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GBR Optimist Team at the 2020 European Championship at Portorož, Slovenia

by Clare Sargent 27 Oct 2020 08:13 GMT 18-25 October 2020

The success of a GBR Junior Sailing Team can be measured in many ways. In any normal year a British boy, Youth Sailor of the Year nominee Santi Sesto-Cosby, making the podium at a Europeans for the first time in twenty years might be the headline to a report. In 2020 the story is about the determination of the team, their coaches, parents and their many supporters within the UK Optimist Class Association to get a team to and from the Championships safely, having had the fantastic racing and cultural experience that these events are all about.

Back in May as the host nations for the World and European Championships withdrew due to the Coronavirus it seemed unlikely that any of this would be possible. However in June a successful bid to host the Europeans from Jadralni Klub Pirat in Portoroz, Slovenia, a country with one of the lowest Coronavirus incidences in Europe gave some hope. This was especially important to those in their last year of Optimist sailing caught, because of the pandemic, unable to transition to a Youth Class. In August it suddenly became a reality with the selection of a larger than usual team of 6 boys and 3 girls. Then followed an immense effort by the parent team, to put in place plans and contingency plans for pre-event training and the movement of sailors, coach, team leader, boats and a rib to and from Slovenia, all under the watchful eye of a sub-committee of the Class Association, which risk-assessed the plan.

So it was that under coach Ollie Hill, a team of girls, Emma Breese, Ellie Creighton, Gwen Sargent, and boys Noah Evans, Charlie Gatehouse, Henry Keegan, Thomas Kelsall, Derin Can Soyer and Santi Sesto-Cosby, supported by Team Leader Clare Sargent, arrived in Portoroz, to meet Will Gatehouse who had driven over the Austrian Alps with nine boats and a RIB behind his car. The light winds experienced during two days of training and measurement were a taste of what was to come.

In the finest traditions of GBR teams our sailors shocked the locals and international competitors by taking to the Adriatic for a swim to cool off as the sun set.

Everyone quickly adapted to the systems put in place by the host and IODA to create a safe bubble for the teams, with only team members allowed access to the hotel and the club, and temperature checks on entry. The coastal region of Slovenia was still experiencing a very low level of Coronavirus, although cases were rising elsewhere in the country.

The Opening Ceremony was limited to just one sailor per team: Gwen Sargent was picked out in the sail number raffle to be the GBR flag bearer.

By now there was a feeling building across everyone at the event that this was something special, a privilege to be part of one of a very few Junior international sporting events in 2020. But on the water racing was incredibly tough. Although some countries were unable to send a team, there was nevertheless no Worlds to cream off the very top sailors, making this one of the highest standard Europeans for many years. On the first day winds were in the 4-6 knot range, shifty, but more constant in speed than our sailors usually experience. Santi Sesto-Cosby laid the foundations for a good regatta, with a fifth and an eighth, while Thomas Kelsall and Charlie Gatehouse also had good results. Unfortunately only one race was possible for the girls, with Emma Breese best placed in 31st.

Slightly more breeze on Wednesday saw two races for girls and boys. Santi Sesto-Cosby was building a tight scoreline with a first and a third, to lie third, while Charlie Gatehouse also consolidated in a gold-fleet earning position, and Thomas Kelsall just hanging on at that level. The girls were having a challenging time, with Emma Breese picking up a Black Flag to go with Gwen Sargent's from Race 1. Ellie Creighton was the most consistent with scores in the high thirties. It was a challenging time for coach Ollie Hill too: with five flights rolling through the course he was constantly busy turning sailors round ready for their next race with a pat on the back or a consoling chat as required, but not much time to see them race!

On to Thursday. Overnight the Covid level for the overall Coastal Region of Slovenia had changed to Red, although the number of cases in Piran still remained very low. Now masks were required everywhere other than on the water, and a curfew was imposed from nine o'clock to six in the morning. Ollie had just enough time to make adjustments to boomspans to reflect a new Class Rules interpretation between the end of the curfew and the sailors launching! The hotels in Portoroz, other than the one hosting the teams, were being closed. Three races for the girls and two for the boys - final day of qualifying before splitting into Gold, Silver and Bronze. Thankfully, a little bit more breeze, and the sailors were sitting on the side rather than in the boat! Santi's results were down a little with a 16th and a fifth leaving him as fourth European. With him in Gold was Charlie Gatehouse, while Thomas Kelsall slipped down into Silver. For the girls, Emma Breese had her best result so far, a 14th, and would race in Silver with Ellie and Gwen.

On Friday no-one expected that this would be the last day of racing. More wind was forecast, but arrived with a mist which seemed to bring it down a few knots. In Boys Gold, a big shift turned the race around, allowing the sixth placed Austrian to gain the win and jump to second European behind Italian Adriano Quanti Quan. Santi was now sailing his discard race, but recovered to 31st, two behind Charlie Gatehouse. Thankfully, most of the event leaders were in the same part of the course and, with a better 'worst result' in qualifying, he jumped past two Spaniards into European Bronze. Thomas Kelsall was mid-fleet in Silver. For the girls, Emma Breese and Gwen Sargent were delighted to finish eighth and tenth on the water, only to find they were over early. Ellie Creighton was 23rd. Boys Bronze didn't race as the wind died away.

The Health Ministry site inspection was still going on as the fleet came ashore. The event passed successfully, but was then told that due to the general situation it had been decided that all sports events had to close. And that was that! Rather than racing Saturday was spent packing up and seeing a little of the sights locally. And eating ice-cream, of course.

So on Friday evening coach Ollie escorted Santi Sesto-Cosby to the prize-giving where he took to the podium, the first British boy so do so since David Evans in 2000, and Nick Thompson in 1999. A fantastic result!

None of it would have been possible without the truly fantastic courage, determination and hard work of the host club, the International Optimist Class Association and the support of World Sailing. And closer to home the hard work by sailors, their parents and their coaches to pull a team together in a situation that required more from their friendship, trust and positive attitude than would ever normally be the case. It enabled the sailors to be part of something truly wonderful, with memories and stories to tell for years to come.

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