Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lessons Learned: Life and sport come together at the RS:X European Championships

Sometimes, I think windsurfing has made me grow up a lot faster than any of the other years of my life. The sport has forced me to learn a lot about discipline, organization, culture, and has compelled me to tame emotional issues and accept my person and life as I create it. Of course, there are always life lessons to be taken from windsurfing competition. The first is to truly be happy even when your racing is awful and it’s too easy to judge yourself by your results. The second is that racing is dangerous, and following the rules is extremely important. In the end, it’s only sport, and sport comes second to lives at stake.

The Europeans didn’t go very well for me. Not only did I struggle in the light wind, on the windier fourth and fifth days I wasn't able to race well. On the fourth day of racing, I crashed on the starting line with Agata Brygola, one of the top Polish women sailors, who was unable to finish well in the race. The collision was three-way with a board in the middle heading me up, and when I was unable to get my equipment stable enough to do so, catching a mast on my clew to take all of us out. In this situation I was in the wrong, the fall was an accident, and I took a penalty turn. The result of the collision was a redress hearing, something I’m quite familiar with! Agata was awarded redress of average points for the affected race in a competent hearing. This was great news for Agata and being in front of the jury was a good experience for her. Although I initially felt bad about the incident, accidents in sport happen often and I felt good about my conduct at the hearing. I finished the day still feeling positive. The next incident, however, didn’t have such a good conclusion.

Lots of boards coming off the line

On the fifth day of racing, the breeze filled in to Sopot’s best conditions. 13-15 knots out of the northwest means clean wind, nice swell, and planing conditions. I was looking forward to racing as the conditions favored me, and for the first race of the day had a clean start (OCS as I would later find out) and went daggerboard down until I was on top of the fleet. I finished the first upwind planing and planed quickly downwind to the leeward mark. I dropped the daggerboard again as it was quite crowded and I wanted to get up into cleaner air. As I was rounding the mark, a competitor from Israel, Lee Korzits, who races really well and is fast in the breeze, rounded inside of me, a legal maneuver. I had left enough space around the mark, so we both completed the rounding. However, Lee was planing quickly and didn’t have a good angle yet, so she came to the inside of me quite close, couldn’t sail up higher, and it was difficult for me to bear off with my daggerboard down. Lee would have passed me unscathed, but her boom caught on my jersey and ripped it, catapulting her off her board and bringing both sets of equipment down on top of her. Lee tried to swim to the surface underneath the two sets of equipment and couldn’t escape. She panicked and screamed underneath the tangle of boards and sails. I jumped off and tried to separate the gear, but a quick-thinking French windsurfing coach sped up to the collision and dragged Lee out of the water. By then Lee had swallowed water and passed out, and they dragged her over the side of the boat as dead weight. The French coach revived her and brought her to shore with her equipment.

The incident terrified me. I dropped out of the race, sailed in to make sure Lee was all right, and wasn’t able to sail the rest of the day. In all sports, incidents such as this happen frequently, and remind us of the importance of the rules, but also of being conscientious and respectful of other competitors no matter your position, because human lives are precious. In the first incident, I was in the wrong and realized it but was unable to do anything about it, thus resulting in a collision and a penalty turn. In the collision with Lee, she was theoretically in the wrong, but because of the differing angles of planing and non-planing boards, was unable to sail higher. More conscientiousness on everyone’s part may have prevented both incidents, and the racing rules are made to create conscientiousness at any sailing event.

On our racecourse, with a large, extremely competitive fleet, a short starting line, and a tight slalom finish, infractions of the rules were happening left and right. Often girls were taking penalty turns, but just as often, they weren’t. At this regatta in general, it was difficult for the girls to respect space and minimize contact between boards, making it extremely dangerous racing. In the future, to reduce the danger at important regattas, regatta juries need to watch the racing closely and disqualify more boards. Also, the female competitors overall need to take initiative and protest people who foul them without taking a penalty turn. I saw this happen at least three or four times during the regatta, and each time the fouled board didn’t make sure the offender completed a turn. By letting boards get away with ridiculous fouls without a protest hearing, bad habits and unsafe situations are created throughout the entire fleet! Respect of other boards should be made a priority in windsurf racing.

A port-starboard incident about to happen just after the start

Lee was unhurt and thankful to be alive. At the awards ceremony, she presented the French coach with a gift thanking him for his quick and heroic action. The story had a happy ending, but the impact of the lesson was severe for me: awareness and respect are critical in racing. Without it, human lives are endangered. I am able to remain optimistic about my progress in windsurfing, and the incidents at this regatta will make me a better and more conscientious racer in the future.

Monday, July 5, 2010

RS:X European Championships: Day 3

Racing began on time today as the wind filled to about 6-7 knots in from the northeast, a usually very steady direction for Sopot. The committee had no problem setting a course and quickly getting us on the water.

I had a pretty bad first race, but the wind built a little for the second, and I had a better finish. During the first race, I was passed in the slalom by a number of boards because I missed a mark once and fell another time. The media boat conveniently caught the plunge into the water on camera. My starts are still good, but I just feel really awkward pumping on the board and can't find the "feel" in the very light wind. I believe it will come, but it will be a lot of effort and time.

Fatal plunge

RS:X European Championships: Day 2

Once again, the weather is proving most excellent for the tourists, rather than the sailors. After another shorter wait, the wind filled in about 2 knots more than the first day of racing. The committee is quick to race us, having learned these conditions over the past week and a half.

I am unfortunately still struggling and as long as the light wind conditions persist, won't have a chance to do well at this regatta. However it is a good lesson in patience, perseverance, and focus on technique. I am still doing well on the starts, although the race committee isn't extremely strict about calling sailors over early, so it is funny to watch most of the fleet jump the gun to be OCS by one or two seconds. Of course I am doing this too, as being late ensures a poor finish.

Battling it out downwind

Rory Ramsden, class secretary from the UK, summarized yesterday in classic and dramatic style:

"We had a quiet Sunday morning lingering over our coffees and taking
it easy. Just as you may have been doing at home. However, the wind
gods decided to answer our prayers a little earlier than yesterday
so the men were called to the starting area at 1345hrs with the first
race of the day for the yellow group being launched onto the course
at 1415hrs.

Shahar Zubari [ISR] carried on where he left off yesterday posting
a bullet in the first race but he slipped in the second. That is if
you consider a 4th a slip. It was good enough to hold his position
at the top of the leader board but he now has to share the top step
with Piotr Myszka [POL] who posted a 1st and a 2nd . The other guy
who was firing on all cylinders was Byron Kokkalanis [GRE] who
posted a 2 and a 1.

There is a three way fight therefore for the lead. Then a another
struggle for supremacy 8 points back with 6 or 7 boards in contention.
The remarkable news though is that all four men's starts went off
first time with just 3 boards called OCS.

Whereas over in the women's fleet something very unusual was being
played out. Their first start of the day was 'generalled' and
launched again under a black flag with one sailor being 'BFDed' -
disqualified for being over the start line early - Then the second
race was black flagged with no fewer than 7 being disqualified.

For the technical experts among you, the women's fleet is one third
bigger than each of the two men's groups and was started on the same
line - no change in length.

Normally the women are very well behaved and start first time under
a 'P' flag so black flags on successive starts is almost unheard of.
So far it's the men who are behaving well. Call me old fashioned,
but this is not normal

Anyway, back to the racing...

Eugenie Ricard [FRA] must have been upset by all the shenanigans in
the starting area. She posted a 9th in the first race but regained
her composure to take first place in the second. She now sits in
second place because of the 'poor' result in the first just two
points behind Malgorzata Bialecka [POL]. These two light wind
specialists have been handed an amazing 14 point advantage after
just two days racing!

No doubt the discard that comes into play tomorrow will shuffle the
pack but before I go, I have one more remarkable fact to reveal and
it's this

Alessandra Sensini [ITA] who has won four medals in consecutive
Olympic Games went out and snatched first place in the race of the
day and please note that was done in the light air. We are still two
years away from the Games in London so a lot could still happen but
this surely is a warning to anyone who dares suggest that she cannot
medal again in Weymouth.

More light wind tomorrow. Then 15knots is predicted for he lay day.
Nothing unusual in having a nice breeze on the rest day whilst we
are confined to the shore but it does not make it any easier for
the racers to bare (sic)...


It is interesting to see the performance of the light wind specialists as they take the early lead. However, a few sailors with great all-around performance are also near the top, most notably top Polish sailor Piotr Myszka in the men's fleet. The third day's racing should bring some additional surprises. The weather is looking a bit different, so hopefully we will see some pressure early.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

RS:X European Championships Begin in Sopot, Poland

This year, the Sopot Sailing Club in Poland is the host of both the RS:X Open European Championships and the RS:X Youth European Championships. The events are a big happening in this summer resort town, and are adding a little excitement to the normal happenings like classical concerts, rock and pop music festivals, and crazy parties.

The Sopot Sailing Club is packed with sailors. Club staff brought in rows of board racks for competitors' storage; tons of gear is stacked everywhere and sailors both young and experienced are here. I have been looking forward to the Europeans all summer as Sopot is my home venue after training here for a few years.

Although there has been a lot of fuss, the wind hasn't been cooperative. On one hand, the weather is unusually warm and sunny and has been for almost 1.5 weeks, great for all the Polish vacationers. However, for us, it means a lot of waiting and extremely light conditions of 3-5 knots with oscillating shifts.

Committee boats wait for wind near the Sopot beach

These conditions are my nemesis (and it seems like all the World Cup and other regattas have been plagued with these conditions all spring and summer) and I must have a perfect race tactically in order to place 2/3 of the way back in the fleet. I have a lot of trouble with pumping technique, and to make matters worse I have big circulation problems in my arms owing to tight shoulder and pectoral muscles (often a symptom of swimmers - a sport which I have been doing most of my life). It is almost impossible for my arms to recover well after a big day of pumping and I lack strength to really work the rig, which is ironic since I am surely one of the fittest sailors in the fleet. All I can do in these conditions is hang on, get good starts, and try to learn more about the technique.

Under Polish coach Roman Budziniski, I am getting help this regatta with a few of my Polish teammates. Yesterday after waiting for about five hours, we finally sailed two races in about 3-5 knots of wind. I had one 2/3 finish and another rear fleet finish after an OCS. In the second race, the start basically killed me (not counting the OCS) as I was on the wrong side of the line to where I wanted to go. However I am working hard on the pumping and trying to figure out the best way for me to recover, and this regatta, which isn't like I hoped it would be, will simply be a good opportunity to train, learn, and get better.

Top Polish sailor Przemek "Pont" Miarczynski gets an interview

Waiting for breeze in the hangars