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Women’s European Laser Radial Championship

Railey rules the waves in Denmark

For some of the leading contenders in the Women’s European Laser Radial Championship, this regatta marked the return to serious competition after last year’s Olympic Regatta in China. A pre-regatta form guide for the 96-boat fleet was difficult because this would be first time in 2009 that most of the major players in the class would be doing battle on the same race course.

Not only that, but the breeze blowing off the shore of Charlottenlund, a few kilometres to the north of Copenhagen, is often very unpredictable and promised to test the sailors’ ability to bounce back from difficult positions. Alongside the women’s fleet there would be a fleet of 70 men competing for their European Laser Radial title, with the Polish squad looking particularly strong.

As the reigning World and European Champions from 2008, Sarah Steyaert (France) and Sari Multala (Finland) respectively would be expected to be in the frame, although both were playing down their chances after taking time out of sailing. However at the end of two qualifying races on day one it was these two sailors that found themselves occupying the first two places on the leaderboard. Steyaert’s 1,2 score from her qualifying fleet of 48 boats was very impressive, and she put it down to being fresh after having been focused on her university studies for so long.

Another favourite from Croatia, Tina Mihelic, won a race but also failed to sign off with her safety tally after racing, and had 10 points added to her score by the Jury. It was a harsh penalty, although Mihelic remained philosophical about it. The USA’s Paige Railey also won a qualification race on day one, buoyed by the performance of her brother Zach, the Olympic silver medallist, who had just won another important silver medal in the Finn Gold Cup the day before at Vallensbaek on the other side of Copenhagen.

Day 2 threw some new challenges at the competitors, and what worked in one heat was no guarantee it would work in the next. “It was almost as if you were sailing on two different days,” commented Danish sailor Maiken Schutt. Perhaps the schizophrenic day accounted for why so many of the leading contenders in the 96-boat women’s fleet recorded one good score and one bad.

For example Australia’s Gabrielle King found herself on the wrong side of something in her second today after a good first one, following a respectable 5th with a discardable 25th. “A mixed bag,” she laughed. “Every now and then I like to remind myself what it’s like not to get a good start. You just claw your way through, and have a nice little sail.” A nice attitude to dealing with a difficult race. King said she was having too much fun to get down about a poor result. “Copenhagen’s a really cool city, there’s so much going on, the waters out here are just great, really nice sailing, got a great competition, what more can you ask for?”

Steyaert certainly couldn’t ask for much more as she continued to lead the series, having won another heat in a three-way battle to the finish line against Railey and New Zealander Sarah Winther, just four seconds separating these three across the line.

The end of qualifying on Day 3 was yet another challenging day, with Railey’s motto of consistency rather than individual race glory starting to pay off. She moved into the narrowest of leads with Steyaert and Great Britain’s Charlotte Dobson breathing down her neck, just a point behind the American.

With a day missed due to lack of wind on The Sound, the water that divides Denmark and Sweden, the race committee had no choice but to cancel racing that day. At least it provided an opportunity for competitors to do a little local sightseeing and getting to know Copenhagen better. Then again, Finnish sailor Johanna Gustafsson was ready and raring to go. At 55kg, she was one of the smaller competitors and a race in the lighter breezes would have given her a chance against her larger rivals. Gustafsson’s is an extraordinary story, having campaigned the Tornado Olympic catamaran in the late 80s and early 90s. Now 46 years old and a mother of seven children, her oldest daughter is older than many of her competitors in the Radial, and yet Gustafsson is back on the Olympic campaign trail while her husband looks after the kids.

Day 5, and the fleet was divided into Gold and Silver. With the top 48 sailors now competing in one division, the racing intensified and good starting became an even higher priority. Steyaert broke the line early in the first race and was disqualified for being On Course Side. Dobson had a bad too, and while Railey’s 20th in the first race was no great shakes, a 3rd in the next put her a long way ahead on points. After her tally controversy earlier in the week, Tina Mihelic clocked up her third race win of the series and hauled herself back into second overall. Norway’s Cathrine Gjerpen moved into third.

Sailors had commented on how challenging the breezes were all week, but the final day was possibly the most difficult of all. With Railey scoring 20th in the first race and many of the top contenders falling the wrong side of a big windshift on the second beat, the race for the European title was still wide open going into the deciding heat.

America’s Sarah Lihan found a personal gust from the middle of the first beat to lead around the windward mark, but more significant was Railey rounding in 2nd. If she could maintain this position she would win the championship. By the leeward gate, however, Railey had moved into a commanding lead and sped away to win the race and the Open Championship title. As an American, she would not be eligible for the European title itself.

While Railey’s position was assured, the points were so tight that no one knew who was top European until they arrived ashore to look at the scoreboard. Mihelic beat Steyaert by 2.5 points for European honours, with Denmark’s Alberte Lindberg enjoying a strong Gold Fleet series to finish 4th overall, just a point behind the reigning World Champion.

In the 70-boat Men’s division, Poland’s Zemke Wojciech had led all week, winning race after race. But on that final tricky day his regatta fell apart with scores of 20,26. This left the way clear for Greek sailor Michail Aristeidis to win the Men’s European Championship.

The Laser Radial Europeans is one of a number of high profile sailing regattas taking place in Denmark this summer as part of wider festival of different sports, called Denmark’s Year of Sport. To do their utmost to ensure that their events are held to the highest possible standards the Danish Sailing Association is working with the support of the insurance company CODAN (part of Sun Alliance Group), to provide TracTrac tracking during the Laser Radial Europeans, Finn Gold Cup, EUROSAF Match Racing Europeans and 470 World Championship. The Danish Sailing Association has purchased 150 state-of-the-art GPS tracking devices, allowing races to be followed in real time over the internet.

Last year the TracTrac tracking of the ISAF Youth Sailing World Championship in Aarhus, Denmark was followed by nearly 30,000 viewers from 69 countries all over the world.

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