Monday, October 31, 2011

BRAZIL Golden @ J/24 Pan Am Games

J/24 one-design sailboat- sailing off Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in Pan Am Games (Puerto Vallarta, Mexico)- The final day of the sailing on the gorgeous Bahia de Banderas bay at the Pan American Games regatta saw each of the nine classes hold the double points medal race for the top five in each class to decide the medalists.

Emerging from the smoke on the battlefield, like an apparition out of the fog, was yet again Brazil's J/24 ace Mauricio Santa Cruz at the top of the leader-board.  Mauricio and crew took home the Gold by one point after a battle in the final race with the American team of John Mollicone.  Taking the Bronze Medal on the podium was Matias Sequel from Chile, fourth was Luis Alcese from Peru and fifth was Francisco Van Avermaete from Argentina.   Sixth from the host country Mexico was Jorge Murrietta.

Sailing onboard the American J/24 at the Pan Am Games in Puerto Vallarta was Dan Rabin.  Dan's amusing commentary about their Silver Medal winning experience was posted on Sailing World blogs:   "Security has increased significantly since we first arrived. Getting into the hotel or the yacht club is like going through security at the airport. In addition, the Mexican Navy is patrolling the coast of our hotel and the sailing area - wow!

I feel like karma should be on our side. The Canadian team's jib got lost in transport, so we gave them our practice jib which only has a few days on it. Otherwise, they would have been sailing with a jib that looks older than the kids I coach at Brown.

We had a nice cross-class dinner after the first day of sailing with the Lightning team and Clay Johnson. I learned that Farrah Hall, the U.S. boardsailor went for a run while waiting for her redress hearing. Boardsailing must be one of the most intense physical activities on the planet, and Farrah goes for a run to cool down! I explained to Jay Lutz that if I ran from our dinner table to the restaurant door I would probably go into cardiac arrest. I guess I'm getting old, or maybe I'm flat-out already there, but being on the water for 6 hours in 90+ degrees takes a lot out of me.

Another competition going on in the midst of the Pan Am Games is the country pins. All of the athletes are given about 20 pins which have a national team decal. The idea is that you exchange pins with athletes from other countries. I am failing miserably on this front. I imagine that the pin exchange is a great introduction to meet people if you are single. I am not single, and I'm a bit shy by nature. So far, I have a couple of Mexican pins that I got from one of their American coaches I was already friends with - pathetic, I know. I gave a pin to a waiter today just for getting me some parmesan cheese, and I gave another pin to a waiter with the promise of a Puerto Rican pin in exchange tomorrow.

What's the sailing like, you might ask?  Well, it looks like champagne sailing, but it's mighty hot on the water off Puerto Vallarta on Banderas Bay. And the pressure in only increasing as the medal race approaches.

We were rewarded with a day off on Thursday because the regatta is on schedule with six races completed. Wednesday was the lightest breeze of the regatta. The puffs were very narrow, making for some challenging racing. With the breeze so light, the heat felt even more extreme. Puerto Vallarta travel tip: no need to bring sailing gear here. If I wore a spray top, I would be unconscious by the leeward gate. We pulled a horizon job the first race and managed a 3rd in the next race. After beating the Brazilians both races, we are leading by 1 point with a throw out.

For our day off, we managed to find the only place hotter than a J/24 deck downwind: the beach volleyball court. The U.S. men's and women's teams had matches, so most of the sailors went down to cheer them on. During the men’s match, a group of 30 Mexican elementary school students were cheering “Los Estados Unidos”, so I’m thinking that NAFTA thing has worked out pretty well. The women faced off against Mexico, though, and the stadium was going crazy after every Mexican point. Unfortunately, both U.S. teams lost. I saw the women’s team at dinner and they were in good spirits. I’m glad we were on hand to be part of their small group of supporters in the stands.

We have four more races scheduled over the next two days, and then a medal race on Sunday for the top five boats. In the medal race, the points are double whatever the finish position is, and it cannot be discarded. It’s starting to look like it could come down to us and Brazil as there’s a bit of a gap to 3rd place, so there should be some interesting tactical situations and exciting face offs. A seven-boat regatta has a very different dynamic than the typical big-fleet racing events I sail. For instance, if you’re sailing a 40 boat event, you could round the leeward gate in 18th, and grind back to a top 10 over the next 2 legs. Here, if you round the gate in third, it’s incredibly difficult to pass even one boat. So while every point matters in a typical event, every point is absolutely precious here. If you lose them, it’s really hard to get them back.

Fun fact: I speak a little bit of broken Spanish but Jay Lutz speaks a little bit of fluent Spanish, mostly related to ordering food and beer (cervezas!)-- I'm learning fast!

I mentioned in my last post that the points were shaping up such that we could see some interesting scenarios, and that was certainly the case. On Thursday, we went after Brazil in the pre-start in race 8. Since we had a better drop race than them, we could extend our lead if we forced them into another bad race. We had a great start to windward of them and were able to pin them out to the un-favored side. At one point, we were winning while they were in 6th, but things change quite a bit over the length of a 6 leg, 80 minute race. We had to shift gears again and tack on them relentlessly up the last beat. We were successful, though, and after 8 races we had our biggest lead of the regatta— a whopping 3 points.

On Saturday we were in full match race mode with Brazil, so the pre-starts were pretty intense. We ended up even on the day, still with a 3-points lead, but we had one especially exciting exchange to maintain that lead. Going down the last run of the 2nd race were about 3 boat lengths behind Brazil. We soaked low on them and then jibed right on top of them.  We began to roll them and then jibed back at them with the starboard advantage. We pinned them past lay line and then jibed back with the pole on the head stay and went on for a hard-earned 2nd.

The medal races on Sunday were only half the length of the normal races for most of the fleets. The Lightnings started before us and we were able to watch their entire race before our start. The RC had to do this format because they had to use the same three umpire boats for each race. That’s right, medal races were umpired and if you got a penalty, you had to do a 360 immediately.

For our medal race, we became engaged with Brazil even before the 5-minute warning went off (is that legal? who knows, umpires didn't seem to care).  At less than a minute to the start, we gained an advantage and drew a windward-leeward foul. Brazil had to spin and we continued to slow them down after they came out of their penalty turn. Meanwhile, the other 3 boats were sailing off at least a minute in front of us, duking it out for the bronze. We had a few tacking exchanges with Brazil, and on the last one, they were able to draw a foul on us. We had to spin, but even though we were in last and Brazil was now fourth, it looked like we might have created enough of a gap to the fleet that they would not be able to put the boat in between us that they needed for the gold. Unfortunately, at the bottom of the first run, Peru and Argentina got in a luffing match and Brazil closed the gap. Up the 2nd beat, Brazil passed Argentina. We were just too far behind to do anything and we had to watch as Brazil crossed the finish in third. It was heartbreaking.

I ran into Jody Lutz from the Lightning team at out hotel and he was experiencing similar feelings. We both recognized the achievement of winning a silver medal here, but were very disappointed at coming so close to the gold and watching it slip away. The medal ceremony on the water in downtown Puerto Vallarta helped cushion the blow a bit—the typical awards banquet doesn’t come close to this experience. I’ll always remember Geoff posing for a picture with his two young boys holding his medal – they looked very proud of Dad.

The Pan American Games was like no other regatta I’ve ever sailed. An outsider might look at it and see there are only 7 boats, and think, "That can’t be nearly as hard as a Worlds or North Americans.”  The comparison is pointless. They’re so completely different that it’s not really the same game.

On behalf of USA 5235, I’d like to give a huge thanks to the US SAILING and U.S. Olympic Committee staff for all of their work here.  I hope you’ve enjoyed following along, and a few years from now, will consider lacing it up and competing in your class’s trials for a chance to represent the U.S. at this great event."  Courtesy of Dan Rabin and Sailing World-   For more Pan Am Games sailing information.