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In the Vilamoura Marina there is no wind at all, but me and another 250 Optimist Worlds sailors are rigged and ready to go out. Meanwhile we chat and crack a few jokes.
It is during one of these waiting sessions that Marco Gradoni (at 12 years of age he is the youngest sailor from the Italian team, he would finish 4th overall) tells me that in one of the races he has noticed I don’t roll enough during my tacks. In Cape Town, I explain, it is always windy, and hardly ever do we need to roll as they do in Europe. I ask Marco to teach me to roll like he does, and he talks me through it. This is one of the many lessons I have learned from the Italians during the last Worlds.
I represented South Africa, but because I was the only one going from here, I was lucky enough to be “adopted” by the Italian Team, coached by Marcello Meringolo. A lot of this has to do with my uncle, a sailing journalist in Italy that knows pretty much everybody involved in Italian sailing. When he made a few calls to ask for advice because I was travelling to Worlds, Marcello had no half measures: I would be treated as the 6th sailing member of the Italian team. That’s how it started, my parents sent me to Italy to my grandparents, and they drove me to Portugal for the regatta.
To get to Vilamoura I flew to Rome first, where I met Alessandro Mei, the Italian Team Leader, at my grandparent’s house. My grandparents drove me to the regatta, it took 40 hours to get there: We took an overnight ferry, we had a minor breakdown, we almost got lost, but we got there. Alessandro helped my Grandparents on a lot of issues that you don’t know unless somebody from your team has been there before: logistics and technical mostly. Like SIM cards, hotels, meals, measurements, and many others. Alessandro has always been very kind and helpful to me. The Italians came with their Optimist association president too, Norberto Foletti, who was always encouraging with everybody and took us all out to dinner away from the resort, where the catering was not always that great.
The starts have been a huge difference and hurdle for me. At home we don’t have so many boats on the start line. Even our biggest fleet at Nationals does not come close to the amount of boats there were on one start in Vilamoura. The European sailors are used to having hundreds of boats at local regattas, so they were better prepared in that regard. With such tough competition it took me a few days just to learn to find a slot on the line. Marcello explained to me how to gain a front line spot in order not to remain covered. If you start in second lane, your race is lost from the beginning, at that level hardly anybody makes mistakes and you don’t catch them again. Without any international experience, that is unfortunatelly what happened to me at the biginning of the regatta, and my final result was at the very back of the fleet.
I am not happy about my final placing, but I am happy that I went to find out what it is like to sail at the top level. Every day I tried to beat my previous day result, and tried to learn as much as possible. I totally missed my usual reference points, the people I normally sail against back home. Maybe, if we had gone as a team from South Africa, things could have been different, we would have pushed and helped each other. As it was, I was the only South African there and I spent the week trying to catch up with people that are on a different technical level, supported by a proper managerial structure. It also did not help that we raced the whole week in very light airs and ocean swell, whereas most of our training back home happens in stronger breeze and flat waters, no currents, no waves. In fact, when on the second last day the wind came in stronger than the usual 4 knots, and it built up to 8-10, that is when I had my best result. Who knows how it could have gone had we had more wind for the whole week?
I think I have learned more at this regatta than I would have learned in months of training here, and I made some new friends, especially the Italian Team, that took me in as one of theirs (I also came in handy for them with the English language when the protest forms had to be filled in). I was always with them: during briefings and debriefings on shore, I was at the Italian rubber duck inbetween races (which we shared with the Spanish team), we rigged and derigged together, we went to eat together and we spent together the time waiting for the wind to fill in.
As it turned out, the only Italian girl of the team happens to be the daughter of an old friend of my mother, the two of them having travelled together to (and competed against each other) several international regattas representing Italy in the Europe class. So, you see, history sort of repeats itself some 30 years later. I could not compete in the team racing, but I was happy to watch and support the Italian team that came in 3rd, behind Argentina and the winners USA. Afterwards we celebrated with a bottle of Champagne offered by the french measurer.
By then also my friends back home in SA were constantly demanding updates via Whatsapp because they were also supporting Italy. I had every member of the Italian squad sign the RSA flag that was flying at the back of the Italian duck for the whole week. As soon as I got home I put it up in my room to remind me of my Italian team mates and this wonderful experience.
Grazie Italia e forza azzurri
Alex Falcon – RSA 1432