Winds cruel to some, benefit others
ATHENS, Greece -- The Meltemi wind really needed no introduction. Everyone knew it had arrived when the whitecaps kicked up and the boats started capsizing.
The notorious Meltemi blew out of the Athens hills Sunday and caused mayhem on the Olympic courses that's seldom seen at such a major regatta. At least 30 boats capsized and the courses looked more like nautical demolition derbies. There also was scattered equipment damage, but no reports of injuries.
"It was just totally different than anyone had seen," said U.S. 470 skipper Paul Foerster of Rockwall, Texas, who admits he doesn't read the weather reports here because the winds are so unpredictable.
"They were tough conditions," said Foerster, a four-time Olympian. "There were a lot of people turning over. We were just happy to finish."
Foerster and crew Kevin Burnham of Miami were lucky -- their 15-foot boat swamped, but didn't turn over -- as a nasty combination of the offshore wind and a swell made for a surly Saronic Gulf. Foerster and Burnham moved up a spot to second overall with finishes of second and 15th. Both are former silver medalists.
Similar winds are forecast for Monday, which could lead to a wild day of sailing in the first three races of the 49er competition.
The 49er is a high-performance skiff that made its Summer Games debut in Sydney in 2000. With its retractable wings and the two-man crew hiked out in trapezes, the 49er is usually on the verge of being out of control in normal conditions, let alone a Meltemi.
American 49ers Tim Wadlow and Pete Spaulding were college rivals, with Wadlow sailing for Boston University and Spaulding for Boston College, before they teamed up to clinch the U.S. berth in the Olympics.
Blowing through the amphitheater of hills around Athens, Meltemi means "air with no route" and it's a confused flow by the time it hits the Saronic Gulf south of the city. The wind shifted 65 degrees in 30 minutes early Sunday afternoon on the course closest to central Athens.
"It was full survival," said Europe class sailor Meg Galliard of Pelham, N.Y., who was on a course just down the coast. "You're just trying to stay in control."
She did. A lot of others didn't.
The wind was flat-out cruel to American Kevin Hall and New Zealander Dean Barker in the Finn class, where it took three attempts in the shifting wind to get in the first of two races.
Barker, the hard-luck skipper in Team New Zealand's America's Cup loss last year, led around the first two marks in the first race before the Meltemi and the sea breeze collided, canceling each other and leaving the boats bobbing in the chop. That led to the first abandonment, with Hall in third place.
Hall was leading at the first mark after the first restart, but a severe wind shift forced the race committee to abandon it.
"The racing was very exciting, but I would have rather kept the first two races we started today," said Hall, of Bowie, Md., who finished 13th and 17th to drop to 13th overall. Barker moved up to fourth by finishing 7th and 11th.
It got a lot wilder once the Meltemi settled in.
With the wind blowing at about 18 knots -- and gusting to 22 -- the Norwegian Yngling crew capsized in the whitecaps after crossing the finish line in third. Americans Carol Cronin, Liz Filter and Nancy Haberland had trouble with their spinnaker on the same leg and dropped the billowing sail well before the finish. They finished last in the 16-boat fleet.
Eight Finns capsized on the second leg of the second race, including Hall. Estonia's Imre Taveter rolled over twice.
Belgium's Sebastien Godefroid was sailing side-by-side with Britain's Ben Ainslie just 100 yards from the downwind finish of the second race when a breeze caught him from behind and put him in the drink. Ainslie won, and by the time Godefroid righted his 14-footer, he was fifth.
Poland's Mateusz Kusznierewicz, the 1996 Finn gold medalist, got dunked in the first race, but quickly recovered. He had finishes of sixth and fourth to hold onto first place.
The most impressive performance of the day was by Ainslie, the Finn favorite who needs to sail the rest of the regatta almost perfectly because of a loss in the protest room Saturday night.
He did just that Sunday, winning both races to jump from 19th overall to eighth. Ainslie, who won the Laser-class gold medal in 2000 and the silver in 1996, was disqualified from his second-place finish in Saturday's second race because of a right-of-way infringement.
Mark Mendelblatt of St. Petersburg, Fla., finished second in the first race in the Laser class -- his Olympic debut -- by holding off Brazil's Robert Scheidt at the finish. Scheidt is a gold and silver medalist, and a seven-time world champion. Mendelblatt finished 16th in the second race and was sixth overall.
Cronin and her crew dropped from fifth overall to 10th after their finishes of 16th and 10th.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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