SSL Finals get underway today at Montagu Bay
From wily old sea dogs to the latest fresh-faced talent – some of the top talent in international sailing will take to the warm, azure blue waters of Nassau’s Montagu Bay this week for the Star Sailors League (SSL) Finals, to determine the world’s best sailor; the ‘star’ of sailing. The event is set for December 4-8, in the waters of Montagu Bay.
The breadth of the field this year is exceptional. Across the 25 teams and 50 sailors are 21 Olympic sailing medals and some of the greatest Olympic sailors of all-time, such as Brazil’s Robert Scheidt, one of only three people ever to win five Olympic sailing medals, and Britain’s Iain Percy who holds two golds and a silver.
Percy is competing at the Star Sailors League Finals for the very first time and following the tragic loss of his long-term crew Andrew Simpson, will sail with an old on-the-water adversary of his and Simpson’s – Swede Anders Ekström, himself the Beijing Olympics Star Class bronze medalist and World Champion with Freddy Lööf. Lööf, another triple Olympic medalist and the last gold medalist in the Star Class, is back, this time sailing with Italy’s Edoardo Natucci, a previous winner of the Star Sailors League Finals with George Szabo in 2015. Unusually, Lööf’s London 2012 Olympics gold medal-winning crew is also competing at the SSL Finals but as a helm – Max Salminen competed at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics in the Finn and was the 2017 World Champion in the heavyweight men’s singlehander.
Others from the generation of sailors who made the transition from the Laser or the Finn to the Star during the 2000s include New Zealand’s Hamish Pepper, who was World Champion in the former Olympic keelboat in 2006 (sailing in the SSL Finals with the 2002 Star World Champion, Britain’s Steve Mitchell). France’s Xavier Rohart, the Athens 2004 Olympics Star bronze medalist, is back once again with Pierre-Alexis Ponsot. Although he never coaxed out an Olympic medal, the USA’s Mark Mendelblatt returns as the Star Sailors League Finals’ most successful competitor, having a 3-1-1-3 record at the SSL Finals in The Bahamas with his London 2012 Olympics crew Brian Fatih.
Always making the top 10 in Nassau, having competed in every edition of the Star Sailors League Finals, is Poland’s Mateusz Kusznierewicz, a two-time Finn Olympic medalist, sailing as usual with Dominik Życki. Taking time off from his duties as helmsman for the latest Luna Rossa America’s Cup Challenge is Francesco Bruni, sailing here in The Bahamas with Nando Colaninno and hoping to improve on his 10th place finish from a year ago. Also in this group is Norway’s Eivind Melleby, last year’s Star World Champion, sailing with the USA’s Joshua Revkin.
One of the strongest entries is likely to be Italian three-time Olympian Diego Negri. The present leader of the Star Sailors League Rankings ahead of Robert Scheidt and Paul Cayard, Negri has as his crew German Frithjof Kleen, who won Star Sailors League Finals last year with Paul Goodison.
Kleen comes to Nassau from the Star Class’ Commodores Cup in Miami, Florida, USA, and also having spent the year coaching and training up new Star boat sailors out of the Star Sailors League training center he runs in Riva del Garda in Trentino, Italy. Many competitors have passed through the center this year.
“This time I think the old Star sailors will really have to watch out, because the young guys coming through are not only fantastic sailors, but this time they are also prepared,” Kleen warned. “Those who haven’t trained are going to look very stupid.” As to sailing with Negri, Kleen said they ran a successful campaign in 2012-2013. “I know him very well – both his good and bad sides. He always made it through the round-robins. We know our boat and our sails – all these variables are knocked out. Now it is all about us, but it will be tough as it is every year.”
Since its inception, the Star Sailors League has also invited the top of the latest crop of Olympic sailors but this year has surpassed itself with five champions fresh from the Hempel Sailing World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark – Rio de Janeiro Olympics 470 gold medalist turned 49er World Champion Šime Fantela and Laser silver medalist and two-time World Champion Pavlos Kontides and the reigning 470, Finn and Nacra 17 World Champions, respectively Kevin Peponnet, Zsombor Berecz and Ruggero Tita.
For both Fantela and Kontides, this will be their second time at the Star Sailors League Finals. Kontides, who is Cyprus’ only ever Olympic medalist (in any sport), is entered with a particularly good chance, sailing with one of the most experienced and successful Star boat crew in German three-time European Champion Markus Koy. “It is a great feeling to be able to compete against the sailing legends, the people I grew up looking at, admiring and getting inspiration from, who helped me to set my goals and dreams high. Having the chance to be on the same start line as them is fantastic,” said Kontides.
As to whether it is intimidating crossing swords with heroes like Robert Scheidt and Iain Percy, Kontides continued: “We are all sailing at a very high level and it is boat-on-boat. Of course you have to respect the rules and the best one will win. For us, not being from the Star Class, it is not easy to know what to expect. We are not familiar with how well we will be able to perform or how badly.”
According to Kontides, Paul Goodison’s victory in 2017 has given hope to competitors who are not Star veterans. Nonetheless, the learning curve remains steep, he said.
“You make steps forward fast. When there is some breeze and you have to hike more, it is easier for the Laser sailors to have good steering technique and it is much easier if you make a slightly mistake to accelerate the boat back up again. In light winds it is harder and you need more experience. It is easy to slow the boat down, but then it takes longer to get it back up to speed,” he said.
This year, the Star Sailors League Finals also features its youngest ever skipper in Guido Gallinaro, the 17-year-old Laser Radial Youth World and European Championships competitor from Italy.
While hopes are being placed on the young blades, in fact, some of the top results in recent major Star events have come from the more ‘experienced’ end of the age spectrum. Augie Diaz, 64, was this year’s Star European Champion and two years ago was World Champion, sailing with Brazilian legend Bruno Prada, who has two Olympic Star medals from when he sailed with Robert Scheidt.
Similarly, sailing legend Paul Cayard is back for his fifth Star Sailors League Finals, very much at the top of his game, having finished third at this year’s Star Worlds with Brazilian crew Arthur Lopes. Among his numerous accolades, winning the Star Worlds 30 years ago remains one of Cayard’s proudest achievements.
“I have put a lot of time into the Star starting with the Star Sailors League last year – I had a good result and that encouraged me to try hard,” said the 59-year-old former Whitbread Round the World Race winner and America’s Cup veteran. “I bought a P-star, because I was a little slow downwind in the finals last year, which has helped me a bit. I feel pretty good. Every year there are some new faces and they are all quality sailors. To be invited here you have to be an Olympic medalist or a world champion or have some credentials for sure.
“The Star Sailors League Finals is the most unique, exceptionally good event in sailing in a long, long time. Everything from the format, the quality of the sailors to the concept of being able to race against a great Laser sailor or Franck Cammas, a great offshore sailor (who competed in 2017) or Xavier Rohart who is 105 kilograms (kg.) – you can only do that in the Star Class. It is the perfect boat for that.
“You see everything here, but before this happens, the SSL provides training for the people who don’t know the Star so it cultivates and nurtures sailing. The format where we have a constant knock-out on the last day is easy for the public to understand. In fact everything the public can’t understand has been done away with.”
Racing for the full fleet continues through the qualifiers (from Tuesday until Friday), concluding on Saturday with the quarter-final, semi-final and final races. The winner of the qualifiers fast tracks directly to the final, while second place heads directly to the semi-final. Those who finish the qualifiers in third to 10th, get to race in the quarter-finals. The top five quarter-finalists progress through to the semi-final. The top three from the semi-finals join the winner of the qualifiers in the finals. The winner of the Star Sailors League Finals receives US$ 40,000 from a prize pot of US$ 200,000.
Interested persons can follow all the action live and for free, streamed on the internet with expert commentary from special studio guests. On the water, the latest in hi-tech camera technology, as well as Virtual Eye 3D Graphics, will provide thrilling viewing. Persons interested in embedding the live video stream, or being updated on the Star Sailors League’s major event of the year, can contact the event organizers on the official website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The official website is www.starsailors.com.