the Twitter feeds of many of the sailors racing in Perth. All you need to know in one place.
Full results so far at: http://www.perth2011.com/competition/PERTH2011/SAM002000/results