Friday, 6 March 2009
Etchells racing at a previous World Championships. Image copyright Andrea Francolini/Audi.
by Di Pearson
As entries reach a crescendo and skippers name their crews, the Audi Etchells Worlds is guaranteed to be a pot-boiler when the first race of the nine-race series, to be conducted by Royal Brighton Yacht Club in Victoria, gets underway on Port Phillip in six day’s time.
Such is the talent in the fleet, that even the top skippers cannot agree on who could finish in the top five by the end of the event. The names that come up with regularity though, are John Bertrand and Jud Smith; two crews with targets on their backs.
One of Melbourne’s top skippers Mark Bulka confidently names three he thinks will finish top five: “Jud Smith (AUS), because he’s always there, Chris Busch (USA) because anybody who takes the trouble to bring their own boat so far has to have something special – and he’s a very good all-rounder.
His top pick, like all others, is the John Bertrand crew. “John’s ticked all the boxes. He’s got Ben Ainslie (British four-time Olympic medallist) and Dog (Andrew Palfrey, an Olympian and coach of note), a new boat from Ontario and his speed is good; he’s going faster all the time.”
“They have Victor Kovalenko (who’s coached four Australian teams to Olympic gold medals in recent years) coaching them and they won the recent Nationals,” Bulka continues.
Queensland representative Mark Bradford is another name that often crops up. The North Sails Brisbane proprietor is very serious about winning, one of the traits that landed him a job in the afterguard of the America’s Cup Oracle team.
Bradford’s crew are long-time Etchells partner Michael O’Brien and Peter ‘Billy’ Merrington, who has just come off winning the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series with Emirates Team New Zealand. “If you’re going to win the Worlds, you have to have the best crew you can,” the Queenslander says.”
“We’ve just got a new rig from John Denton at Whalespar and we’re getting new sails to go with it,” says Bradford who will sail with an older hull that he considers “very reliable.”
Bradford and his crew, like a lot of the Australian fleet, have been going to Melbourne regularly to train, and tune boat and the rig. “That’s what you have to do if you want to win and you have to be on the pace every day in this all-star cast.”
Apart from the obvious choices of Bertrand and Smith, Bradford adds 2001 and 2002 Worlds winner Stuart Childerley to his top five, but says there are so many others that can’t be discounted, including his fellow America’s Cup crew, Noel ‘Nitro’ Drennan and his crew of Steve Jarvin and Will McCarthy have a solid chance of being in the mix.
Drennan finished third at the 1997 Worlds. Jarvin is a big boat sailor and has also had the benefit of sailing Etchells with Mr America’s Cup, Dennis Conner, while McCarthy crewed on America’s Cup winner Alinghi and has raced Etchells for years.
Bradford also cites Melbourne’s Mark Bulka as a good chance. Bulka, though, admits he is struggling with pace in heavier winds, normally his strong point: “We’re actually going better in light winds, but we’ve just re-cut a sail and hopefully that will make the difference,” he says. James Rysenbeek, a relative newcomer to Etchells, and Steve Young will crew for Bulka.
Former 18ft skiff world champion Rob Brown from Sydney is another name being bandied around as a possible winner. His response: “We’re (he, Garry Gudmunson and Bruce Wookey) the best prepared we’ve ever been and consider ourselves top ten finishers – a top five would be fantastic. We are the most relaxed we’ve ever been.”
Brown and his crew have been together five years and in that time have won a National title, the NSW Championship and finished second at the latest Victorian Championship. Although they were seventh at the 2009 National Championship, Brown points out they were only five points behind the third place getter.
“This is a quality fleet, so anyone in a top 15 position towards the end of the regatta could win it. The finishes will be close and so will the scoreboard,” states Brown who like many others has spent countless weekends in Melbourne training and racing with the Royal Brighton YC fleet and other Worlds contenders.
Last weekend, crew Brown contested the Entire Etchells Regatta at Brighton. He says the conditions were light with massive wind shifts. While some got it right, others, like his crew, did not always pick the shifts. “We have to expect those conditions at the Worlds and we’ll have to be good every day to win – starts are important.
“It’s pretty exciting stuff; we’re really looking forward to the Audi Etchells Worlds,” he says.
Brown paid tribute to the organisers and race officers for the Worlds who have been running Etchells regattas in Melbourne in preparation for the Worlds: “They have been doing a fantastic job, so I know the event will be a success.”
Although they are one of the fancied favourites, Jud Smith and his crew Mark Johnson and Nik Burfoot know what they are up against.
Smith, an American who runs the Doyle One-Design program in the USA, but qualified for Australia for this event, says: "Royal Brighton is a great venue, and by the look of it, we could get all conditions on the one day!
“It's going to be a tough regatta with such a fantastic fleet. The Melbourne locals must be favourites. It would be impossible to go past John Bertrand and his team as the boat to beat, particularly with their recent form.
“And Mark Bradford, he finished fifth at the Audi Worlds in Perth with a hastily prepared campaign. He's gone back to an ‘old’ boat and will be beautifully prepared.”
“The Audi Etchells Worlds fleet is an incredible one. The depth, particularly with so many America’s Cup professionals at a loose end, is extraordinary,” says Smith’s Sydney crew and co-boat owner, Johnson, who is impressed by a Kiwi crew skippered by Alastair Gair.
“They just missed out in Perth and will be formidable. Then you’ve got Rupert Henry’s entry from Sydney. His crew has three Olympics and an America’s Cup winner,” he says, referring to triple Olympian Anthony ‘Nocka’ Nossiter and bowman Chris Ward, a mainsheet grinder for Emirates Team NZ.
Australian competitors should be prominent. They have had the advantage of being able to flit off to Melbourne to race the local fleet and put in some hard practice on Port Phillip, a tough sailing ground. However, every competitor has been training and racing hard, either in Melbourne, or at their home venues.
The Worlds Invitation Race, scheduled for Sunday March 8, should give some indication as to who is hot and who is not.
A number of equations come into winning the Worlds. Hulls will play a part. Some are sailing new boats from Australia and Canada, while others have stuck with their older hulls.
While the Etchells is a one-design class, some hulls weigh heavier than others, so weather conditions will dictate performance to some degree. Light winds are the norm in late February and March, but those conditions have not materialised, so anything could happen on the windward/leeward race course each day.
Sails and their cut will also be a deciding factor, along with crew choice, the right tuning of the boat and rig and most importantly, getting it right each day on the race course. There is no room for error in this fleet.
Mark Bradford got it right when he said: “We can talk it up all we like, but we won’t know the answer (as to the winner) until the end of the Championship.”
The Audi Etchells Worlds, to be held from 5-14 March, with Race 1 scheduled for Monday March 9, is organised by the Melbourne Etchells Fleet in conjunction with the Royal Brighton Yacht Club.
Audi Etchells Worlds 2009