At the event, 16 unseeded teams went head to head in two groups of eight during the qualifying rounds, with the the top four in each group moving on to sail against the top seeds in Round 2. It is usually a bonus to be in the seeded group, particularly when conditions are light and fluky. However, when I realized that wed have almost no time to sail together before the event, I became a bit apprehensive. All we could do while the unseeded sailors raced, was watch, wait, review our notes, and see who was good in the light and variable conditions.
One of the interesting things about boat racing comes from studying your opponents. When you regularly compete on a circuit of events, you become familiar with your competition. You learn what kind of moves they will use; you see how their crew dynamics work; you become familiar with how pressure affects their performance.
As the competition wore on, the fluky conditions persisted and the seeded teams waited anxiously ashore. Swett continued dominating her group, winning the round with a 6-1 record, followed by Malin Milbourn of Sweeden, Gwen Joulie of France, and Christiana Monina of Italy. On Course B, Bjorling finished with a perfect 7-0 record to move on to Round 2. She was joined by the youngest competitor, 18-year-old Katie Spithill of Australia, match-racing newcomer and 1999 ISAF Female Sailor of the Year Carolyjn Brouwer of The Netherlands, and Amy Waring of New Zealanda truly international field.
That group now moved on to compete against the top eight seeds: defending World Champion and No. 1-ranked Dorte Jensen of Denmark, myself, No. 3-ranked Klaartje Zuiderbaan of The Netherlands, No.4-ranked Cordelia Eglin of the UK, No. 6-ranked Paula Lewin of Bermuda, No. 7-ranked Shirley Robertson of the UK (fresh off a gold medal in the Europe Class in Sydney), No. 8-ranked Christime Briande of France, and No. 9-ranked Dru Slattery of the US.
The light and shifty conditions continued throughout the week, and by the second day, it was becoming apparent that the organizers were running short of time to conduct the full schedule of races. Round 3 was scheduled to be sailed next to determine the quarterfinalists, but a dismal forecast meant that the organizers were forced to make a scheduling decision. Either continue with the next round robin, or stop and move directly to the quarterfinals. For the competitors this was tough moment. Every point scored in match racing is critical, because such scheduling aberrations can often dictate the outcome. In this case, terminating the round-robin series and moving directly to the quarterfinals meant that the top four from each group would advance, but if they chose to continue the round- robin series and dispense with the quarterfinals, some teams might never get to sail against each other. It was certainly stressful for our team and a couple of others, because our 5-2 record put us on the bubble of qualification for the semis. So we just tried to focus on our strategy, would be realizing that our goal was just to win as many matches as possible, because early errors would be costly.
The light conditions continued, and that put a premium on sailing fast. In the quarterfinals, Dorte and Jensen both jumped out to commanding leads in the group, remaining undefeated after five races. This assured each a place in the semis. The remaining six teams battled it out on the course for the other two slots.
In match racing, the courses are very short with racing lasting not much more than 20 minutes. Making an error or being on the receiving end of a penalty is costly. Because the race is over so quickly, you cannot let those details affect the way you attack the course. Match racing is a discipline that requires you to be able to move on from a proactive standpoint, countering moves and minimizing mistakes. Staying positive is critical to regaining the edge when you are slightly behind or owing a penalty. It is interesting to see how the momentum changes, and mental advantage fluctuates based on the teams performance in an individual race. We let ourselves fall prey to this less-positive mode a couple of times in the close matches we lost. And when the team gets really quiet on the boat, it is worrisome. One of the things we tend to be best at, is looking at a race from an objective standpoint, analyzing the errors and learning from those errors This has come from years of self-coaching. Solving the problems does a lot to reinforce a positive attitude.
Near the end of that particular day, after an interminable wait for wind, a hint of breeze filled in, just enough to allow the committee to get the first semifinal match off. Getting up for racing after sitting around is a difficult task at best. The grogginess that sets in after hours of postponement can be devastating to a teams performance and morale. We try to counter this by being the first team to get our sails up and start sailing when any breeze shows up. Usually, we try to collect our data, set and douse the chute, and generally get in a racing mindset. In the first race, our team finally got rid of the demons that had plagued us against Bjorling and we beat her. Jensen handily took care of Robertson.
As the breeze continued to die, the racing became more dramatic. We lost a tough race to Bjorling by two seconds, tying the series. In the second match between Jensen and Robertson, the teams split on the beat, and Robertson posted a big win against the defending World Champion. With the racing tied at this point, the finalists would be determined on the last day of the event. That evening, we went home thinking about that two-second loss, trying to figure a way to put a positive spin on it.
On the last day, the wind gods were still not smiling on St. Petersburg, and we were met by light northerlies that were actually lighter than any previous day. The organizers opted to shorten the semifinals to a best-of-three series, and it became a do-or-die situation for all four teams. In our race, Bjorling got an advantage in the pre-start and continued on to win and advance to the finals. Being behind in light air from the start was a difficult position. It is much harder to recover the lost distance, particularly when there are almost no shifts to make gains on. And it was much the same story in the Robertson-Jensen match. Jensen led from the start, never looking back as she secured her spot in the finals. Much to the chagrin of the organizers, the breeze fizzled completely. An on-shore postponement was ordered, and the teams were sent ashore to await their fate. With a 4:00 p.m. deadline looming, and no breeze in sight, the regatta was terminated before the finals could be sailed and the winner determined on the basis of the scores from the final round robin and the quarterfinal round. It ended up that match between Jensen and Bjorling was what determined the victor, and once again, Dorte Jensen from Denmark emerged as the World Champion! Bjorling was second, and since we had beaten Robertson in the quarterfinals, that put us in third and Robertson fourth.
Lessons in Brief
Learning is a part of any activity, but it's especially important for sailboat racers since there are so many things to understand about this sport. Here's a few of the lessons we took away from this year's World Championship: