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Meet the new Olympic teams in the 49er, FX and Nacra fleets as things change from Tokyo to Paris

by Andy Rice 11 Apr 12:08 BST
Logan Dunning Beck with Oscar Gunn - NZL - 52 Trofeo Princesa Sofia Regatta © Sailing Energy

It seems like only yesterday we packed down Tokyo, but the sprint is on for Paris 2024 and the Princess Sofia Trophy 2023 is our first chance to see the new characters and who is returning.

For all the talk of Olympic sailing falling apart, Palma showed otherwise with a full bay and a very healthy-looking Olympic slate.

49er Who?

The 49er Class has had the biggest shake-up with all of the medalists retiring post-Tokyo. The changing of the guard runs deeper than the medalists, with only 9 of the 20 sailors from the top 10 in Tokyo still sailing, and only two intact partnerships. That's a lot of open real estate for a fleet in queue behind Outteridge and Burling for a decade. It seems likely a return to the sort of racing that was expected in the 2000's where winners changed on a regatta-to-regatta basis.

The first strike goes to the pair of Logan Dunning Beck and Oscar Gunn (NZL) who took second in the medal race to cruise and a nine-point victory. They started out gold fleet brilliantly winning the first two races and only had three races out of the top ten all week. The team is in its eighth year on the international circuit and its fifth at the front end of the fleet.

They won Kiel week 2019 and came third at the Oceania Championship in Auckland immediately prior to the 2019 Worlds, but couldn't wrestle the New Zealand entry from Burling and Tuke for Tokyo and have all the tools to be contenders in Paris.

The 49er story in Palma is a down-under tale, with four of the top five places going two each to New Zealand and Australia. Tom Burton with Max Paul (AUS) came second despite an over early in the first race of the regatta. Tom is the 2016 Laser gold medalist and 2019 laser World Champion, and this second-place finish would be the best finish for a Laser convert to 49er ever.

Many have tried, most noticeably Robert Scheidt (BRA), but none have scored medals at top regattas until now. There were a few jokes in the boat park about 20-knot gybes being on the to-do list still, as the regatta was a light affair, but credit is due after three years of dedicated training allowing his elite sailing talent to show.

McHardie and McKenzie (NZL) finished third after a stellar opening series had them in the lead after qualifying. They sailed a consistent final series and could have won but a ninth in the medal race let them down a bit to close it out.

The European fleet claimed half of the top ten with the usual contenders having ups and downs. Wen and Liu from China came eighth repeating their performance from ninth at the 2023 Worlds in Nova Scotia. One theme to keep an eye on could be the diversity of fleets top performances have been coming from. European, New Zealand, Australian and Chinese fleets each delivered top ten performances after six months trailing apart.

At this late stage of a quadrennial, it's been more common for the top teams to have segregated into elite groupings. Perhaps with covid forcing everyone home teams have found a more local way to develop.

The FX we know

Needing no introduction to the top of the podium or global sailing fans are this year's winners in Palma, Martine Grael with Kahena Kunze (BRA). In their usual style, the Brazilian pair battled through the week and surged when others fades to win comfortably by 15 points. The defending Tokyo and Rio Gold medalists are on a quest to become the most decorated women's sailors of all time if they can secure gold in Paris, and in a position to do so.

Sailing has been chasing a format where first-second-third in the final race is first-second-third in the regatta, and that was the case here in Palma. The Brazilians were miles ahead on points but van Aanholt with Duetz (NED) finished tied with Branz / Carranza (ARG) and got the second due to their second in the medal race. The Dutch remain in form as they have been since 2019.

The Argentine team is a story we don't often hear on the Olympic circuit, with Sol Branz switching from FX crew to FX helm after a fifth in Tokyo. The Argentine FX and Nacra 17 teams then did a partner change with Carranza, who won Gold in Rio in the Nacra 17, switching to crewing the FX while Travascio switched from FX helm to Nacra 17 crew for Santiago Lange.

Germany was the most successful high-performance team of all time winning medals in 49er, FX, and Nacra 17 in Tokyo. Two of those three teams have retired, and the FX replacement battle should be interesting. With their best regatta to date, Marla Bergmann with Hanna Wille continue a steady march up the fleet with a sixth place in Palma.

Close behind in tenth was Sophie Stienlein whose crew was sick just before the regatta. She flew in retired Danish FX veteran Marie Olsen and the pair quickly gelled to sail nicely and qualify Sophie for the 2023 Worlds.

Nacra 17 family ties

Gimson and Burnett (GBR) win gold via a second in the medal race holding off ALL their Italian training partners to win in Palma. For Gimson and Burnett it's their third win of the quad and they had to fend off three elite Italian teams to do it. The Tokyo Silver medalists have had their eye on the top rung of the podium since they only took six weeks off post-Tokyo to win the 2021 Europeans and Worlds.

They train with an elite group including Tita/Banti (ITA), Bissaro/Frascari (ITA), Ugolini / Giubilei (ITA) and Lange / Travascio (ARG) and head to Cagliari, Sardinia each winter.

Unusually, Cagliari was light for the past month but that served the group well as they took the four top spots and showed they haven't missed a beat. Both Ugolini / Giubilei and Bissaro / Frascari took turns leading the regatta through the week but they had poor medal races allowing the Brits to claim victory. Tita / Banti had a good week but two poor races in the mid-pack and a UFD sealed their fate against continuing their winning streak from last season.

Gimson and Burnett revealed they are in a relationship on the podium in Tokyo, stealing the spotlight with a kiss. The pair got engaged over the winter and their partnership is proving fruitful.

The fleet was the largest since the move to full foiling, as the newly robust Nacra 17 platform is now viable on the second-hand market meaning plenty of youngsters are able to enter the fleet. The move to full foiling has been fun all winter, with teams reporting a steep learning curve with six months to figure out settings while sailing straight and around the corners. This year's Palma may not have revealed too much of that learning yet as it was mostly a hull-in-water affair upwind with light conditions throughout.

Quotas and qualifying

There has been a dizzy amount of qualifying regattas this season with teams trying to gain spots at limited entry regattas from the test event in Marseilles this summer, Pan Am Games, Asian Games, the 2023 Worlds, and even the 2024 Olympics in one case. Even Palma and Hyeres have imposed entry quotas as a solution to a growing Olympic fleet. One kiter is already on her third Qualification regatta of 2023, and it's only early April.

The trend for previously open regattas to solve their logistics issues through quota is lazy, and we can see the impact of the 2023 Worlds limits playing out with limits in 2023 Palma. Team leaders the world over (even China) used Palma as their qualifier, meaning Palma will have a fleet of almost 25 percent larger than the 2023 Worlds. How limiting sailing's impact on a world's venue aids the World Sailing Championship as a property is unclear, but has been policy since 2003.

Fortunately, the dynamic team in Palma was able to flex and allow entry to almost all teams, but Hyeres has not been able meaning many international teams will have flown to Europe for only a single regatta instead of the traditional pair of spring classics. Sailing should eliminate quotas wherever possible and embrace an open-door policy.

French Fires

No, we're not talking about the civil unrest on the streets of Paris. Qualifying for a home Olympic Games is a once-in-a-century opportunity, and the French sailing community noticed. Every Olympic fleet has numerous French teams vying for the single spot they are allowed. They are getting lots of support and sailing many hours in Marseilles, the sailing home of the games. Lara Granier with Amelie Riou (FX), Tim Mourniac with Lou Berthomeiu (Nacra 17), and Erwan Fischer with Youenn Bertin (49er) were tops in Palma but watch this battle within the fleet all season.

Full Results from Palma

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