Sunshine broke through the dull, grey skies that had shadowed the build-up to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Sailing Competition as the first races got under way yesterday, with a 10 knot wind to boot. It was a glorious opening session of sailing.
And it wasn’t just the elements that delivered either as current Paralympic champions continued where they left off from London 2012, leading their respective fleets. Great Britain’s Helena Lucas in the 2.4 Norlin OD, Australia in the SKUD18 and with the previous gold medallists absent, it was the Australian team who looked to fill the void early on in the Sonar.
The day began with a moment of reflection as Technical Delegate David Staley led a moment of silence for Ian Harrison MBE who passed away in late August, and quite fittingly a Memorial Service was held in his Great British home county on the same day as the Paralympic sailing begun.
A pioneer of disabled sailing, Harrison was key to the sport being accepted as a Paralympic medal sport in 2000 and was also the Technical Delegate for that first Paralympic Sailing Competition in Sydney.
Reigning 2.4mR champion, Helena Lucas, led the way as Britain’s Rio 2016 regatta got off to a mixed start yesterday.
Lucas, who became Britain’s first Paralympic sailing champion on winning 2.4mR gold at London 2012, got her title defence off to the best possible start as a first and second from the opening two races of the event handed her the early overall lead in the one-person keelboat class.
Elsewhere on Guanabara Bay, London 2012 bronze medallists Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell picked up scores of fourth and third, following a successful race two protest against the Polish World Champion pair, Monika Gibes and Piotr Cichocki, to lay in fourth in the overall two-person keelboat standings.
Meanwhile Britain’s Sonar crew of John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas will be looking to bounce back from a tricky first day as 11th and ninth place finishes saw them end the day in 11th position overall in the three-person keelboat.
All the classes are scheduled to resume with their next two races from 5pm (BST) today.
And with Rio already living up to its reputation as one of the world’s most challenging sailing venues, minimizing mistakes and being as consistent as possible is going to ultimately decide where the medals land at the end of the week.
Lucas said: ‘It’s always nice to get the first day over and done with, just settle in to the rest of the week, know the hard work’s paid off and that you have got a good handle on what’s going on out there.
‘It was a tough day. My aim for the rest of the week is to carry on doing the same thing. I had good speed today so I was able to keep it relatively simple. That really, really helped; having the speed and being able to keep it simple was key.’
Rickham and Birrell had an eventful day that ended in front of the International Jury after they believed they had been impeded by Gibes and Cichocki at the first top mark of race two but the Poles did not do the required penalty turn. The Brits later did their own penalty turn in the same race after they impeded the Polish crew.
With the jury finding in the Brits’ favour in the protest room, and the Poles disqualified from the race, Rickham and Birrell can start trying to move in to and establish themselves amongst the podium positions. Defending London 2012 champions, Daniel Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch (AUS) have taken an early lead.
Rickham said: ‘It was quite a battle today. Ultimately getting the third in race two means it is a pretty solid start. The Games are on and there is a lot to play for. The main contenders are all up there fighting and the Australians had a really good day.
‘The course was a bit difficult at times, the pressure was up and down and it was really hot. But I think we did the best that we could, battling back when we got a bit stuck in the fleet. The reality is we need to get to the front and be able to hold on. We are both in good spirits and looking forward to tomorrow.’
Australia’s Daniel Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch lead the SKUD18 fleet. Sailing on the Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) race area they took a bullet and a second place to sit top of the leaderboard on three points.
Even with a regatta to concentrate on, Tesch said she was enjoying the stunning setting of the regatta with the Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain providing an iconic backdrop.
She said: ‘The most exciting thing is having to tell Dan where the boats are when we are in certain positions and turning around and saying ‘They’re just under the Sugarloaf’ or ‘they’re just under Christ’ that’s quite exciting.’
Meanwhile Sonar skipper John Robertson insisted there was plenty to feel positive about for the rest of the event despite admitting to not picking up the scores they would have wanted to open their series.
After a tough opening race, Robertson pointed to moments in race two where they were sailing very well at the front of the fleet before getting stuck on the wrong side of a wind shift as increasing influence from the sea breeze created patchy, shifty breeze across the Escola Naval course on which they were competing.
He said: ‘Today hurts because our standards are so high. In the second race it got very patchy, up from 10-11 knots and dropping to 5-6. A bit of pressure comes through and the wind’s up to 9kts, but if you’re not in it, it makes it very difficult.
‘As long as you’re aware of that it changes the way you sail a little bit. You sail the percentages a bit more rather than just hit the corners. The boat was going well and we started well in the second race so we have to keep doing all those things and see what happens at the end. You sleep on it, have a debrief and come back stronger.’
All three classes are scheduled to contest an 11 race series each, with two races per day from Monday 12 – Friday 16 September before one final series race for each class, after which the medals will be awarded, on Saturday 17 September.
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