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The Best and Worst of 2008

From the 49er medal race to the disappearance of the Omega lifejacket, /SW/'s Michael Lovett and Stuart Streuli reflect on the year gone by. "First Beat" from our January 2, 2009, /SW eNewsletter/

January 2, 2009
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Sinn Fein’s victory in the 2008 Newport-Bermuda Race served as a reminder that amateurism is alive and well in the sport of sailing.

Sinn Fein’s victory in the 2008 Newport-Bermuda Race served as a reminder that amateurism is alive and well in the sport of sailing. Daniel Forster/talbot Wilson/ppl

Michael Lovett:

The best thing that happened in sailing in 2008: Sinn Fein, a Cal 40 sailed by an all-amateur crew, won the Newport-Bermuda Race, and it wasn’t THAT big a deal.

In June, 72-year-old Peter Rebovich and a crew that included sons Peter and Mark as well as Gary Gochal, Henry Henning, Kelly Robinson, and Foster Tallman, sailed the upwind slog to the Onion Patch in smart, efficient fashion. For the second time in as many editions, Sinn Fein won the race’s top honor, the St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy. Rebovich’s team was the best of 123 in the IRC division, which allows a limited number of professionals in each crew.

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The victory offers further proof that amateurism is alive and well in the sport. One of the cool things about sailboat racing is the fact that, at nearly every level, amateurs compete alongside professionals. What’s even cooler is that the amateurs routinely beat the professionals. When the gun goes off, it’s truly anybody’s game. Victory goes to whichever team sails its boat the fastest and makes the best decisions. It doesn’t matter if the people on that team happen to be lawyers, accountants, or schoolteachers. And the coolest part of all: when an amateur like Peter Rebovich wins such a prestigious award in such a prestigous race, the rest of us don’t view the occurrence as a miracle, just a job well done. (For more about Sinn Fein’s victory, click here.)

The worst thing that happened in sailing in 2008 was the utter disappearance of Omega lifejackets. Maybe you remember these classic PFDs– they zipped up like regular vests and came in fashionable color schemes like light blue with a dark blue stripe, blue with a white stripe, and red with a white stripe. The proliferation of Omega lifejackets during the ’80s and ’90s demonstrated that safety and style need not be mutually exclusive. But by 2008 old-school Omegas had vanished completely, replaced by Astrals and Extrasports that boast of accessory pockets and allow full range of motion but can’t hold a candle to the charm of their predecessors.

Last summer a friend was getting back into sailing after a ten-year hiatus. Put off by the techy look of modern PFDs, he asked me to track him down an Omega, blue and white if possible. The sailing supply stores had nothing, an eBay search came up empty, and the Google results were discouraging– the most recent mention of Omega lifejackets came in a LISTSERV discussion from 1994. I reported my findings to my friend, who was so disappointed he considered donning an orange horseshoe PFD in protest.

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I’m guessing that the company that made Omegas is long out of business and that most of the remaining artifacts are currently languishing in attics, V births, and abandoned dock boxes. But there must be a few troopers out there still zipping up their battered old Omegas for the weekend races. In fact, I’d so love to catch a glimpse of these forgotten beauties, I’m willing to send Sailing World T-shirts to the first five readers who send me photos of themselves wearing their Omegas. And if anybody out there wants to sell their relic, I know of an interested buyer…

Stuart Streuli:

For me the best moment and the worst moment in sailing in 2008 were one and the same, the medal race for the 49er class at the Olympic Regatta in Qingdao, China. I picked this because more than four months after it happened, I’m still unable to decide how I ultimately feel about the incident. I’ve discussed it with sailors, journalists, and race officials. It’s a polarizing event that leaves few, if any, on the sidelines. Many people think it was the best moment of the Olympic Regatta. Others feel it was one of the great miscarriages of justice and a mockery of our sport.

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For those who are unfamiliar with the event, I’ll run through the basics: In an effort to spice up the final race of each Olympic class, and to provide a “medal moment” for the general interest media to cover, the International Sailing Federation created the medal race for the 2008 Games. After 10 scheduled races, the top 10 boats were to sail a no-drop, double points, short-course race. For the most part, it worked. The medal races for the Star, Radial, and Men’s RS:X were intensely exciting.

The 49er medal race was sailed on Aug. 17. The first medal races in Olympic history were scheduled for the day before. But a lack of wind pushed the Finn and Yngling races back a day. The weather was gnarly. There’s no other word for it. The wind was strong at 15 to 20 knots, blowing the incessant rain sideways. But the sea state was that of a breeze twice as strong. This wasn’t too much of a problem for either the Finnsters or the Yngling sailors. Both races went off without a hitch.

By the time the Finns finished it was just shy of 4:20, with a time deadline of 4:30 for the first warning signal for the 49er medal race. The 49er teams had been out warming up while the Finns raced and it was clearly survival conditions for the skiffs, mainly due to the short, steep waves. There were numerous capsizes and one team, the Danes, broke their rig while practicing sailing downwind.

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After sailing a brilliantly consistent regatta, the Danish team of Jonas Warrer and Martin Ibsen were winning by 11 points going into the medal race. But with six teams in medal contention, a DNF would likely drop them off the podium.

Ashore the Danish team found the Croatian 49er hadn’t yet been taken apart. They scrambled to rig it and get back out on the course. The Croatian team, after being alerted to what was happening, rushed from the Olympic Village to help. The boat was launched as the start sequence was taking place on the other side of the breakwater. At 4:35 p.m., the other nine boats in the medal race started assuming the Danes were out of the running.

Just before the 5-minute window to start the race expired, the Danes crossed the starting line, sailing the Croatian boat with Croatian flags on the sails and the letters CRO on the bow.

The race was chaotic, with little boat-on-boat racing, though it did produce some of the most dramatic still images and video from the Olympic regatta. Every boat capsized at least once, every boat suffered at least some form of equipment failure. The American and Austrian boats failed to finish and the Brazilian team limped across the finish line with a shredded main sail.

The Australian team was just feet from winning the race, and what they thought would be a gold medal, when they capsized. Five boats sailed past as they struggled to right the boat, knocking them to fifth in the overall standings. The Italian team of Pietro and Gianfranco Sibello finished fourth in the medal race and, thinking they’d won a bronze medal, celebrated on their capsized boat. When the Danish team, on the Croatian boat, finished seventh, nearly 12 minutes after the first boat crossed the line, the Italians were dropped to fourth.

After the race there were numerous protests. It took a day for the jury to sort it out, eventually upholding the Danish victory. But the Spanish Olympic Team took the result to the Court of Arbitration for Sport-the Spanish team having been denied the gold by the Danes-which ruled in favor of Denmark.

Why it the best moment in sailing in 2008:

  1. The unshakeable drive of the Danish team, who could’ve easily packed it in after breaking their rig. They found a boat, rigged it, and just beat the time limit to start. Sailing the race was almost less of a challenge than simply making the start. Losing a medal after sailing such a strong regatta would’ve been horribly unjust. They deserved the medal. And it was a great story.

  2. The sportsmanship exhibited by the Croatians, who not only allowed the Danes to take their boat-and subsequently trash it-but rushed out into monsoon-like conditions to help them rig it. That was the true Olympic-spirit moment of the regatta.

  3. After all the talk of how the Qingdao Olympics would be marred by light winds and vicious current, it was great to see races decided in heavy air, in conditions that tested the mettle and athleticism of the sailors. Sailing can’t afford to become any more high maintenance than it already is. This will go a long way toward showing the IOC sailing is an all-weather sport. It will also make sailors think twice before they focus too heavily on training for one specific condition while preparing for an Olympic regatta. Most sailors acknowledged they had gone to extremes in gearing up for the expected light air of Qingdao. A not-so-subtle reminder when it comes to the weather, anything can happen.

  4. It gave the general interest media just what they wanted, an all-or-nothing final race that could capture the public’s attention. The images and video footage from that race are spectacular

Why it was the worst moment in sailing in 2008:

  1. The race was a joke. It wasn’t about sailing; it was about surviving. The winner wasn’t decided by tactics or boatspeed, but rather by who flipped twice instead of three times. 49ers are fabulous boats, but they have limits, and the sea state was too rough. If you include the Danes and their broken mast, and the Brazilians, who couldn’t have made it upwind again without their main, 40 percent of the fleet suffered major breakdowns during the race. Plenty of Olympic sports are weather dependent, there’s no shame in that. The race could’ve been held the following day in beautiful 10- to 12-knot conditions and been a true test of sailing skill.

  2. Most of the teams had no idea the Danes were on the course. Some told me they had wondered why the Croatians were out training in such miserable conditions. Would the Italians have sailed the race differently knowing they needed to stay within one spot of the German team to secure the bronze? What about the Australians? Would they have backed off and sailed more defensively knowing the gold was out of reach?

  3. It sets a bad precedent for future medal races. If a medal contender breaks his boat while warming up for a medal race in 2012, is he or she allowed to switch boats with a friend in the fleet who is out of medal contention?

  4. While I have no real proof of this, the jury’s decision seems based more on what should be right than what actually is right according to the Racing Rules of Sailing. The jury’s job is to protect the integrity of the sport and its rules, not award medals based on effort and spirit.

  5. The medal race, with on-the-water judging, was supposed to decide the winner on the spot. This was a massive failure in that regard, the results weren’t final until 24 hours after the race ended.

I’m not sure I’ll ever nail down my feelings on this race. Whenever I seem close to a conclusion, I inevitably take a detour and find myself right back where I started, firmly undecided.

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