British Olympic Sailors Say Bay Currents Provide Home Advantage

British Olympic Sailors Say Bay Currents Provide Home Advantage
Great Britain's Ben Ainslie heads to the mark in the Finn sailing class at the London 2012 Olympic Games, in Weymouth on July 30, 2012. Photographer: William West/AFP/GettyImages

British sailors say their home-country experience with Weymouth Bay may help them keep their spot as the No. 1 team at the London Olympics and propel Ben Ainslie to a record-tying fourth gold medal. Their American rivals say the English waters may be too challenging even for the locals to figure out.

The southwesterly winds and counterclockwise currents of the bay, which is off the English Channel on the country’s south coast, will be easier for British sailors to navigate because of their experience in the waters, 470 class sailor Stuart Bithell, 25, told reporters last week in Weymouth.

The British sailing team won four golds among its six Olympic medals in 2008, twice as many medals as nearest rival Australia and three times more than the Americans. Britain’s returning champions include Ainslie, 35, who’s seeking to tie the record of four sailing golds set by Denmark’s Paul Elvstrom with a victory in the Finn class, as well as Star class duo Andrew Simpson, 35, and Iain Percy, 36, who also won gold in Beijing.

“Weymouth Bay is a very unique sailing venue, and it’s very different to a lot of venues with the tide and the cross-swell,” Bithell said. “There’s absolutely no doubt that having done that for the last five years, consistently, will bring a slight home advantage.”

Conditions in Weymouth Bay, which is about 110 miles (177 kilometers) from London, will challenge all competitors. Bill Barker, chandler manager at the marina in Portland, England, said in an interview that the Nothe course, the closest to the ticketed spectator area, will be especially “shifty.”

Breeze Squeeze

“The breeze tends to get squeezed in the harbor between the two land masses, which causes a difference in the angle of the wind from one side of the harbor to the other side,” said Barker, who’s sailed in the area for 20 years. Tidal currents tend to run counterclockwise in the bay, he added.

The conditions might be too variable for the British to use their experience, according to U.S. Finn class sailor and 2008 silver medalist Zach Railey.

“The situation out there is changing constantly,” Railey said before teams took to the water for the first time two days ago. “There is current out there that is going every which way, there’s wind which is sometimes steady, sometimes not. I don’t think anybody can honestly say that they have this place figured out.”

U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes rates Britain the 4-7 favorite to win the Finn class and 11-4 to place first in the women’s 470 event.

Eight of the 10 sailing events have started, including the Finn and Star classes, in which medals will be awarded Aug. 5. Denmark’s Jonas Hogh-Christensen won the first two races of the Finn class raced yesterday, with Ainslie second.

Finn-class boats are one-man dinghys; Star-class vessels are two-man keelboats.

Racing Series

Olympic sailors in every event other than women’s match racing compete in a series of races. The first 10 races are scored by awarding one point for first place and nine for ninth. The accumulated scores, minus the worst -- or, for some classes, two worst -- finishes, are used to determine the athletes and crews for the medal races. Points scored in that race are doubled and added to previous scores to determine the final result.

“All of us have put a lot of time and effort into changing our bodies to get ready for this venue,” said Railey, 28, who said he’s gained 40 pounds since winning silver at the Beijing Games to prepare for the stronger wind conditions. “Physically, we’re ready as a team.” He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds (1.93 meters, 98 kilograms).

Railey’s sister, Paige, 25, will be competing this year as a first-time Olympian in the Laser Radial class. Anna Tunnicliffe, the only American sailor to win a gold medal in 2008, is returning to compete with Molly O’Bryan Vandemoer, 33, and Deborah Capozzi, 31, in the Elliot 6-meter class. Tunnicliffe, 29, won her gold in a Laser Radial.