More than just plain sailing – Stefan Falcon

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Team Manager’s report from Optimist World Championships 2021

I stepped in this role quite late in the programme due to the fact that the previously appointed manager contracted Covid and had to step down. The Team Manager position is typically a parental role, and because my daughter was competing in the event it was decided that I should take over.

It did help a lot that just a month beforehand I had travelled to Italy with Elisa to take part in the Meeting del Garda. That trip provided us with the blueprint to use for this trip.

An Optimist World Championship follows a very distinct structure from other championships. Each country enters up to 5 sailors, a coach and a Team Leader. Sometimes a third adult, a Manager, is entered. They are all entered, because the entry covers everything: meals, accommodation, and of course the entry in the competition. The events normally happen in a closed compound, and access is gained only by entered people who wear the event badge. The organizers take care of everything, from shuttling people to and from the airport to chartering boats and RIBs (these carry additional cost over and above the entry fee). Once your team is entered, you pretty much only have to worry about flights and some spending money, the rest should be covered by the organizers. In reality there are a number of tasks, small and big, that one Team Manager must quickly learn about and carry out.


Team and Travel arrangements

Our team was made up of 4 sailors, a coach and myself.

One sailor, Nicola Sadler, would be travelling from Spain where she lives with her parents and her father Mark Sadler, being the coach for the SA team, would be driving her to Riva Del Garda from Palma. Their trip was probably longer and harder than ours.

Elisa Falcon, Theodore Scheder Bischein, Sean Kavanagh and myself flew from Cape Town to Milano via Doha on Qatar Airways.

Due to Covid restrictions the amount of paperwork to be filled in at the airport and before boarding was quite phenomenal; we needed a whole 3 hours at the airport to check in, but once we boarded the plane we could enjoy quite an unusual amount of space. The outgoing flights were less than half full and it was possible to lay down and sleep on whole rows of seats.

Before travelling could commence, though, we had to go to the lab and get Covid tested 48 hours before flying and some packing arrangements had to be made.

A week before flying I fixed covid testing times and packing times. I wanted to pack two tubes with 6 sails. I wanted to have each sailor’s racing sail in one tube and all the training/spare sails in the other, so that if one tube got lost we could still all sail. The plan did not account for the fact that Sean still had not completed his sail development programme and was to carry 3 sails and a whole array of spars, so he ended up having all of his gear in one tube and the other two sailors shared other two tubes. Luckily no tubes were lost, so my plan did not need to get tested. Despite a generous baggage allowance from Qatar, we still had some overweight bags and had to perform a reshuffling show at the check in counter, where the heavy packers took advantage of the light packers’ residual weight allowance.

In the weeks preceeding travel I asked the families to prepare travel documents, medical insurance, pocket money, and gave some advice on what to carry and what not to carry.

At any rate, the flight to Milano was quite uneventful, save for a couple of false alarms of lost property.

In Milano we discovered that the rental car I had prebooked was a little too small for our purposes and we upgraded to a station wagon. We fitted reasonably well, tubes on the roof, for our three hour drive to Lake Garda. We arrived in the evening, directly at the house where we were booked to stay.


Accommodation and surrounds

Mark and Nicola were already there and had sorted the sleeping arrangements. The boys and I would sleep in the first floor apartment and Mark and the girls would take the third floor apartment. The building is a three storeys apartment block with 12 separate apartments. All were occupied by teams competing in the championships; we had Thai, Norwegians, Romanians, Latvians all in the same apartment block. Although the spoken languages may differ around the world, the smell of wet boots and wetsuits seems to be rather universally constant.

Riva is quite a small town, and from the apartment block to the sailing club it was no more than a 5 minutes walk. Oftentimes the sailors would walk to and from the club without an accompanying adult, and that was perfectly safe.

Mark had also brought from home two of his bicycles for a swifter commute and unless we had to carry some gear to or from the club we mostly left the cars in the courtyard. When we needed to carry equipment down, it helped that I was able to communicate with the carpark attendant in Italian. We quickly became friends and he would allow me to leave the car parked for long periods of time where only members of the organization should have parked. Speaking in Italian also allowed us to have the upper hand in other circumstances throughout the event, and the organizers remembered me from a month before too. Some things for our team happened faster in Italian even though everybody from the organizing team speaks very good English.

The club is one of the oldest and largest clubs in the country. It had already hosted an Optimist World Championship in 2013 and it was Norberto Foletti’s project to have it at his home club one more time. He was a long standing member of FVR and the President of Aico, the Italian Optimist association, for many years, but he died just a month before this event. FVR hosts on average 6 major regattas a year: European championships, worlds, or all Olympic classes National championships. They have a very well structured organization with several staff, and for them this World championship was just another event. Running on the heels of the Meeting it was a small event too.



Being in Europe, charter boats were not mandatory and two thirds of the competitors brought their own boats. In Team SA only Elisa had her privately owned boat, the other three were chartered. A mistake was made during the entry when 4 boats had been chartered instead of three, making it quite a mission to obtain the refund. The charter boats were supplied by Nautivela, directly from the manufacturer and Blue Blue, through SailingCenter, a Dutch charter company. We were randomly allocated a Nautivela for Sean and two Blue Blue for Nicola and Theo. All Charter boats are brand new and go for sale immediately after the event, quite reasonably priced. Most privately owned boats are very new too. There is an incredible assortment of manufacturers; Carter, Fighter, Winner, Baranowsky in all his different permutations, Faccenda, Nordest, Mc Laughlin, They are all there. I just did not see any Chinese manufactured boats, and I cannot say that any one manufacturer has the biggest share of sales, all brands were evenly represented and none is remarkably better that the others. The same can be said for spars, foils and sailmakers, there is a phenomenal variety of suppliers for all tastes. It is incredible to note how many manufacturers specialize exclusively in producing only Optimist parts or sails and do not chase other markets. Volume of sales must be large enough to justify such business choices.  I had the impression that most new suppliers nevertheless are from Poland: that seems to be the new epicenter of Optimist production.


Team structure

It must be noted, however, that Optimist sailing in Europe is an industry, not a leisure activity. Under the directorship of IODA every little aspect of every event is scrutineered and kept in check by rules and bylaws. IODA charges a fair amount to sailors, NAs and event organizers to generate enough income to pay salaries to secretaries, measurers and other staff and to fly them around the world from event to event. Likewise the club and National sailing teams are all similarly structured and run like pro football teams. Each team is accompanied by a Coach , a team leader and more often than not a second manager. They each have their own roles and their days quite filled with tasks. Very few parents could be seen at the venue, and the few that were there attended in an official capacity. To put things in perspective: the Italian team had Alex De Murtas with them, who was one of the hopefuls for overall victory. Alex is a FVR member, has been for generations. He probably lives within walking distance from the club. Never once has anyone of his family been seen at the venue. The Italian team (5 sailors, a coach and a team leader) lived together, ate together, trained together, went to bed at the same time, no external interferences. We saw them at every meal and had them near us in the compound, never did I see an Italian parent until the last day, when they all arrived. This arrangement is the same that is applied at every other regatta by every other team: the club teams travel with their coaches who drive the club’s van. This has created a legion of professional Optimist coaches who all run their programmes and logistics in the same way. There seems to be an unwritten protocol that everybody follows. All coaches know each other and are pretty much interchangeable. There is hardly anything to reinvent in the organization and structure of all the European teams.

Our setup was not as well proven as the other teams, but with Mark we quickly allocated each other tasks and we learned quickly how to structure our little army. Mark is not normally an Optimist coach, being the parent that drops his children at the gate of the club, and I had to quickly find out what was needed of me throughout the event. We started from the most important feature: the sailing. Our day programmes and schedules had to revolve around the sailing, be it training or racing, therefore Mark had priority in calling briefing times, rigging times, breakfast times and my task was to assist in any way so that he should focus only on the sailing. It was my task to submit our daily temperature checks, organize meals, laundry, purchases, signing in and out, delivering the trackers, filling up the water bottles, and running any errand that would make life easier for the team. I learned quickly and hardly had a moment of spare time. There was always some document or payment or enquiry to chase, and with 4 teenage sailors there were quite a few search and rescue missions to be undertaken for wetsuits, shorts, sunglasses, burgees, dry bags, etc. Any dream I may have hatched on the plane to sip afternoon beers on the club balcony quickly dissipated on day one. I tried to make sure that everybody had what they needed when they needed it and put on the back burner admin tasks which I took care of when the boats left the shore.



The first two days of the event are also measurement days. A never ending queue of Optimist enters one side of the shed to exit at the other end after all is checked to be compliant. With three new charter boats it went rather quickly for team SA. Only Elisa had too big a tolerance on her mast ring (for which I had a spare) and was 100 grams underweight. We applied correctors to her boat and all were ready to go. The measurement checks are quite strict, and quite a few boats needed some work to measure correctly.


Coach buddies

Coach boats are shared between two countries to minimize the amount of traffic on the water. We originally requested to share with Spain because Nicola sails with the Spanish squad, but the request never reached the organizers and Spain was already paired up when we got there. We tried to go with Ireland because Elisa had worked with their coach already, but Ireland was also already paired up. I then met Michael, our Polish coach friend from Saldanha and TSC, and in a last attempt I tried to share the coachboat with Poland, but we would have had to forfeit our RIB charter fee because Poland was using a private RIB. This was an important lesson: coachboat pairing must not be left to happen randomly, we must make our request early on and make sure that the pairing is done correctly. It must be the coaches choice to pair up with someone, and the Manager’s duty to make it happen during the early entry stages. Organizing to go with with Poland early on would have saved us also a little bit of charter fee.

Anyway, we were paired with Ecuador and Mark was able to seize control of the RIB so that he could better manage our athletes. At the beginning it was chaos for both coaches, they had sailors in all 4 fleets. When it came to the Finals, the Ecuadorians had all sailors in one fleet, so it was easier for them; Mark had his sailors scattered over 3 fleets and had to become creative, asking the Spanish team to tow Nicola who needed to be out for the first starts. I doubt he had any time to watch any of the racing, because at any one time he would have had a sailor at the RIB in between races.


Going digital

It had to happen anyway, but Covid certainly accelerated the process: there are no more physical notice boards. Everything (results, notices, protests) is posted on whatsapp groups, on the event microsite, or on the event’s app, which you must download when you register. Every sailor has their own online account where his/her personal communications, protests, etc are posted. There are also emails sent back and forth with the organizers, therefore it is unthinkable to take on the role of Team leader or coach without a smartphone. All communications happen very quickly, and people want results, or pictures before racing is even finished and WiFi can be slow, so I purchased a local SIM to be able to stay on top of things, that certainly helped. With Mark we also had VHF comms from shore to RIB, but we rarely used it, we communicated mostly via whatsapp. Also the Race Committee rarely used radios. Only during team racing did I hear them on VHF. Another app that one must install on the phone is the Track Track, that enables shorebound folks to watch the racing on a screen. It provides an accurate rendering of the results and positions, albeit with a 6 minutes delay, but it is not as accurate as the software used in Television to broadcast the America’s Cup. For the coaches it is sometimes the only way to watch the regatta, but it is somewhat ambitious to try and do some forensics of a race with it: you can’t pick up shifts and windspeed changes, and sometimes the marks are way off position. Still, better than receiving a telex.


The Africans bid

During the past year a group of South African parents started working on a Continental Championship bid to be held in Langebaan in 2022. I knew that, as Team Manager, it would be my task to present and market the South African bid at the IODA AGM. I was briefed and given the signed forms and sent off. I also asked my daughter Sara to prepare a 3 minutes presentation video, highlighting the merits of the chosen venue. I circulated this video on the Whatsapp groups for all other teams to see and that was the beginning of my canvassing campaign. Before the AGM I had to have two meetings, one with Susan, the regatta secretary, and another with the IODA Exco to promote our bid. I think it went well because they decided to bring our bid to the AGM. The AGM is something huge: 52 delegates attend, one for each country in attendance at the Worlds, and several more attend remotely. It looks almost like a United Nations meeting. The buffet lunch alone is a valid reason for attending. The usual things are discussed, budgets, rules, elections of key personnel, and then the venues for Worlds and Continental championships have to be voted 2 years in advance. We were voting for the venues of 2023 after watching the bidder’s pitches. Worlds and Europeans needed 5 subsequent revotes before the ties would be broken. Other continents, including Africa, went a lot quicker. We secured the bid for 2022, but in all honesty I cannot claim any credit for my presentation; we had no competition for our bid.

I emphasized the willingness from our side to have also non-African countries attend, and I put the Family holiday spin to it: come to South Africa for the family holiday of a lifetime and stay also for the African Championship. There is plenty of work to be done to put this championship together now, and we must not think that we are starting too soon. If we have to take away a lesson or two from what I have seen at FVR, we have to get going with the organization from now. Charter boats must be organized and delivered, RIBs must be sourced, venue hired, judges and RO contacted, deals must be struck with tourism boards and travel agents, and so forth.


The big shed

FVR has a 5000sqm shed just on the shore of the lake. This shed constantly changed purpose during the event. It started out as the measurement checks area: boats would wheel in from one end and emerge stamped and approved on the other side. Each team had an allocated time to bring all the boats and equipment, not sooner, not later.

Half of the shed was then converted to canteen. A catering company was in charge of serving buffet breakfasts and evening meals to all teams. Each team had a designated table and allocated time to come and eat; 4 separate shifts.

Another quarter of the shed was filled with wooden boxes for the teams to store their equipment. Each box was ¾ of a cubic metre and we used ours to keep tools, spares, life jackets, snacks.

The balance of the shed was used to store rigs upright for those who did not want to roll their sails every evening and for the coaches meeting every morning. Some evenings there would be some presentations for the sailors, regarding team racing, or other relevant issues like measurement.

Here in Garda. The teams closer to the big east slipway find it easier to park inside the shed.

This shed is also where every morning a small army of caterers would prepare the packed lunches and the team leaders would come and collect.

I spent a lot of time in this shed, if it wasn’t to collect or store equipment in the box, I was there to pimp our sandwiches that needed some boosting up from the initial recipe. I would have to go there to collect and deliver the trackers every day, of course I was there with our team for all the meals, and I ended up there because of the WiFi, of course.


Moving around

As far as the racing goes, I did not see much of it. Obviously there was plenty of discussions, briefing and debriefing to attend with Mark and the sailors, where I quickly was brought up to speed, but my days were differently occupied. I was glad that we rented a car and I could have that mobility required to run some errands and carry sails and bags. Other venues for World championships have been run in resorts where everything is there and you don’t need to leave the compound, but Riva was a little more spread out, and to have access to something faster than walking was useful from time to time.

It was just a lucky coincidence that we had a Take Away Pizza Dude just 100 metres from our accommodation, because that allowed me to bridge the time between sailing and dinner with 4 feral kids. Almost every day we would pick up an Extra Large pizza to be shared during debriefing.

We were contacted by some South Africans who run a Windsurf Centre near FVR, and we were invited to go visit, but we never managed to take them up on their offer, that is how full our days were.


Team Racing and Venice

In fact the only spare day we had was the second day of Team Racing, because we did not make it past the first day elimination rounds. We still did better than expected, but a lack of experience in Team Racing led us to an early exit from the tournament. The only element to blame here is the small number of Optimist sailors in South Africa. Only a larger fleet would enable Team Racing, as it stands we would not have enough teams to practice.

For this rest day, some of us decided to rest and remain in Riva, while Elisa and Theo decided to join me for a 2 hour drive to visit Venice. We were there for 3 hours, had an ice cream, walked through the city, and went for a Gondola tour, then back to Riva.

I believe that if you travel to the other side of the world for a regatta you should make the effort to visit a bit of the country you are travelling to, and with Venice only a short distance away I thought it would be criminal to give it a miss.


Packing and getting to know new cultures

The last day of racing was followed by packing, returning charter boats, and prizegiving. While prizegiving and the customary exchange of garments was happening between sailors, Mark was loading trailers, I was haggling the refund of damage deposits and emptying our storage box so that we would all be able to attend our final dinner in the shed, where extra space was created to allow everybody to dine simultaneously.

My brother and his family came to pick up Elisa for an extra week of holiday in Italy, and I asked him to bring a bathroom scale along. I was not going to entertain the Qatar Airlines passengers one more time in Milano airport: I made my two travel buddies weigh and reshuffle their belongings before closing their luggage and weighed all the tubes to make sure we were within the allowances.

For the trip back it was just Theo, Sean and myself, and everything went smoothly.

For the past two weeks I had encouraged my travel companions to embrace some of the local culture, try Italian foods and drinks and generally appreciate the diversity. All my hard work came to fruition when, after checking in our luggage, with half an hour to spare, we decided to hit the food court of the Airport.

We settled down and enjoyed our Big Macs with fries and a Sundae to top it all off.