By Gary Jobson
Mixed gender sailboat racing debuted in the Olympic Games today off Rio de Janeiro with the Nacra 17 multihull class. The wind conditions off Flamingo beach for the speedy cats were bizarre. The race committee did well to get off two races. They spent several hours adjusting the turning marks, and waiting (hoping) for the wind to settle in. The Nacra 17s respond well to the slightest puff of wind, but unfortunately there were many dead zones. Then, a strong gust would suddenly arrive out of nowhere.
In the first race, Matias Buhler and Nathalie Brugger, sailing for Switzerland, were closing in on the finish line with a comfortable lead when they suddenly stopped. Several boats sailing in a private breeze came streaking down the course at high speed. The Swiss showed remarkable calm, jibed their boat in front of the approaching gust, and got rolling just before being passed. They won the race. It was exciting. The next four boats finished within seconds. The whole day was like this.
Think about sailing in these conditions. Big choppy waves, a strong adverse two-knot current, winds shifting randomly between 40 degrees, and the velocity ranging from two knots to 18. How does one keep up? Keeping the emotions out of the equation is part of it. Several crews spent their time searching for new wind, while shifting their body weight to keep the Nacra 17s heeling. In the light patches the crew moved well forward to lift the stern out of the water.
The lead changes reminded me of film clips I used to watch in the movie theater on Saturdays while growing up. There was some kind of car race or running contest. The competitors were constantly jumbled up and seemed to share the lead a one point. The ultimate winner was always in question. The episodes were called, "Crazy Races." The lead changes in the Nacra reminded me of these goofy clips.
Mixed teams are rare in most sports. In the Olympics, we do see mixed competitions in shooting, equestrian, ice skating, tennis and luge. In the Nacra event, five of the 20 helmsmen are female. Among them is Sofia Bekatorou from Greece, who won a Gold medal in the 470 Class in Athens in 2004. She and her crew, Michail Pateniotis, finished third in Race Two. After two races, the Swiss crew was tied for the lead with Great Britain. Americans Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee had a 13-10, and stand two points out of the Medal round. They struggled on the first legs after the start, but seemed to get stronger as each race progressed.
The Men's and Women's 470 Classes also started racing today. Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha opened with an 8-3. They have a good chance to earn a medal. Over on the men's course, Stu McNay and Dave Hughes stand 8th with a 10-7. Caleb Paine in the Finn had a race he would rather forget, with a 21st out of 23 boats, but came back strong in Race Four with a third. Britain's Giles Scott was back in form with a 2-1. Paige Railey stands 7th in the Laser Radial Class. She needs a couple good races to move her up the leader board if she hopes to win a medal. Consistency is her goal now. She has a 15-2-9-21-2-7 so far in the series, with four races before the Medal Race. Charlie Buckingham stands 15th with a 2-7-10-22-8-26. He must string together four good races to reach the medal round.
Our sailing on NBC is moving around. Most days we will be on MSNBC around 4:30pm ET. The Nacra 17s aired on NBCSN at 11:00pm ET on Wednesday.