Olympic debutant Zach Railey of the US ended yesterday in an unfamiliar position — ahead of “The Man” in Finn class racing, the seemingly invincible British triple medalist Ben Ainslie.
“It’s a great start to have in the Olympics,” Railey, 24, said after ending the opening day of racing in Qingdao as No. 2 overall after two of 11 races, with a second and a fifth place in the weak wind over China’s Yellow Sea.
For Ainslie, 34, there might have been something deja vu about his opening race. He finished in 10th place, maintaining his unwilling Olympic tradition of getting off to a bad start, and then coming back strongly. He finished first in the second race of the day and was third overall.
Polish sailor Rafal Szukiel led overall, placing third and second in the first two races. The Greek sailor who won the first race, Emilios Papathanasiou, failed to finish the second.
Currents were strong and winds were weak, too weak to even hold the first races, said Denmark’s Jason Hoegh-Christiansen, the world’s No. 1-ranked Finn sailor and Railey’s sparing partner heading into the Games. Under such difficult conditions — sometimes the boats seemed all but becalmed — each decision, each tiny mistake had huge consequences.
“Everything was turned upside down today,” explained Hoegh-Christiansen, who was a disappointing ninth overall after seeing his early lead in the first race turn into a 16th because he picked the wrong side of the course.
“It’s so tight in the field, that if you get caught in a wind hole for 30 seconds, 20 boats pass you,” he said.
In the first race, Ainslie and Railey had the same experience, with directly opposite results.
Ainslie, who had not lost a Finn race since 2004, was in the lead going into the final leg of the first race. Then, suddenly, he was being passed by much of the 26 boat fleet.
“You saw massive gains and losses around the markers,” he said. “The wind shut down and I was passed by nine or 10 boats.”
The odd thing about Qingdao, which is notorious among sailors for its difficult conditions, was that the same tactics by Ainslie in the second race brought a victory.
“My second race was a carbon copy of the first, but this time it worked,” he said.
Railey, on the other hand, rounded the final marker of the first race in 15th place and took off downwind to claim second.
“It was fortunate that I had really good downwind speed on the last leg of the first race,” Railey said.
He said a mistake on the last downwind leg cost him several places in the second race.
“In this fleet, everyone is so good. It’s the little things that are going to make a big difference,” Railey said.
Ahead of the opening race, Railey said staying calm in the difficult conditions off Qingdao, the sailing venue about 500km south of Beijing, would be critical.
“This is a very hard place to sail and consistency is going to be the key to a good results,” Railey said. “The racing is going to be very exciting to watch.”
In the 15-boat women’s Yngling class, with crews of three, British favorites Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson finished the day in the lead overall, with a second and a third place.
Canada trio Jennifer Provan, Martha Henderson and Katie Abbott were second overall, while the Dutch team of Mandy Mulder, Annemieke Bes and Merel Witteveen rebounded from a ninth in the first race to win the second and be third after two of 11 races.
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