Etchells: Competition for pro and amateur alike

Published on July 30th, 2020

Over the last four weeks, Sydney Harbour has proven to be a very attractive draw card for Australian sailing talent and coaches whose racing and training programs have been frustrated by the regulations of COVID-19.

Currently unable to race, the very generous Martin Hill recently handed over the tiller of his new Allanson/Murray Etchells to Mat Belcher, with whom he won the 2018 World Championship. Belcher’s reigning 470 World Champion crewmate, Will Ryan, is used to sailing on different Etchells at big events. Normally this is with Hong Kong’s Mark Thornburrow, and quite often that crew also includes Australia’s only sailing dual Olympic Gold Medalist (470), Malcolm Page.

Hill’s regulars, the gifted Julian Plante, and Sean O’Rourke joined Belcher and Ryan, and they took out the two-day mini regatta on Sydney Harbour. Belcher commented, “It was an informal, coaches regatta kind of thing that Iain Murray and James Mayo organized. It has centered on getting us all back racing, and it is perfect as it fits around our Olympic program.

“It has also showed the strength of our team, and the leadership of Iain, who has been able to think outside the square and get us racing. It is a mark of the man, as it clearly demonstrates how he supports us and the rest of the team in ways like this, all to get us through this difficult time.”

“We’re competitive on the start line, and we love racing each other. Iain is putting himself out there for the athletes, as too are his regular crew Colin Beashel, Richie Allanson, as well as all the other boats. Apart from that, it’s good to race well, and Martin is happy, which is just as important. Even though he could not be there he knows we’re getting some good experience and also enjoying his new boat.”

Out on the track Julian sat next to Mat on the rail, next was Will, and then Sean up front as the for’ard hand. “Will and I were looking at our communications and treating it as a big 470 in a way, and to chase the race practice that we’re desperately missing in the 470.”

“Everyone is hoping to expand the fleet for the next little regatta, and this shows the strength of the class, for in the middle of winter our first race is at 8 – says a lot – for I don’t think we’d get all the Olympians there at that time, shows how committed and passionate they are and its exactly what we need”, said a smiling, and happy Belcher.

The marvelously insightful Victor Kovalenko commented after watching his charges in the last one, “I think it’s important for us to race now, because racing it is different from our solo, technical training. We develop our ‘game’ with wind and competitors. Just as with tennis, you can play against a wall, but the real version is out on the court.”

“It is a very good and highly competitive fleet filled with strong sailors who are World Champions and Olympic Medalists, as well as regular, and yet super-accomplished sailors like Jeanne-Claude Strong. Being so competitive makes it better for us.”

In second place were the reigning Etchells World Champions, Iain Murray, Colin Beashel and Richie Allanson. Murray, the Director of High Performance for the Australian Sailing Team, said of it all, “It’s been great. The light conditions last time and the tightness of the 11 boats meant you had to have a good start. If you did not do all of the things well, then it is easy to be at the back. To have those guys (Belcher and Ryan), along with Victor Kovalenko all goes a long way to building the momentum of interesting sailing.”

Even the observers were top class, with Tess Lloyd (49er FX) and Nia Jerwood (470W) out on the water to help build their own race craft. The interest shown by Australian Sailing Team is terrific, and all of the members of the class are looking forward to getting both Tess and Nia, as well as other AST members, more actively involved as this new program grows from its infancy.

Naturally, the Etchells class is delighted to offer up high competition for our 2021 Olympians. Murray expanded, “Everyone’s looking for racing, and the more we can provide in an efficient manner in these times is exactly what people require. The group is flexible enough and we can go early in the morning to avoid city traffic and contact with people at the yacht clubs. 12 races over two mornings is a hallelujah moment.”

“We keep it casual, but authentic enough. All of us are out there to learn and benefit from the close action, as well as have some fun, and not just put on a show. We are going again on the first and second (of August), and it does seem like there is building momentum for it within the class, as this is all-inclusive for everyone. The whole purpose is for everyone to get better and improve and try to spread our Etchells addiction.”

None of it would happen without the support of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS), and especially the CEO, and also Dock Manager, Ned Brown, for getting the marks sorted.

Interestingly, and also importantly, in the previous two mini regattas the new Heritage, First Tracks (AUS 1485) had been right in amongst it. Steve ‘Mothy’ Jarvin said of the current brouhaha around the Class, “The boat thing is all just cheap talk. There’s no point wrecking the class. We would have had one of the Australian boats, but the order book was blown out, and we wanted one before the now postponed Worlds in Perth.”

“Our new Heritage, First Tracks (paying deference to the first ski of the morning, which is something Mothy really loves), is very similar in specification to the Allanson/Murray craft. Dave Heritage did a good job. It’s stiff and light, we had the fit out completed by Richie. Remember too that we were second in the Worlds with Magpie (AUS 1447), that was also a Heritage boat.”

“This is the 10th Etchells I have been involved in building. We now have a good boat and we’re competitive. We’re in there! It’s all about how you sail it. A new boat won’t help your bad habits. If we sail well, we win, and if they sail well, they win. Simple as that.”

“The mini regattas have been a success. We have Euan McNicol come in to run them for us, and we all contribute a small fee to facilitate that. The first thing we do is look at weather, and plan to either run the racing from either 7-10am or 2-5 in the afternoon.

“It’s all about completing as many races as we can in the best breeze, and allotted time. We always have two starts, with the practice start and the races are completed in about 25 minutes. Everyone is happy, and everyone is invited, so grab your Etchells and come and join us.”

“Importantly, James Mayo has his Youth Squad from the RSYS out there, presently two boats skippered by Matthew Stenta and Nick Howe, and my old boat (AUS 1187) went to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, with a crew skippered by Emma Harris sailing it. All are definitely enjoying it, and showing real pace. They do the maintenance, and we provide the boat and good sails so they are competitive”, said Jarvin in closing.

From Adelaide, Mark Roberts said, “As a sailor I hate missing out, and I had multiple offers to borrow people’s boats from James Mayo and others, but just could not make it work this time with the border closure. Hopefully that will be resolved by the time the next one comes around, otherwise I may just have to get on a plane and then self-isolate when I get back to Adelaide!”

As the President of the International Etchells Class Association of Australia, Roberts reflected more on the long-standing tradition of all manner of inshore and offshore sailing superstars going racing in Etchells. “It is tremendous to see the Etchells out racing again on the Harbour. Naturally we are thrilled to be offering something for our current Olympians to use as part of their training for Tokyo next year.

“Over recent times we have seen Jake Lilly, Mat Belcher and Will Ryan getting more and more involved, and I think this trend with our current and past Olympians as well as other sailing greats will continue, as more and more are drawn to the closeness of the racing and the level of competition.”

Graeme Taylor, a former Etchells Australian and Australasian Champion, in addition to being an offshore legend, missed out this time (and for a little while yet), by virtue of being in lockdown in Victoria. GT, as he is known to all and sundry, commented, “It is obviously quite disappointing, but is what it is. There are many more people with loads more pain than what I have right now. Hopefully I’ll be back into it in second part of year.”

GT is normally the Skipper of Magpie, with former Etchells World Champion, James Mayo, beside him, and then Olympic superstar, Tom Slingsby, on the bow. Apart from Gold in the Laser, Slingsby has won an impressive nine World Championships in no less than four very different classes, as well as being one of just four of Australians who have won both the America’s Cup and SailGP (namely, Tom, Kyle Langford, Kinley Fowler, and Sam Newton).

James Mayo took the helm for the mini regatta, with Etchells expert Ben Lamb stepping into the middle. GT said, “Sailing in different positions is good, and I have done it myself. I did the bow (no mean feat when you’re six foot five) with Nitro (Noel Drennan) in 2008, and we came second in the Australian Championship.

“I trimmed the main with Grant Wharrington when we won at Mooloolaba. We’ve also won at Mooloolaba with me steering. Tom also likes sailing in different positions too. We’ve now got multiple boats, so this may allow us all to have a steer”, said Taylor.

As sailing is a sport for life, then the Etchells are proving that younger and older sailors, World Champions and amateurs can all enjoy the best in both competition and fun. What a fantastic opportunity to race with the best in compact fleet, high intensity competition.

Source: John Curnow

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