South Africa entered a team of four sailors for the 2019 Optimist European Championship. As Europeans and Worlds are mutually exclusive, it was a case of either attend Worlds, or Europeans. Our sailors are young and relatively inexperienced, as such it was decided that it was premature to send a team to Worlds in Antigua this year.
The team for Europeans consisted of Ingrid Holm (13), Rohan Chidley (12), Lena Holm (11) and Sean Kavanagh (10).
The team arrived at the regatta venue early, on 13 June. The following day their coach Diogo Pontes from Viana Sailing Performance in Portugal arrived with four optimists, two in the van and two on a rack above his black VSR RIB. The optimists were Blueblue boats that were acquired by Viana after last year’s Worlds in Cyprus. The team used the Viana boats for a week of pre-regatta training, then switched to charter boats from the organisers for the regatta.
The weather in Brittany was not dissimilar to Cape Town in Winter, just with very long days. Night time temperatures fell below 10 degrees and, in the day, seldom went above 20 degrees, with the notable exception of one day during the regatta when the mercury hit 38 degrees. Water temperature was 14-15 degrees.
The organisers provided a useful information pack. It included a topographical map of the area and a chart showing the prevailing winds at the time of the year. According to the info pack we could expect SW breeze of around 10knots in the morning, freshening to around 20knots in the afternoon as the land heats up. All good in theory.
Sean contracted a virus either at school prior to departure or on the journey. He arrived in Morgat with a fever spiking to 40 degrees and immediately consulted with a French doctor, using family friend Sophie Pages as a translator via whatsapp. The French seem to prescribe paracetamol for everything. In fact, one wall in the pharmacy was dedicated to paracetamol. Sean was quarantined with his parents nearby the crew house and fortunately did not pass on the evil virus to the other crew members.
On Sat 15 June the three healthy sailors and the coach headed out for the first training session and first opportunity to familiarize themselves with conditions at the regatta venue. The breeze was fresh from the SW gusting over 20 knots and the waves challenging. It was a good workout for the sailors. The second day of training was much the same. The coach spent time assessing the sailor’s movement and body positions in the boat, their boat speed and skills in tacking and gybing. Early on, starting with stiff competition, was identified as an area where the kids needed more experience.
Sean joined the training on Thurs 20 June, having sufficiently recovered from his illness and FOMO while quarantined. By this time most of the teams had arrived and were dotted all over the ocean, training with their respective coaches. In the afternoon they all joined up for some mass informal fleet races. Our kids were slightly overwhelmed and struggled to understand the informal race signals and even where the starting line was. In addition, given that it was practice, with no race committee calling OCS, there were plenty of early starters. None the less, they learned quickly that there is a high premium on sailing in clean air in a large fleet and that boat speed is everything. One cannot let your speed drop for a split second, you pinch, you die, sail in dirty air, you die!
In the days immediately prior the regatta the winds were relatively light and shifty, funneling down the valleys to the north of the race course. The computer-generated weather forecasts were proving to be totally unreliable. Little did we know that this was to be the pattern throughout the regatta, with the prevailing winds never materializing. The tidal range was close to five meters. A study of the depth contours in the bay revealed an even bottom, with charted depth of 6m near the shore, gradually sloping to around 20m in the middle of the bay. The current indicators on the Navionics chart suggested tidal flows of max 0.4 knots. As such current was not a huge factor, until the wind went light.
Registration was smooth, with the organisers using a new ipad based electronic system to capture all the boat and sail measurement data and other relevant information. Each nation was allocated a spot in the boat park, where little wooden wendy houses were temporarily erected to serve as change rooms and storage for boat covers, bags etc.
Charter boats came from two companies, Nautivela (Italy) and Erplast (France). The girls were allocated brand new Nautivela boats that had bright orange antislip, with bubbles created in the paint by mixing salt into the coating. The girls had to rinse the boats and get the salt out. The boys had nearly new Erplast boats that had Zou foils, giving a familiar feel as the boats were nearly identical to the Zou’s we sail in SA.
As the youngest boy in the competition Sean was required to read the sailors oath at the opening ceremony. He did a good job on stage in front of 400-500 people, following the colorful parade through the streets of Morgat and speeches by the Mayor and IODA officials. He and the youngest girl then pushed a firing mechanism to start the firework display that signaled the opening of the event.
‘I promise that I will sail in this Optimist European Championship respecting and complying with all the applicable rules and regulations and I will do all my best to achieve victory, always in view of promoting the sport of sailing and the friendship among the sailors of all participating countries’.
The first day of racing, Mon 24 June was windless. The frustrated sailors waited the whole day on the harbor wall staring at the mirror, looking for any signs of breeze, but none appeared. Day 2 saw the 176 sailor boys fleet divided into three, yellow, blue and red fleets. The 117 sailor girls fleet was split in two, yellow and blue. The Europeans is unique in that the girls and boys compete separately. In most other optimist events around the world, including the World Championship, the fleet is mixed.
The wind was light and shifty from the NW. It was immediately apparent that the sailors would fight for the right side of the start line, with plenty of space down near the pin. IODA race management guidelines stipulate that the length of the start line must be 1.5x the length of an optimist x the number of boats. With 60 boats in a fleet, this meant a start line 210m long. So in theory there was plenty of space on the start line.
Despite this our sailors struggled off the start line in the first races, with Sean posting a 45th, Rohan 42nd, Ingrid 40th and Lena 59th. Jasmijn Holtus, the reigning South African national champion and light air specialist, sailing for Kenya had a great first race, finishing 3rd!
In race 2 our sailors did better, having the nerves out the way, Sean got a good start and finished in 11th, Rohan was just below mid fleet in 36th and Lena did marginally better with a 53rd. Sadly Ingrid was given a DNF when her course was shortened in the dying breeze at the leeward gate. She finished between the finish boat and the right-hand gate mark (looking upwind) and did not pass through the gate. Jasmijn got a creditable 16th in race 2.
At the end of day the sailors were all smiles. The strong showing by Jasmyn and Sean instilled a sense of belief in the sailors, they new they could compete in this fleet.
Day 3 had three races for each fleet in the best wind of the week. It was from the WNW, coming over the peninsula and hence shifty. Pressure was on and off, with up to 18 or even 20 knots in the puffs. It would be a test of fitness and stamina. Sean had an excellent day finishing 7th, 36th and 7th. At times he was in the top 3 in races 3 and 5. With a little more weight and fitness, he may have held those positions. Notes made for the future. He was elated to have achieved a position in the gold fleet for the remainder of the regatta. Following a 27th in race 3 Rohan had a chance of making the silver fleet, however posting 47th and 41st in the final two races were not quite good enough. Both Ingrid and Lena were black flagged in race 3, ending their chances of making the gold fleet. Ingrid finished the day with a 47th and 41st. Lena finished with a 43rd and a creditable 25th. Jasmijn struggled a little in the stronger breeze posting 19th, 34th and 37th, still comfortably making the gold fleet.
On day 4 the wind was light and fickle starting in the east and clocking to the south, however the race committee was determined to get races in. This resulted in numerous postponements, and race restarts. In his first race in the gold fleet, Sean competed valiantly for a front row start near the favoured committee boat end of the line. Sadly he, along with 16 others were black flagged. Thereafter the race committee reset the course following the wind to the right and started the race. Sean and the others watching form the sidelines. Strangely Sean struggled for speed in the very light wind, posting a 57th in race 7, gold fleet was tough. Rohan got his best result of the week, a 23rd in race 6. At one stage he was leading a race that was abandoned due to lack of wind. In girls silver Ingrid had the best result of a South African during the week with 6th in race 6. Lena posted a 39th. Jasmijn is a light air master, getting a 4th in race 6. Apart from the boys gold fleet that completed two races, only 1 race was completed on the day.
The final day of racing saw more reasonable breeze of 8-14 knots from the WNW in the morning, but the wind became progressively lighter and fickle as the day ran on. Sean sailed well when the breeze was up, getting 20th in race 8 and 40th in race 9 (having been in 30th at the last leeward mark). He finished the regatta with a disappointing 56th in very light air. Rohan had a 37th and 38th, finishing with a 51st, his worst result of the week in the dying breeze. After a 44th in race 7, Ingrid had a good finish to the regatta getting top half results of 23rd and 25th. After a 53rd in race 7, Lena got her best result of the week, a 21st in race 8 and finished with 43rd in race 9. After missing her start and posting a 59th in race 7, Jasmijn had an excellent last day posting a 5th and 11th to finish 15th overall. Outstanding!
The experience was fantastic and left our sailors with a clear picture what they need to do to improve. As always improvement is incremental, get the little things right and the rest will follow. Body positions in the boat need to be drilled, sailing in a tight groove upwind and flawless tacks and gybes will help a lot. Synchronizing body, sheet and rudder movements with the wave patterns is a skill that takes years to master. Doing so will result in top quartile results or better. Starting is super important, an obvious area for improvement for all sailors.
Huge thanks to Rudolph Holm for an excellent job as manager, Diogo Pontes our coach, George Leonchuk the Kenya coach and supporting parents, Joris and Maureen, Ciaran and Nicky and Michael and Heidi who all played their part in making it a successful event.
Report by Michael Kavanagh