The South African Team for the Optimist Worlds Champs, which was held in Spain, was made up of a relatively inexperienced (international sailing speaking) group of sailors in Joshua Keytel, Sean Sadler, Ross Mukheiber and Dylan Hall. Dylan aside, this was a young team and for all of them, this was their first world championship. The team was fortunate to have Malcolm Hall as the team coach, Malcolm has plenty of experience with international sailing regattas and has himself represented South Africa at Optimist International Events. I fulfilled the role of Team Leader.
As with any big international event, training and prep for the event started some 3-months before the 1st race. The worlds taken place during the European summer (June), meant the team struggled to find local regattas to partake in as the South African season finished after the WC Champs at Easter time, which was mid-April.
As the worlds was going to held on the Mediterranean sea, the decision was made to train on the sea as much as possible with FBYC and Granger Bay the preferred venues. Local team members, Josh and Ross, managed to get quite a few training days in and averaged about 3 on the water training days per week for the 3 months in the lead up to the Worlds. Training during a Cape Town winter is not always ideal, and with this winter in particular (the worst for many a year), Josh and Ross braved some good old Cape storms, making for some exciting sailing.
Meanwhile for Sean, based in Palma, he was able to train in Spain and with some of the top Spanish sailors.
The 1st race was scheduled for the Saturday (17th), we arrived nice and early on the Wednesday before, giving us 2 full days to climatise, get our accommodation sorted and receive and setup our charter boats and equipment. We were fortunate to have Mark Sadler (living in Spain) meet us at the airport and assisted with getting us and all our sailing equipment to the venue; this took a big strain off the team and was appreciated by Malcolm and myself.
At the venue, we were allocated 2 self-catering units (4 sleepers) next to one another. The units were nice and close to the regatta centre but far enough away so as not to be disturbed by any late-night entertainment.
Our neighbours were the team from New Zealand, a friendly bunch that had been there for 3-weeks already in prep for the World Championships. They were very welcoming and able to assist us with some basics e.g. regatta centre, launching, boat park etc.
Dean Barker, the helm onboard American Magic from the 2021 Americas Cup was the Country representative for NZ and his son was sailing in the event. Dean was in the unit next to us. It was great for the kids to meet him and like many of these hot shot sailors, was happy to chat with us and share knowledge.
Interesting to know that also sailing in this year’s regatta was Robert Scheidt’s (13 times world champion and 5-time Olympic medals) son Erik, as Mark said, “There’s got to be a reason these kind of top end sailors have their kids involved in this class and not something else.”
There were 2 boat charter companies available, 3 of the team were allocated New Blues (Polish) and Ross got a Naaix Optimist (French). There were no issues with charter boats, and the team spent the Thursday morning, setting up their boats and getting them rigged for a practice sail in the afternoon. Having setup their boats, the team got on the water for a quick, low impact sail; the wind was a nice 12-14 knots from the North, exactly what was predicted for this time of the year but little did we know at the time, the last time we would get the predicted wind.
Later that day, the team reported to the measurement tent, we were allocated a time slot of 3pm for measurement. Measurement was relatively uneventful apart from Josh’s sail which had a technical issue in that the one primary clew patch was reported to be a few mills out. Josh was given 2 options, repair the sail and bring it for re-measurement, or source a new sail. Unfortunately, the regatta was in a remote holiday location, which meant there were no close local sail lofts, forcing Josh, to go with the 2nd option and source a new sail.
On the Friday, the organisers scheduled a practice race, which all our team were keen to sail. It was a learning experience, not only to get a feel for the local conditions, the pace of the other sailors but also the way the race was treated by the other countries, particularly the South Americans and Europeans in that, with 30 seconds to go before the start, these sailors were already starting and sailing up the 1st beat, leaving our team to suck on their dirty wind, which was far from ideal but a point to remember for next time.
The event kicked off with a colourful opening ceremony on the 16th, there were close to 250 competitors from 54 countries. Team RSA was well represented, with the South African flag being flown high and spirits and ambitions even higher!
Three days in now, and coach Malcolm had established a daily routine with “quiet time” for sailors at 9pm (sunset is at 9:30pm), “lights out” at 10pm. Due to the late bedtime, wake up was only at 8am, followed by 10-15 minutes of activation exercises to get the sailors and coaches body and mind awake, before heading to the restaurant for breakfast. After breakfast, there was a debriefing for the previous day, followed by a briefing for the day.
The 1st race of the qualifying was scheduled for 1pm on the Saturday (17th), with nearly 250 entries, the fleet was split up into 4 fleets of 62 boats, on the 1st day, the split was based on country (alphabetical) and sail# (low to high). Ross and Dylan were allocated to the Yellow fleet, Sean the Red fleet and Josh the blue fleet. In light to medium wind strength (6-12 knots), 2 races were sailed. Sean had an excellent 1st day with a 4th and 20th, whilst for the 3 “resident” South Africans sailors in Josh who placed 48th and 51st, Ross who placed 56th and 52nd and Dylan 61st and 55th it was a realisation of the task at hand (not that it was needed).
After the racing, Sean had this to say, “It was a great day of racing, the left was paying and it was all about trying to get to the left hand side of the course, In the 1st race where I came 4th, I got a good start and had clear wind from the get go, whilst in the 2nd race, I got caught on the pin in a bunch and had to fight to get clear wind…”
Onto the 2nd day of racing, Sunday the 18th, with quite a bit more breeze in the forecast, the heavy wind specialists like Dylan were getting excited. The fleets now being split based on positions from the previous days racing, Josh and Ross were allocated to the blue fleet whilst Dylan and Sean the Green Fleet.
Unfortunately, for the heavier wind specialists, the predicted wind did not materialise, and the 1st race was sailed in light to medium wind with a choppy and difficult sea for the sailors to contend with, making for a very technical race.
The 2nd race of the day, the forecasted wind did materialise for which the likes of Dylan was very thankful, although he sailed super-fast, he took an early penalty (port / starboard) soon after the start, which meant he could only manage to get himself back into the “main” bunch.
Sean had a consistent day with a 17th and 23rd, leaving him well placed in gold fleet contention in 37th. Josh had a very similar day to day 1 with 46th and 54th, Dylan 52nd and 47th and Ross 57th and 56th.
The 3rd and final day (Monday)of the qualifying series, and Sean had it all to play for and was still well placed to stay in the Gold fleet. Josh further down the results sheet, could still make Bronze fleet if he had a good day. Fleet allocations for the final qualifying day were as follows, Sean Green fleet, Dylan and Ross Yellow fleet and Josh Red fleet.
The wind was most probably the most unpredictable the sailors had experienced since arriving on the Costa Brava, and it’s fair to say that Sean was unlucky to get caught on the wrong side of a few (persistent) shifts, getting pushed out to the left and unable to get back with a righty. This meant Sean scored his 2 worst results of the qualifying series with a 30th and 32nd and unfortunately pushing him into the Silver fleet and just outside of gold fleet by just a few points.
Likewise, for Josh, Ross, and Dylan, it was unfortunately more of the same, with Josh scoring a 54th and 45th, leaving him in the middle of the Emerald fleet, Ross a 60th and 45th, whilst Dylan scored 61st and ended off the day with a very respectable 31st by far his best race of the qualifying series. After sailing Dylan had this to say about the racing, “…yeah, it was really shifty out there today and very tough. Thanks to the RO and bridge crew for managing to get 2 races completed. It was a long day on the water but for me, it was worth it as I got a 31st in the last race. I went the right side on the 1st beat, rounded the top mark in the top 30 and held on to 31st, chuffed…”
Team racing was scheduled for the 4th day (Tuesday) of sailing, we had drawn Spain in our first matchup and the team were feeling confident as Sean felt he knew all of the Spanish sailors and was coming up with a suitable game plan to take them by surprise and cause and early upset. At the start of the day, there was very little wind and another obstacle that had come up overnight was that quite a big shore break had developed which was deemed too big to launch oppies through. In the end though, it did not matter as the wind did not materialise and at 3:30pm AP over A was raised, and sailing called off for the day.
This meant the team could take a much-needed break from sailing and went off to hire some surfboards and make the most of the decent surf.
Unfortunately for the next 2 days Wednesday and Thursday, it was more of the same and there was insufficient wind and too big shore break to attempt launching optimists.
Much was discussed about all the lost sailing (three days) and what options were available to the organisers should the shore break not die down which included moving the whole regatta 20km’s down the coast to a local harbour and slipway from where the boats could be launched safely. You can imagine the desperation by the organisers to even consider this huge logistical task. Fortunately for them, this option was blocked by both the local port authority and yacht club.
On the Friday and much to the relief of everyone, the surf had died down, making it possible to launch and there was a nice 12-15 knots blowing! The 1st race of the Final series got away on time but unfortunately the wind died away all together and the started races had to be abandoned. The sailors were now in a holding pattern and waiting for the predicted breeze to come through. What happened next, was something that no one could have predicted, at about 3:30pm, the race committee sent all the sailors home apart from the team racing teams to partake in a shortened format of the team racing event. That is to say, some 200 sailors were sent home, whilst about 40 sailors (10 countries) remained to fight it out for the team racing title. This was a bizarre call and one that got most if not all the countries Team leads questioning the committee and organisers. From the outside, it looked like the needs of the few had been given preference over the majority. And as luck would have it, not more than 30 minutes after the committee had sent the sailors home, the predicted wind came, and arguable the best sailing conditions of the week were enjoyed by the 40 sailors partaking in the team race. Not good.
After the commotion of the previous day, and in an attempt to get some decent fleet racing in on the final day, the organiser moved the start to a much earlier 11am (usually 1pm), which was welcomed by all participants. A nice 10knot NE was blowing with a choppy sea making for another technical day, with big rewards for the sailors that could work their boats through the choppy sea the best.
Sean came back strong after the disappointment of not making the Gold fleet, refusing to not go out without fight, having an excellent day with a 3rd, 25th and 6th. This meant that he finished strongly with a 3rd place podium finish, which meant he would not be leaving the regatta empty handed.
In the Emerald fleet, Josh finished the day with a 37th, 44th and 22nd, leaving him 38th in the Emerald fleet overall.
Dylan had a consistent day, with a 40th, 41st and 42nd and finished 49th overall in Emerald fleet. Ross scored a BFD (unfortunately his best result for the day), 35th and 44th, leaving him 57th in the Emerald fleet.
After sailing on the last day, Josh had this to say about the day and the regatta, “…today was tough, it was very shifty and the race committee had to deal with quite a few re-starts, especially with the gold fleet which had a knock-on effect on the fleets starting after them. It was a very fun regatta and experience and I want to come back and do it again; hopefully improve on this worlds result!”
Prize giving took place on the Saturday evening after racing, it was a well-run and casual affair, the dignitaries were well briefed and kept their speeches short and sweet. Our team were called up on stage and got to fly the RSA flag proudly, it was a great experience for them and not one that will soon be forgotten. Sean achieved 3rd place in silver fleet, for which he got a prize and our flag got some more lime light again.
On reflection, the whole experience for our sailors was just incredible and they can count themselves lucky to have attended the World Champs. The top 5 sailors from each IODA country around the world are given the opportunity to compete in probably the most competitive dinghy regatta in world sailing. There are many countries that could probably send 20-40 sailors that all have the potential to make Gold / Silver fleet, so for our sailors, they are very fortunate to be there. We may not have achieved the best results but just to have been there is a very special experience indeed. With 3 of the team members in Sean, Josh and Ross, still young enough to compete in more World Championships should they qualify, this experience will definitely prepare them for the next one and hopefully an improved result, should it be Sean making Gold Fleet or Ross and Josh getting themselves out of the Emerald fleet.
In closing, I’m going to use something that Mark had to say about the team and their experience, “Congrats to everyone who have now competed in their first Sailing world championships. It’s a privilege to be there and have the experience. The results are only a tiny part of the bigger picture. Keep it up! “