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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Racing Articles
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Old 07-30-2000
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Amy Gross-Kehoe is on a distinguished road
The Optimist European Championships

 
Junior sailors get some big-fleet experience on Lake Garda at the Optimist European Championships.
 
The final half hour before the harbor start on Day One of the European Optimist Championships at Riva del Garda in Italy is a sight to see. The rectangular sails and boats of 291 junior sailors are crowded into an impenetrable throng around the two launching ramps and getting from Team USA's camp to the message board to check for last-minute changes is a challenge as I hop, scrape, and shuffle between boats, sailors, parents, and coaches. Booms swing in and out of my path as the Ora—the local thermal breeze—begins coming in from the south, and the collective anticipation builds. These kids, from places as remote as Brazil, Japan, Malaysia, and Norway, are here to test themselves against each other, and to battle the tricky lake elements in what is regarded as a serious, major championship on the International Optimist Dinghy Association schedule.

There are sailors here from 43 countries for what everyone acknowledges as a mini-Olympic experience for the kids. The event is considered secondary only to the World Championships, and thus the hosts provide an appropriate level of pomp and circumstance—opening ceremonies, with all the teams suited up in uniforms marching through the quaint cobblestone streets of this mountain village in Northern Italy. But above all, it's a learning experience for the sailors, all of whom are under 16 years old.

 
With 1,500-foot bluffs surrounding the lake, "shifty conditions" is an understatement for this venue.
 
Every year, nearly 50 countries from Malta to Brazil to the US Virgin Islands are invited to send a team of their top junior sailors (those who just missed qualifying for the IODA World Championships) to the European Championships. You can bet that there are numerous future Olympians and perhaps a few would-be America's Cup contenders among those rigging up their odd sails and boxy boats. Team USA—with Erik Storck (Huntington, NY), Cullen Shaugnessy (Naples, FL), Edward Conrad (New Orleans, LA), John Kempton (Island Heights, NJ), and Stephen Young (Tampa, FL), among the boys (each with lots of international experience), and Caroline Young (Tampa, FL), Kaitlin Storck (Huntington, NY), and Evan Brown (Tampa, FL) among the girls (all untested internationally, but solid sailors nonetheless)—was intent on a strong showing.

With all its attendant hoopla, this is always a special regatta, but even more so because of Lake Garda. This isn't just any lake. It's 20 miles long, three miles wide, and 1,500 feet deep, surrounded by 1,500-foot cliffs, all of which make it challenging for both competitors and race organizers. (It takes almost 15 minutes for an anchor to drop to the bottom and set.) For our first two races, the Ora didn't disappoint. The 111 competitors in the girls' fleet were able to sail together, but the 181-boat boys' fleet was divided into four color divisions, where sailors rotated in a round-robin format. The 12 to 15-knot breeze made for excellent competition, and in each fleet Team USA had finishers in the top groups. By Race Two, where the breeze built to 17 knots, I could see a trend forming—Cullen was looking strong while the others fell victim to penalties. Both Kaity and Erik Storck were protested by the jury for kinetics on the water, and their positions were negatively affected by the circles they subsequently performed to exonerate themselves. In all, over 20 sailors in the fleet were yellow-flagged in these two first races. In order for this to become a learning experience, the jury made itself available after racing to discuss with the sailors what it was the judges felt they were doing wrong. It didn't change the scores, but it did soothe some young egos.

 
It’s not all work at the regatta—Team USA takes a group break on shore.
 
On Tuesday, the racing was postponed until after noon. Rainy weather had ripped through the night before, causing cloud cover that prevented both the Peler (the local northerly) or the Ora from materializing. We finally hit the water to start racing in a squirrelly eight to 12-knot northerly at about 2:00 p.m. The shifty conditions in both races that afternoon gave some kids—including Team USA—finishes that would keep them off the medal stand. Cullen led around the course in the boys' first race, only to lose in the last left shift to Brazilian Andre Ribeiro. But Ribeiro's victory was short lived, however, because his name later appeared on the OCS list for premature starters.

Tuesday seemed pretty bad in terms of steady wind until we saw Wednesday. Scattered showers over the mountains killed the breeze, and Race Five—the only one we had all day—was fraught with frustration as the wind wandered from three to 10 knots. Team USA's racers saw a lot of boats move ahead of them on the final beats as some competitors banged the corners hard and came out ahead. Stephen was able to turn a 60th into a 12th while teammate Erik saw his second become a 15th in one unpredictable shift. But it was the girls who had the worst luck. In a dying breeze, with the majority of the competitors finishing in a span of less than two minutes, the committee wasn't able to write down all the finishers correctly and two of the Team USA girls got DNFs (did not finish). Despite filing for redress, the requests were denied and the girls had to simply accept this unfair treatment.

"This isn't just any lake—it's 20 miles long, three miles wide, and surrounded by 1,500-foot cliffs."
Frustrated by the unusual weather, the organizers called for an early start on Thursday. Cullen was still in second overall among the boys—within striking distance of Brazilian Rafael Lorenzo—and Team USA was encouraged. Under clear skies and irregular cloud cover, the race committee got off two races in the morning's northerly (eight to12 knots) and one race in the afternoon's southerly (10 to14 knots). The UK's David Evans moved firmly into third place, with Italian Matteo Sangiorgi on his tail, and Cullen still knocking on the door for first. With the committee still engaged in fixing the scoring errors from the previous day's Race Five, we were unable to determine the girls' standings. Still, local sailor Irene Sanderini looked to be ahead of last year's champion, Giulia Conti, while Marjaliisa Umb from Estonia was certainly in the running with a series of top-five finishes.

Friday dawned in similar fashion as the day before, but fluky breezes stymied the committee until almost mid-afternoon. When we finally hit the water for the one race that would determine the series, the wind did not disappoint and the southerly swept in at eight to 12 knots. Brazil's Rafael Lorenzo had a lock on first place in the regatta, but tensions were high for the UK's Evans and Italy's Sangiorgi—the two sailors with a chance at second place and a shot at the overall European Championship. Due to a quirk of the rotation schedule, the two did not sail against each other in the last race, but Sangiorgi took the European Title with a strong final flourish to close out the 12-race series. Cullen had to swallow a heartbreaking OCS (premature start), which left him in fifth place overall. Among the other US sailors, Eddie Conrad was just off the medal stand in 21st place, and Erik Storck managed a 28th overall, with two OCSs as his drop races. Stephen Young's three top-10 finishes shot him into 62nd place, and John Kempton kept the Team in the top 100 with 100th overall.

 
Living in the fast lane—a Team USA sailor heads downwind
 
In the girls' fleet, the finishes from Race Five had finally been hashed out, and after the last race, Irene Saderini of Italy finished in first, with Marjaliisa Umb of Estonia in second, and Argentina's Ana Labourt in third. Team USA's top sailor was Kaitlin Storck, who finished 32nd, while Caroline Young was disappointed at her lack of redress for Race Five, which dropped her to 41st. Evan Brown managed a 53rd overall, putting all the girls in the top half of a very competitive fleet.

At the awards banquet, I watched as sailors from around so many countries ran around the huge auditorium pulling treasured T-shirts, jackets, and other paraphernalia out of their backpacks. These kids had just spent six hours on the water—they should've been scarfing down dinner. But no way—this was way more important. Some of my sailors returned with samurai headbands. "This one says 'much wind'," explained John Kempton. At his first international event, the 12-year-old was thrilled to walk away with 100th overall, about 10 shirts from his new best friends, and a huge, floppy, green leprechaun hat from the Irish team that he had gotten in a trade for his Team USA vest and a shirt.

Amid the celebrations, I had a chance to speak to regatta winner, Rafael Lorenzo, through his coach and interpreter Eduardo Abad. Shy and humble, Rafael does not speak English, and barely speaks up in his native Portuguese. Abad describes him as a good kid, and I watched as his teammates joked with him; it was clear how uncomfortable he was with his newly earned attention. Through Abad, Rafael told me that he was most nervous on Thursday and Friday, when the wind was northerly and shifty. He reinforced my belief that it is hard to understand the trends when the breeze is light on Lake Garda. He credited his teammates at home in Brazil for helping him win this regatta. None of them qualified for the European Team, he explained. Rafael's next goal is to qualify for the World Championships next year, and he blushed when asked if he thought he could win that regatta. After that, he said he looks forward to jumping into an Olympic Class. His coach believes Rafael has what it takes to win the Worlds and, in the future, an Olympic medal, "He works very hard, he is always learning a lot, and he loves it, so he will do well," said Abad. And so will they all.

 

 

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