Since it was chosen as the site of the Summer Games regatta, the Atlantic coast city of Savannah, Ga., has been overrun by the international yacht-racing set. This is not to be confused with the jet set. People who sail Olympic classes tend be chronically short of cash, having invested more in their masts and sails than in their cars. And speaking of cars, their beater station wagons and vans provide both transportation and, in a pinch, a place to sleep at night. This summer, the object of their collective affection is an historic city of stately homes and ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss— a city 360 km southeast of Atlanta, where the Wilmington and the Savannah rivers spill into Wassaw Sound. For visiting sailors, the Savannah conditions—shallow, choppy water, quirky winds and unpredictable currents generated by the outflow of the two rivers—can be confounding. “The more you know about the winds and currents down there, the better off you’ll be,” says Canadian coach John Craig. “But it’s still hard to figure.”
Sailing may be the toughest Olympic event to handicap. Weird things happen out on the water—masts snap, sails rip, boats sink and winds change direction. And as organizers discovered last week when Hurricane Bertha blew by, a big storm can really wreak havoc. So it is no wonder that officials are reluctant to predict how their teams will do. Yet, the Canadian sailors themselves are optimistic. Based on world rankings, there are several medal contenders: Vancouver’s Tine Moberg-Parker, in Europe class; Star sailors Ross Macdonald of Vancouver and Eric Jespersen of Sidney, B.C.; and Mistral veteran Caroll-Ann Alie of Gracefield, Que. Depending on conditions, one or two other Canadian crews also have outside chances.
Macdonald, 31, and Jespersen, 34, are the most established of the Canadians.
They won the 1992 Canadian team’s only sailing medal—a bronze—at Barcelona, captured the 1994 Star world championship and last season captured four international titles, including the European championships. Their international reputation is not hard currency, however. When the Games end, Macdonald hopes to build an importing business, while Jespersen will return to work in his family’s Vancouver Island boatyard. The goldmedal payoff for sailors is more personal.
“There are always the bragging rights among our peers,” says Macdonald, “but really, we are doing this just for the enjoyment of the competition. That’s what turns our crank more than anything.”
Born in Norway, the 27-year-old MobergParker first moved to Vancouver in 1986,
married fellow student Dave Parker seven years later and became a Canadian citizen last March. Competitively, she won three straight Europeclass World Cup titles in the early 1990s, along with the 1991 world championship. More significantly for the Games, she finished second last year at the pre-Olympic regatta on the Wassaw Sound course. Alie, 36, who won three world windsurfing titles in the 1980s, saw her overall ranking fall to 28th in 1995. But with the Games in sight, she has charged back into the medal hunt and surprised her own coaches by finishing fourth at the SPA Regatta in Holland this spring.
Finn-class specialist Richard Clarke of Toronto has made similar strides. Ranked ninth in the
world, he established himself as a serious medal contender by defeating two-time world champion Hank Lammens of Brockville, Ont., at the Canadian Olympic trials. “It was tough,” he says. “Hank and I have been friends for years, and I was his training partner in Barcelona in 1992.” Penny Davis and Leigh Pearson, both of Vancouver, also stand a chance if the wind is up throughout the regatta. “They are just so fast in a breeze,” says Craig. “They can surprise some people.”
Despite the sailing team’s medal potential, most Canadians would be hardpressed to name even one crew member or skipper. Competing in a vacuum is nothing new: in Seoul in 1988, Frank McLaughlin and John Millen won bronze in the Flying Dutchman class. Yet their success was almost completely ignored in Canada because it occurred on the day when Olympic officials announced that 100-m champion Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroids. Ignorance of the sport is partly a function of its scale—dozens of dinghies bobbing around in an open sea do not fit easily onto a TV screen—and even the most knowledgeable fans have difficulty keeping track. Paul Henderson, the Torontonian who heads the International Yacht Racing Union, is working to improve how the event will be shown on TV. “If you don’t understand what’s going on,” says Craig, “it’s a little like watching paint dry.”
In every camp, competitive optimism is tempered by concern about the heat.
Daytime highs in Savannah have been 33° C or more recently, during one training session, the temperature hit 47° C. And because of travel time and the fact that the start areas of the race courses are more than 10 km offshore from the day marina, most of the competitors will be on the water with no shelter for up to 3 xh hours before their races even begin. As a result, many teams have dropped their nation’s colors in favor of white, every boat will be packed with extra drinking water and every competitor will be covered from head to toe. “We are out in the sun with no
real escape from 10 in the morning until six at night,” says Clarke. ‘You just get baked.”
Last week, once Hurricane Bertha had veered north, the Canadians quickly put out to sea themselves, taking every opportunity to test the Sound and tune their boats. Crews are working up to the last minute to outfit their craft with the latest gear, and the rigging has to be able to suit whatever conditions they face. “The thing about sailing,” says Clarke, “is that you have to be prepared for anything.” By next week, they will either have figured it out, or their Olympic dreams will have blown away in the breezes of Wassaw Sound.
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