29er World Championships, San Francisco 2005, Part 1

7 11 2007

So as the first article in this new series, I thought I’d write about the 2005 29er Worlds, held in San Francisco Bay. This was to be the culmination of about 3 years hard work and the most important event I had ever competed in. Firstly then, the background to the story.

I was sailing with Simon (Wheeler) at this point, and had been for about three or four years, pretty successfully. We had done well in the 29er, having World Championship results previously of 14th (2003) and 5th (2004), and had recently come 2nd in the Youth Nationals back in the UK by one point. We always knew of the infamous San Francisco conditions; heavy wind, big waves, strong tide, extremely challenging – right up our street. Si and I had been right up there in the tough conditions for a while, always having great boat handling and more importantly great speed. However, we didn’t win the Youth Nationals in these conditions, losing out fairly to Ed Chapman and Tom Peel. Because of this, we knew we had to sail the best we’ve ever sailed to take the World Title, but had been working up to this one event for a long time. Every event we did before San Fran was just a training event, we took different aspects out of each event and built on them. We knew they were training events and just aimed to peak at the right time, just before that first big race of the Worlds. It was a strange feeling and one that I’ve never had since: total confidence and absolute focus. It still makes me quite nervous thinking about it!

Just before the event (we flew out while the boats came across in a container) we competed in the US Nationals, a warm-up event for the Worlds the following week. It was held in the best-named-place-ever, Treasure Island (although it turned out to be more like an Asda car park in Staines). We had some of the most crazy conditions I’ve raced in, about 25 knots every day and huge waves, and so as a team (all the British squad boats) we decided to only sail the first two and a half days, to save our bodies for the big one. Si and I coped well, winning a few races and generally being in the top three in the races we sailed. Again we took confidence from the event and got mentally prepared for our next race: the first race of the Worlds.

The time since the US Nationals finished and the first day of the Worlds flew, suddenly we were getting suited and booted and getting the boat ready. Basically, San Fran sailing goes like this: you wake up, it’s foggy, then the sun comes out when you’re getting ready and a light breeze builds. This breeze builds until it peaks at around 2pm, at about 22-25 knots. It then only dies when the day gets cooler. On the morning of our first race, we were set to race in the second group of boats (the fleet of 87 boats were split in two, one half racing first and the second racing last). The event was scheduled to have a qualification series of 3 days and a Finals series of 3 days, with three to four races every day. The top 25 boats would make the Gold Fleet and race out for the title. Because we were going second on the first day, we waited and watched the first fleet race and got the boat ready for the more extreme conditions of the afternoon. It was at this point that I put in the old headphones and whacked on ‘Eye of the Tiger’, cheesy I know but hell did it work! I was fired up and we launched for the first race.

Sailing out to the course was pretty fun, kite up, big waves, throwing in some gybes under the Golden Gate to get ourselves warm. We prepared as we always did; compass bearings, start line check, transits, got the watch ready, checked the windshifts. Everything felt good and the Race Committee went into start sequence. The next five minutes went according to plan, we got a good space on the line, held there, accelerated well and hit the line at speed as the start gun went, with another 40 or so 29ers mixing it up in the big waves of America. After about a minute of racing, it was obvious we were very quick, we were in the leading bunch and headed for our chosen side; the left side of the beat, right beneath the Yacht Club where everyone was watching and out of the tide. Photo opportunity I think… Throughout the first leg we extended our lead and rounded the top mark first by quite a margin. Winning the first race! The runs were where it got a little tricky, having to gybe out into the big waves offshore to get in the tide taking us down wind, but we were in complete control. We extended and extended and after two big laps we whipped through the finish line to be greeted by the sound of the finisher’s gun. A great start to the event.

The next race turned out to be the last of the day, and we picked up where we had left off; a massive lead all the way around the course. What were we doing?! You just don’t go to a World Championship and lead the first two races by this length. We were quietly excited but fully concentrated on now sensibly bringing the boat home to another race win, “just one more lap”. But on the final leg, with around 200 metres to the finish line and about a 2 minute lead, our world came crashing down around our ears: the mast had come down into the drink after a fitting had snapped, taking our World Championship hopes and dreams with it. We were stranded, there was nothing we could do without a mast and sails up. We sat and watched as boat after boat rushed past us and the winner took our gun. A few minutes earlier we had the prospect of sailing in with two wins and the lead of the competition, now our hopes were severely dented. We had to record a maximum score from that race and get towed in to shore. Absolutely gutted. The only way we could now win the regatta we had prepared for so long for, was if we sailed the regatta of our lives.

Part 2 follows soon!

29er Worlds 2005