This is the first in a series of reports from US 470 Olympic sailor Bob Merrick, who will compete in the Sydney Olympics Games with Paul Forester. Together, they represent one of the US Olympic Sailing Team's best chances at winning a medal.
Team 2000 tests the water at the Olympic venue in Sydney, Australia.
After qualifying for the US Olympic Sailing Team almost a full year before the Sydney Games, figuring out the best use of the remaining time before the Olympics was one of the easiest decisions Paul and I had to make. Our basic strategy has been to compete against the best 470 sailors in the world as often as possibleand that hasn't changed.
To achieve that goal, the schedule we laid out is much the same as it had been the year beforesailing regattas in Australia during the North American winter and then hitting the European circuit this spring. We also scheduled training sessions between regattas, sailing with foreign competitors as well as the US Women's 470 team of JJ Isler and Pease Glaser and our coach Ship Whyte. But in actuality, most of our training has come at regattas where we've been experimenting with new equipment and using every beat as a tuning opportunity and a tactical practice session rolled into one.
After the US 470 Olympic Trials ended in late October, we decided to take the next month off, mainly because both our boats were in Florida for the Trials and it was going to take a month to ship a boat to Australia for our next event. As it worked out, that was the last big respite we've had in our campaign for Olympic gold in Sydney.
We arrived in Australia in the beginning of December for the Sydney International Regatta. This is one of the big events of the year down there, so most of our competitors had been on site since the Pre-Olympics in September, training and sailing some minor events while we were in Florida at the US Trials. After winning the Trials, our result at that regatta was a big letdownwe finished 11th, sailing poorly in all aspects. Just a year before we had won this event.
Beating the world's best sailors takes months and months of training and years of on-the-water experience.
It only takes one bad regatta to leave you wondering if you'll ever be good again. Things never stand still. Everyone is always getting better. When you have a bad event, you feel like you've missed a step and fallen behind. Fortunately, there was no time for self-pity. Although many of the top teams headed home after the Sydney International, we stayed in Australia for another month with three more regattas to sail. The Australian Nationals was the next event and we decided to experiment with a new mainsail. We ended up with a broken boom, and started early in two races, finishing up with a fifth overall. As far as we were concerned, that was another bad result, but this regatta was more of a practice, so the defeat was a bit easier to swallow. We had some good races and were getting back on track. After celebrating New Year's in Sydney, we headed down to Melbourne and won a minor event there before winning Sail Melbourne against some good teams. That allowed us to go home feeling a lot better about the trip Down Under.
While we were in Australia, we set up some training for the month of February with JJ and Pease and some of the foreign teams. We set some dates with the Australian men's and women's 470 teams and were excited by the prospect of some good sailing before heading to Europe for the spring.
It's pretty common in the Olympic classes to train with your competition. The year before we participated in some great practices with the French team, and before our trials we had an Israeli and a British team in Florida that trained with us. That all worked out well, but the Australians proved to be less cooperative than most other teams. We were expecting to be able to train with them for a normal five-hour day, speed testing and racing, but they were only interested in racing for two hours a day. They did their tuning by themselves and then joined us to race in the afternoon. This is the kind of attitude you can expect a month before the Games, but it caught us off guard in February. The Australians' lack of cooperation combined with extreme weather conditions made effective training difficult. This was complicated by the fact that I suffered a re-occurring shoulder injury and had to be in early some days for physical therapy. In the end, we made the most of those two weeks training. We learned a few things and gained the advantage of spending a little more time sailing in the waters where the Olympic regatta will take place.
On the road with Team 2000. Bob and Paul (joined by Peter Isler here) head for Hyeres Week.
After training in Australia, we flew home for two weeks while our boats flew to Europe courtesy of Kitty Hawk Airfreight, one of our sponsors. On April 1, I flew into Paris, and after Paul arrived, we drove our leased van from Paris to Brussels to pick up the boats and then headed to Barcelona.
Barcelona Olympic Sail Week was well attended with many of the top teams competing. The sailing wasn't exactly what you expect in the Mediterraneanwe wore drysuits even on the light-air days. We sailed fairly well and finished fourth, though we should have done better because we didn't finish two of the races. In one race someone hit us before the start, putting a hole in the port bow. We tried to tape it up in the three minutes left before the gun and we started the race. At the weather mark it was looking like we would round in first, but we were going slower and slower as the tape pulled away and the boat started to sink. I continually needed to move back on the wire to keep the waves from coming over the bow, so I knew we were taking on water. By the leeward mark, we decided that we'd better head in and save the boat. We got someone to fix our boat and sought redress for the race. The jury decided to give us our average score for the first day, which was a four.
|"The main focus of our trip was the mega event French Olympic Sailing Week in Hyeres...All the top teams attended this event."|
In a later race we broke a spinnaker pole and dropped out expecting that race to be our throw-out. That race was a throw-out, but a few days later the jury changed their minds and decided that our redress should be our average, not for the first day but for the entire regatta. With two DNFs averaged in, we dropped from third to fourth overall. A Spanish team moved up to third. No problem, bigger events lay ahead.
The main focus of our trip was the mega event French Olympic Sailing Week in Hyeres, also on the Mediterranean coast. All the top teams, without exception, attended this event so it was a good one for us to use as a gauge. With 80 boats in our class, the plan was to have three days of qualifying races, in two fleets, and then another three days split into gold and silver fleets. The scores from the qualifying round would carry over to the finals. We only had one race on the first day before the wind died, but we won that so we were off to a good start. With only one race on the first day we were anxious to get sailing the next day, but a Mistral blew in with winds of 50 knots, so after a long postponement, racing was canceled for the day. On the final qualifying day, the race committee managed to squeeze in four races. With scores of 1,1,3,8,2, we were winning at the end of the day, with the Swedish team in second.
Overall Scores from Hyeres Olympic Week
|1.||Paul Foerster and Bob Merrick|
|2.||Tom King and Mark Turnbull|
|3.||Philippe Gildas and Tanguy Cariou|
|4.||Johan Molund and Mattias Rahm|
|5.||Petit Benoit and Jean-Franco Cuzon|
The first day of the finals started with a nice breeze and got windier. After three races, our finishes5,3,2meant we'd had a good day, but two other teams finished better than we didthe Australians and the French. With just two days left in the regatta, the Australians had a one-point lead, we were in second, and the French were six points behind us in third. Day Five brought even bigger breezes than we'd seen on Day Two. It reminded me of an approaching hurricane. Coach Skip wrote this in his report: "As I sit in the media tent writing this report, I fear for my life. The tent is threatening to explode (like the measurement tent did earlier this morning) in the gale-force winds. Sailing today was out of the question. Bob and I have spent some of the time devising a method to use a 470 jib as a storm trysail. We are ready for anything now! Paul and Bob are eager for good conditions tomorrow so they can retain their 1999 Hyeres title."
Going into the final day we had done our math, calculating what we had to do to win. We expected two races and the weather looked like it was going to cooperate though it was generally light, in the 10-knot range. After three general recalls, we finally got a start off. We were banking on going up the right side of the first beat, but our competition headed left. Halfway up the first beat, the right side came in big and we won the race.
The usual suspects: Bob and Paul pose after their victory at Hyeres Week in France.
The French and the Australians both had bad races, which put us in first place by a few points. With the French now out of the picture, we had to make sure that the Australians didn't finish in the top five or that we didn't finish more than two boats behind them. As it turned out, all that didn't matter. The wind died and started shifting through 100 degrees, and that was it for the day. We won without sailing the final race. There was a nice awards ceremony with a live band playing the "Star Spangled Banner" as they hoisted the American flag.
The next stop for SailNet's Team 2000 is the 470 World Championships in Balatonfured, Hungary, later this month. Look for an update from Bob and Paul after that regatta in a couple of weeks.