A quick look at the team, the venue, the schedule and the competition
Time was that the idea of the U.S. Sailing Team coming up empty at an Olympics would have been inconceivable. But that’s exactly what happened at the Weymouth sailing regatta at the 2012 London Olympics, with the team returning home without a single medal for the first time since 1936.
Fast forward four years, and it’s a very different team that is prepared to lock horns with the rest of the world at the 2016 Olympics on Rio’s Guanabara Bay.
First and foremost, this is a team that no longer takes anything for granted.
For years now, the competition at the Sailing World Cup and Olympic level has become increasingly tough, thanks in large part of the taxpayer-funded programs in countries such as China, England and New Zealand. Prior to the 2012 Games, the U.S. Sailing Team was always able to pry loose at least a couple of medals through the extraordinary efforts of a handful of individuals—think Mark Reynolds and Magnus Liljedahl’s gold medal effort in the Star class at the Sydney Games, and Anna Tunnicliffe’s gold in the Laser Radial class in Beijing. But no more. Now the team understands that it’s a full-time four-year-long campaign across the entire team if it’s going to prevail.
Not only that, US Sailing Team Sperry has initiated something called “Project Pipeline” for the express purpose of cultivating young talent not only for the next Olympiad but beyond. Like the America’s Cup, the days when a committed amateur can put in a few months of heavy training and hope to be competitive are long gone. (For an in-depth discussion of “Project Pipeline, and the many other training initiatives put into place since Weymouth, click here.)
In addition, according to the managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing, former SAIL publisher Josh Adams, the team has both ramped up its coaching staff—bringing on such veterans as the aforementioned Reynolds and two-time sailing Olympian Charlie McKee—and invested heavily in exposing its team members to international-level competition. This included setting up a semi-permanent training facility in the Rio suburb of Niteo directly across from the actual Olympic sailing venue to ensure U.S. sailors are as familiar with the tricky sailing conditions on Guanabara Bay as possible.
The end result is a U.S. Sailing Team that has worked as hard or harder than any team ever fielded. They are also arguably better prepared, with both the rookies and veterans fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Whether or not they’re going to improve on Weymouth remains an open question. Not matter what the results, though, no one can fault this team for lack of effort.
Veteran Australian sailing journalist Rob Kothe assesses the U.S. team’s chances in Rio
The United States has always been a strong contender in the sport of Olympic sailing. While it’s true that Great Britain has now won the most Olympic Gold medals, the United States remains in second place with 19 and has won more Olympic sailing medals overall, 59, than any other country. (Britain is second with 54.)
In the past, the United States selected its team based on a single U.S.-based trial event that only Americans could enter, usually with small fleets. However, that has changed in response to increasing competition from abroad, with performances in two high-pressure International events, such as a world championship or Sailing World Cup regatta. The idea behind the new regimen is that it forces U.S. sailors to pit themselves against the same sailors they will face in the Olympic arena.
Unfortunately, for U.S. sailors, the U.S. Olympic sailing program is still funded by private supporters alone. And in spite of record fundraising efforts, it is still dwarfed by the government-funded budgets available to Britain, Australia, China and some other countries—even tiny New Zealand. On the plus side, sometimes geography helps, and with the 2016 Summer Olympics taking place in nearby Rio, American sailors have been able to spend more time getting used to the venue than any other nation.
Among the favorites on the U.S. team is Laser Radial sailor Paige Railey, for whom this will be the second consecutive Olympics. A former world champion, Rolex World Sailor of the Year, three-time Pan American Games medalist and U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, Railey has been working hard ever since the 2012 Olympics and is peaking at the right time. (She’s spent so much time in Rio the locals are calling her “Brazilian woman.”)
That said, British sailor Alison Young bested Railey in the 2016 Laser Radial Worlds in Mexico in April by a single point. Anne-Marie Rindom of Denmark and Dutch sailor Marit Bouwmeester, who finished third and fourth at the Worlds, are also a threat.
In the 470 Men’s fleet, the U.S. team of Stu McNay and Dave Hughes has the experience and smarts to repeat their performance at the 2015 Sailing World Cup regatta in Weymouth, England, where they beat the gold medal favorites, Matt Belcher and Will Ryan of Australia, who had been unbeatable in the 2013 and 2014. In recent months Belcher and Ryan have also been bested by Croatians Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic so anything could happen.
As for the women’s 470 team of Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha, they’ve looked strong ever since winning the 2015 Rio Olympic test event, but will need to overcome some stiff opposition, including the 2016 World Champions Camille Lecointre and Helene Defrance of France, and London 2012 Gold medallists Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie of New Zealand.
In most of the classes, the field is wide open, with up to 10 crews that could win. However, a notable exception is the Finn class, in which the gold medal already appears to have been locked away by British sailor Giles Scott, the winner of four world titles in a row and almost every regatta he has competed in over the last two years.
Another exception is in the 49er class, where New Zealanders Peter Burling and Blair Tuke have not been beaten in a single regatta since 2012. As is the case with the Finn class, the big story here would be if they didn’t win gold.
The Racing Areas
It would be hard to imagine a trickier body of water than the one on which the Olympic regatta is going to be held August 8-18. On the one hand, the seven designated racing circles are all located in or just outside of the narrow channel connecting Rio’s Guanabara Bay to the open Atlantic. On the other, for the more inshore courses, in particular, you’ve got steep hills close by in every direction, not to mention iconic 1,400ft Sugarloaf Mountain looming literally overhead.
“The wind is greatly influenced by geography, more so than almost any place I’ve been,” says David Dellenbaugh, the America’s Cup veteran and US Sailing Team Sperry coach leading the multi-year effort to create a team “playbook” detailing the area. “From course to course you can have quite different wind directions.”
With respect to the currents caused by the area’s tides, which vary from 4ft to just over 1ft depending on the point in the cycle, Dellenbaugh adds: “The only thing that keeps it from being a ridiculous amount of current is that the tidal ranges aren’t that great.”
First the wind: on a typical day, a sea breeze will establish itself out of the south in the late morning, typically from around 160 to 200 degrees. Lighter and more variable offshore, this breeze accelerates as it enters the narrow harbor entrance where the surrounding hills also channel it to a direction of around 195 degrees. Not a particularly windy venue, speeds average 8 to 10 knots, sometimes building to 15.
Occasionally a frontal system will come through, bringing with it strong southwesterlies for a day or two and rough conditions offshore, as was the case during the team’s May training camp. Depending on the direction, Sugarloaf can also either compress and accelerate the wind slipping around its flanks or create a wind-killing lee.
In terms of current, ground zero is the Escola Naval circle, which straddles the deeper water of the shipping lane at the channel’s narrowest point. Not only can the sailors experience a solid 2-knot current here during a spring tide, but during the flood they also have to contend with the various swirls and eddies coming off Laje Island directly to the south.
Because these eddies are so unpredictable, the sailors will have to stay on the lookout for things like tide lines and other visual indicators: water color, for example, can beespecially important, with green water indicating the inflow of oceanic water, and brown water indicating harbor water going back out to sea.
Dellenbaugh notes that classes racing earlier in the regatta will have less current to contend with because it will be the quarter moon. However, from then on the tides and currents will steadily increase until the new moon at the end of the regatta.
Ponte: Located where the channel widens into the broader bay and just to the south of the bay’s one bridge, Ponte is subject to fairly strong currents. However, it is far enough north of Laje Island that it isn’t affected by any of the eddies the island creates during the flood. That said, there can be variability across the area. For example, the current could be flooding in the center of the circle, but already ebbing along the edges, and vice versa.
Aeroporto: Only created last fall as a reserve course if racing becomes untenable offshore, the current here is moderately strong and fairly uniform. Winds are also fairly steady because it is far enough north of Sugarloaf Mountain that it is largely clear of its wind shadow.
Escola Naval: Smack dab in the middle of the bay and just north of both Sugarloaf Mountain and Laje Island, the “Navy School” circle is not only going to be one of the busiest circles during the regatta, it can also be the most confusing. This is where the eddies coming off Laje during the flood are most pronounced. When the wind is out of the south, which is usually the case,it also compresses along Sugarloaf’s flanks, possibly providing a lift and more pressure. However, if you get too much in the lee of Sugarloaf you can also end up in a huge wind shadow.
Pao de Acucar: The site of all the regatta’s final medal races, the Pao de Acucar circle is well west of the shipping channel, so only the eastern portion is really affected by tidal currents. However, wind direction and speed can become extremely fickle because of nearby Sugarloaf Mountain and the hilly coastline to the west. The combination of the short medal-race courses and shifty conditions will create a situation similar to that of high-pressure college racing in places like Boston’s Charles River.
Copacabana: Located just outside the harbor to the southeast of the famed beach of the same name, the Copacabana circle often experiences the least wind, in part because of the way the sea breeze lifts up over the hilly shore before reaching land. Though not typically rough, the area is often affected by long ocean swells, which can be very large after a front passes through. In a southwesterly breeze, a favorable shift or more pressure can sometimes be found closer to shore.
Nitero: Although this circle typically sees slightly more breeze than the Copacabana area, Pai Island to the southeast can create problems on the windward part of the course: a factor whenever the race committee decides to drop its windward mark in the area.Current is not usually a big factor her, although the waves can be huge.
Pai: Another circle added only recently as a reserve, the area is the farthest out in the ocean and will probably not be used for racing.
The days when the only way to follow Olympic sailing was months after the fact in print are long gone. For the 2016 Olympics, NBC is once again broadcasting thousands of hours of competition live, including the entire Olympic regatta. Sailing begins Monday, August 8 with racing in the Laser and sailboard classes and finishes up on Thursday, August 18 with the final medal rounds in the 49er and 49erFX classes (with August 19 serving as a reserve day). The schedule above is a preliminary one, with dates and the designated racecourses for the various class. Be aware it is subject to change as the regatta proceeds. For the latest sailing scheduling visit the NBC sailing page.
The U.S. Olympic Sailing Team
(Men’s One-Person Heavy Dinghy)
(San Diego, CA)
2013 World Cup Miami champion Caleb Paine has been the top-ranked American Finn sailor since 2012 and will compete in his first Olympics having beaten 2008 Beijing Olympic silver medalist Zach Railey in the final U.S. selection event, the 2016 Finn Europeans. Celebrating his selection Paine went on to take eighth place in the Sailing World Cup regatta in Hyeres, France. Early in the regatta he was in second, and although he faded later on he finished on a high note with a win in the final medal race.
Nacra 17 (Mixed Multi-hull) Bora Gulari (Detroit, MI), Louisa Chafee (Warwick, RI) Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee are shoehorning a four-year campaign into an incredibly short time frame. But with their experience—41-year-old Gulari is a two-time Moth World Champion and 2009 U.S. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, while Chafee had an All-American collegiate career, graduating in 2014—they just might pull it off. Gulari started campaigning in 2015 with a different crew but paired up with Chafee ahead of the first U.S. Olympic qualifying event, the World Cup Miami, finishing 12th, as their nearly vertical learning curve continues. NACRA 17 (MIXED CREWS) 2 CREW LENGTH: 17ft WEIGHT: 304lb SAIL AREA: 216ft SPINNAKER: 201ft
(Men’s Two-Person Dinghy)
Stu McNay (Providence, RI),
Dave Hughes (Miami, FL)
At Rio, Stu McNay will be competing in his third Olympics, having finished 13th in 2008 and 14th in 2012. However, this will his first Olympic regatta with Dave Hughes as crew. The veteran pair have been impressive since they started campaigning in January 2013. According to McNay, “We have stepped up. We have made all the mistakes over the years, and now we are making good decisions and podium results are coming.”
(Women’s Two-Person Dinghy)
Annie Haeger (East Troy, WI),
Briana Provancha (San Diego, CA)
2016 U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year Annie Haeger and Youth World Champion Briana Provancha medaled at their first event on their road to Rio, the 2013 Trofeo Princesa Sofia in Spain. Since 2014, triple 470 World Champion Dave Ullman has been their coach. As a result, consistency has been their hallmark, with top-10 finishes at the majority of their regattas. They won gold at the 2015 Olympic Test event in Rio and will be looking for a repeat at the games themselves.
Women’s RS:X (Women’s Windsurfing) Marion Lepert (Belmont, CA) French-born Marion Lepert started windsurfing in California at age 9. Windy San Francisco Bay is her home waters, so she is fast in strong conditions, but rapidly improving in lighter winds as well. She works with her French coach via video and skype. The Toronto 2015 Pan American Games bronze medalist, and bronze winner at the 2015 RS:X U21 European Championships, she is building form rapidly and won the medal race at the prestigious 2016 Trofeo Princesa Sofia regatta in Palma, Spain, taking 10th place overall. RS:X WINDSURFER (WOMEN) CREW: 1 LENGTH: 9ft 5in WEIGHT: 34lb SAIL AREA: 91ft
Laser (Men’s One-Person Dinghy) Charlie Buckingham (Newport Beach, CA) Reigning North American Laser Champion and two-time College Sailor of the Year Charlie Buckingham, will be sailing at his first Olympic Games, after narrowly missing London 2012. A regular podium finisher, he is currently ranked 10th in the world and has been as high as third in the past. Buckingham has been spending a great deal of time sailing on the Rio course, even forsaking a tilt at the Laser Standard Worlds in Mexico in May 2016 to maintain his Rio focus. LASER (MEN) CREW: 1 LENGTH: 13ft 9in WEIGHT 130lb SAIL AREA 76ft
(Men’s High-Performance skiff)
Thomas Barrows (St. Thomas, USVI),
Joe Morris (Annapolis, MD)
Thomas Barrows competed for the U.S. Virgin Islands at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in the men’s Laser class, finishing 21st. He then joined up with his Yale teammate Joe Morris, a five-time U.S. national champion, in 2012 to compete in the 49er class under the U.S. flag. Morris will be competing at his first Olympic Games in Rio. The duo finished 13th at last winter’s Sailing World Cup regatta in Miami and 23rd at the 2016 49er Worlds.
(Women’s High-Performance skiff)
Paris Henken (Coronado, CA),
Helena Scutt (Kirkland, WA)
Both very successful college sailors, Paris Henken and Helena Scutt paired up in 2013. Unfortunately, they suffered a severe setback at the 49erFX Worlds that same year when they were involved in a serious boat collision, in which Helena sustained a broken spine, two broken ribs and a damaged kidney. Her rehabilitation, however, was successful, and the team re-launched its campaign in 2014, winning bronze at the 2015 Pan American Games.