The “Meeting del Garda” (aka Trofeo Kinder, because of the long running sponsorship to the event) is the largest single class dinghy regatta in the world by number of competitors. It has been reasonably normal in the last few years to have 1200 boats enter.
The event is generally held at Easter weekend, and it marks the beginning of the sailing season for most European countries; Swedes, Germans, Danes and Swiss that cannot sail on home waters yet, descend to the relatively warmer shores of Lake Garda for a weekend of racing.
The event is not meant to be a World championship, and is open to whoever wants to attend, the only limit is on the number of competitors, which is capped at 1400 (but this figure has been increasing steadily as the organizing machine improves year after year).
At home we have always known about this event, and my brother attended it in 2015, bringing back tales of long starting lines, frostbite, and unbearable noise of flapping sails on hugely long start lines. It was decided that I would attend it later in my Optimist career, not at the beginning like he did. The chosen year for me to attend was 2020, because it was the year I intended to qualify for Worlds, and the worlds would have been at the same venue. As it turned out, nothing happened in 2020, no Meeting, No worlds, no Nationals, and we held my 2020 entry good for 2021 rather than ask for a refund.
Easter 2021 came, and the event was postponed: just as well, because travel was still banned, and quarantines were still enforced both ways. This gave me nevertheless the chance to sail Western Cape Provincials, which went rather well.
We kept an eye on the meeting, but the difficulties to travel were too big.
We laid the matter to rest until the organizers called my dad to hear whether I was going to go or not, and that is when we discovered that with the proper invitation letter from FIV and the appropriate Covid tests we could bypass quarantine. My father had a quick look at the feasibility of the travelling and within a week, just 2 weeks before the event, we were booked to go.
Travelling now is far more complicated than 2 years ago, the amount of paperwork that gets generated is enormous, at every checkpoint there is at least one form that needs to be filled in and dropped off at the next checkpoint.
The evening before travelling we went to get tested, both my dad and I tested negative and were allowed to travel. The aircraft was almost empty, so each passenger could sleep lying down on three seats. When we arrived in Milan we were well rested. We rented a car and drove 3 hours to Chiara Fruet’s Grandparents house to collect Chiara’s Optimist which she was kindly lending to me for this event and the upcoming World Championship. The boat was on the third floor of an apartment block, and we had to carry it down the stairs and load it on the roof of the rental car. We had brought padding and straps to carry the boat for the next hour drive to Riva.
During the drive we saw mountains, waterfalls and forests, true alpine scenery, with snow still on the mountain tops.
Just like in South Africa, everybody wears a mask, access to shops is limited in number of customers, and Covid protocols are implemented everywhere.
The north side of Lake Garda, where Riva is, is a playground for sports. People come from all over Europe to Mountain bike, ski, windsurf, sail, wingfoil, paraglide, and whatever else you can think of doing outdoors.
The Hotel Roma where we stayed is fully booked by sailors during the meeting, In the breakfast room there are giant pictures of Optimist sailors on the walls, and Marco Gradoni is regarded as one of the family here. His coach Simone Ricci has made a second home for himself at the Hotel Roma and that is where I found him. My father had organized for Simone to give me tows to the racecourse, because if you don’t have a tow out you don’t make it to the start in Garda. Simone had coached my brother at a few events before, but this time he could offer me only tows, because he had inherited also a German team over and above his Club’s team because the German coach had had an accident.
My father told me not to worry, that Adri would be my coach on the racecourse, but Adri was unable to tow me out, hence the split.
We went to the club to offload, register and rig, and as I was walking towards my boat I saw Nicola Sadler rigging her boat 5 metres away from mine. In order to make it a surprise, our parents had not told us that we would meet there and it was amazing to meet my friend just like that. Nicola and I went to crèche together before they moved to Palma and we have always remained best of friends. She will be with me in the South African team at Optimist Worlds in July, and she also came to scout the location before the event. Her coach is Adri, who already knew he would have to keep an eye on me on the water.
This year’s event was attended by 500 Juniores (A fleet) sailors and 100 cadetti (B fleet), the split happens with age, not skills. 20 Countries were represented, but 70% of the fleet is made up by Italians. As all sailors arrived at the boatpark, I could tell that I was the only non- white sailor taking part, and this circumstance turned quite amusing during the regatta, because people did not know I understood Italian and tried to speak to me in the most funny accents, sometimes I just let them struggle a bit before answering in Italian.
On the first day, Wednesday this year, for the past 7 years the “Country Cup” has been introduced. It is a opening event, one competitor per Country, three races no discard, typically held closer to shore. The chosen competitor of each country does not have to be the best of that country, but if you look at the results sheet, you will not find a name that you will not see on the results sheet in July. They take it quite seriously. I was convinced I would come stone last in this Pre-Event, and was relieved that I actually did better than my expectation.
Before attending the Country Cup I went out with Adri and his sailors for a training session. Adri filmed everybody and took reference points on shore for us to use during the regatta, and during the evening debriefing explained us how to sail the boat in the Garda chop. Sitting a little further back reduces the slamming into the waves, but not too much, otherwise the boat trim goes wrong. Years of sailing and training at Theewaterskloof and in Stormy bay at ZVYC helped me to come to terms with this chop quite soon.
Thursday saw the start of the Meeting races. Maximum 3 per day, in randomly allocated fleets: blue, green, red and yellow for us Juniores. I was yellow, together with Nicola and another 125 sailors. During the qualifying series you score points as if you were in a fleet of 125 boats, not 500, that is why you have 4 winners for each race and your score can never be worse than 125. I was very nervous, but at the end of the day, after 2 races I was lying 280th, not too bad for my first international event. Nicola did much better, finishing the day in 90th place. The main thing to get used to was the start line, which is so long that the committee boat has to sit in the middle and there are port and starboard pins. There is no midline sag, and because everybody wants to go to the right, you really have to be at the front; starting in second lane is a no go. Another drastic change was that the Preparatory flag comes down at 3 minutes from the start, not one minute. This is done to prevent sailors come and join the start from above the line. The only way to join the start is to come up from the holding area to the lee of the startline after the rubberducks clear you to move up.
On Thursday also my grandparents arrived, and although during a regatta I try to remain focused on the event, I was really happy to see them, because I had not seen them for four years.
On Friday, second day of qualifying races, I had understood better the conditions and the competition and was able to climb a few places on the results sheet, placing 202nd . Nicola also climbed up to 34th after winning the last race of the day. The wind was stronger, with short chop. I tried to sail barefoot, but the water was too cold; it was the only day I tried that. In fact, at the end of the day we also bought a warmer pair of gloves.
Saturday was a rainy day, last day of qualifying races. We got up early to go to Verona and do our Covid test for the return trip and made it back to the regatta just on time. My dad rigged for me while I changed, my grandmother had prepared the lunch sandwiches for me and Nicola took them out to Adri and although I was the last to leave shore, Simone was ready there for the fastest tow to the start line, Conditions were lighter again, but the wind was not completely from the south anymore, it was further to south east, making it a little shiftier. I closed the day and the qualifying series in 181st overall, best race 21st place. Qualified for Silver fleet, smack bang in the middle of it. Nicola climbed up some more too, up to 23rd overall, Gold Fleet, fourth Spanish sailor.
The last day of racing, Sunday, saw the sailors split in the Final fleets: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Amber.
The Cadetti continued sailing in one fleet, no splits for them.
The wind started out lighter, and switched 180 degrees a couple of times, making it difficult to position the course. When finally racing got underway the Gold fleet managed to complete two races, then racing was abandoned while the Silver fleet was completing the second race, because the Carabinieri (the local Police) sent us back to shore due to a storm coming. So the Gold fleet had 2 finals races, the others all had one race only for the last day. My final position after 4 days of racing was 44th in the Silver fleet (173rd overall).
Nicola completed the day, and the event, in 12th position overall, first girl, second Spanish sailor.
Following strict Covid protocols the prizegiving was via Facebook, and only the prize winners had to attend, but I still went. I could not miss my friend Nicola standing on the podium for being first girl.
The prizegiving was streamed via Facebook just like the Lucky draw of the previous day: sails and spars and foils were handed out in a lucky draw with the final prize being a brand new Blue Blue hull.
After the prizegiving we still had time to rush into Riva for some fashion shopping with my grandmother, then one last dinner together before leaving the following morning towards Milano for our flight.
We missed the Monday flight and had to catch one on Tuesday, so we ended up staying at the Sheraton in the airport for the night, but hey, such is the hard life of the South African Sailor.
I am extremely happy with my final result. It puts me on the limit of the first third of the fleet of a major international event where I was convinced I would not make it better than Bronze fleet. I realized that all the work that we have done in the past years with Dylan and Claire has been in the right direction and that although we may still have a long way to go to reach the level of other countries, we are not as hopeless as we sometimes are led to believe; there is potential for our team to do well at the upcoming world championship. I am also pleased with the progression of my results, finishing every day in a better position than where I started.
But the real cherry on the cake is having finished in Silver fleet whereas my brother did not make it past Pearl when he went to the same regatta. That gives me some bragging rights at the dinner table.
I learned about the course where I will sail the Worlds well in advance and won’t have to go through that learning curve during the main event, but most importantly I have had some big fleet experience which I never had before.
The sailing skillset in Europe is clearly higher because there are so many more sailors than here. Everything is so much better organized, boats and sails and sailing gear are all much newer and more modern than here and the coaches travel with the sailors; you hardly see any parents at the regatta.
They tell you that the international language on the water is English, and the correct enunciation of warnings should be “Water at the mark” or “Starboard”, or “No Room”. I can now say that the correct International enunciation for pretty much anything is “ OHOHOHOHOH” and this pretty much simplifies all communications.