Firstly I want to apologise for the delay in getting this blog out. Sometimes life takes over a little and something has to give in order to give yourself a bit of time and space. After a couple of weeks in the UK, I am about to jump on the plane to New York for some more sailing of a different variety...
The J70 World Championship for me was the sort of thing I would have never thought that I would get a chance to do. Coming from a family where sailing isn’t in our blood meant that I grew up sailing dinghies - not yachts! Following the RYA junior and youth pathway was incredible, but I had never even considered any other types of sailing that were out there. It always seemed too far away from my comfort zone, too expensive, no opportunities for women or ...perhaps I just didn’t know the right people to get on a boat...
I was very keen after the Rio Olympics to experience some different kinds of sailing from the Olympic and dinghy scene. I jumped at the chance to helm a J70 at an Italian regatta in Scarlino back in July, where I had awesome time and met some amazing people. Because of this first trip and some key people, Team Nzinga and a brilliant crew of women came together to sail at the J70 World Championship. There was a few stressful weeks in August trying to gather funding, organize boats, people, logistics and everything that comes with putting a campaign in place, but we got there! Once the funding was confirmed just 3 weeks before the event, it felt like a bit of a logistical nightmare to get everything ready and certainly not quite how I like to prepare for an event! Luckily I had 3 incredible people to help me out with everything - thank you Jonathan, Vittorio and Giulia!
So….the team! Nzinga Team:
Hannah Mills – Me!
Sophie Weguelin AKA Wegs – GBR 470/49er FX helm and our training partner for London 2012 Olympics and Rio 2016
Sophie Ainsworth AKA Ains or Soph! – GBR 49er FX crew, Rio 2016 Olympic athlete
Berta Betanzos Moro – ESP 49er FX crew, 4th Rio 2016, 470 World Champion 2011
Josie Gliddon – GBR 470 Olympic campaigner, moth sailor, Musto ambassador and general boating legend!
Giulia Alabuzo – ITA J70 ITA Class Secretary, fab 420 sailor and just a lovely person!
Having all just finished the 49er FX Worlds the week before, Wegs, Ains and Berta all turned up on Thursday 7th September in Sardinia with a grand total of 1 day of sailing on a J70 between them, not much of a clue of how to rig the boat, let alone get it through measurement the next morning…Giulia helped out an awful lot with this part of the trip as she at least had some J70 experience! I had a lot of slightly hysterical phone calls from Soph whilst they were cleaning the bird poo off the hull and polishing the keel as quickly as possible while it was up on the crane... with the organisers trying to lower it into the water and get the boat through so they could move onto the next (they had 170 to get through)! We begged, borrowed and stole (turn of phrase! No actual pirating behaviour) from a variety of people, the boat was missing some fairly essential pieces... but, thanks to the girls, we were ready to race! With fingers crossed that we wouldn’t need any spares during the week!
Josie and I arrived the following day to finish rigging up and go for our first training session on Saturday afternoon. The weather was beautiful, sunny, 10-15kts, some chop and an onshore breeze. The training session was great, everyone finding their roles, and working out how we were going to fit 6 of us on the boat! Usually you sail a J70 with 4-5 people on board, however to get up to the required weight we had to go with 6 people, which was a bit of a squash at times!
After the training session and roughly 5m from the fuel dock in very little wind, disaster struck. I was standing up to try and see where we were going (we were near some seriously expensive super yachts…) and just at the same time, one of the girls was ‘popping’ the main battens. This involves the boom being pulled very hard to try and flick the battens so the wind fills the sail properly. Unfortunately, my face was right in the way.
Cue a whole lot of blood pouring from my nose, quite a lot of panic and a call to the ambulance services. I remember it all really clearly, although I freaked out a bit when we were off the boat and on the dock, everyone was crowding around me talking in Italian,I felt so panicked and claustrophobic. Pulling the tissue away from my nose and having blood come flooding out was terrifying, but the scariest moment was when I was told to tilt my head back and I genuinely thought I was going to drown in my own blood with the speed and force it went down my throat. The poor American sat next to me probably thought I was a little insane when I asked him if I was going to die….not melodramatic at all.
The ambulance arrived and, thank goodness, Giulia came with me. I was so lucky she did as nobody spoke much English at all, and my Italian conversation is pretty non-existent!
The hospital was pretty amazing, I was seen to within minutes of arriving, given some pain relief and then had my first CT scan. The doctor then explained that my nose was fractured and I had a small brain bleed. The language barrier certainly made this a lot more scary as a few things potentially got lost in translation! Apparently, this is reasonably common for a big blow to the head and, although it needs to be monitored, shouldn’t cause any problems. An overnight stay in the hospital then... . By this point, Sophie Ainsworth had arrived to take over the night shift as my guardian angel/entertainer….lucky Soph! I will always be grateful to her for this, she turned what could have been a fairly terrifying, horrible experience into an amusing one!
We had a lovely elderly Italian lady for a roommate, who insisted on watching Italy’s version of You’ve Been Framed exceptionally loudly all evening. Who knew it could go on for so long…?! Luckily Soph had brought her laptop and we managed to get The Bake Off going! Sunday morning arrived, another CT scan later and I was given the all clear. Rest and relaxation were my presciption.
I then spent the next 2/3 days in bed recovering. A small trip out to get my protective mask for sailing and a few short trips to the sailing club, but generally I was sleeping. I was just so tired. I’m not sure I’ve ever slept so much in my life!
The regatta was supposed to start on the Tuesday, but luckily there were 2 days of postponed racing due to too much wind. It was a really tricky situation, I felt pretty hideous, however there were so many people relying on me to be able to sail. The money people had contributed, the effort the girls had gone to... I felt torn.
Finally we got to go racing on Thursday! I had the mask ready to use, although it was super hard to sail wearing it, and whilst sailing there is very little threat of getting hit as where I sit in the boat is behind the end of the boom and much lower!
Onto the racing! With our amazing Musto kit, and our boat cleaned, polished and stickered up, we certainly looked the part!
Now for the sailing chat - I apologise non-sailors if this is a little confusing!
15-18kts, 3 races to qualify for the gold or silver fleets, little to no practice or experience and 80 boats in each fleet... I was feeling pretty nervous! The start line was something I’d never experienced before – the committee boat sat in the middle of the line with an end either side of it. This added a whole new dimension to starting as the line was never a straight one! The committee boat would often be protruding or a little bit back from the ends meaning the bias could be a little tricky to get your head around! The racing was awesome, ridiculously tight and even though we struggled for pace upwind, wherever you were in the fleet, there was usually around 20 boats fighting for one bit of water which meant there was a lot of action! Downwind was also pretty challenging, although a very simple boat in a lot of ways, to sail a J70 well requires a lot of experience and practice. There was around 4 different modes you could chose to go downwind, with the top boats regularly changing between heating it up and planing, to soaking as low as they can and goose-winging the kite. It was awesome to see and all we could do was watch and try to learn as fast as we could!
A tough first day, but we managed to scrape into gold fleet, excited about the next few days of racing and to see how much we could improve.
Day 2 was frustrating. We only managed 1 race in around 15kts, which went ok, andhe second race was abandoned up the 2nd upwind leg as the wind died to nothing. It was a shame as in the lighter winds our boat speed issues weren’t such a problem and we were doing quite well! Even more annoyingly a 5-6kt sea breeze started to trickle in as we got sent in for the day. We were really looking forward to a nice light wind race!
The final day and the wind was back! 18-28kts, it was fairly full on and so much fun! The boat really started to come alive downwind and by the end of the day our boat handling and downwind sailing had improved dramatically! Unfortunately, our upwind pace was still causing us problems, probably due to the lack of time we had spent training in the boat and our lack of expertise on boat set up. We had tried to ask around a little to see what other people were doing with the rigs, but our turnbuckles on one side weren’t turning past a certain point so we couldn’t get the rig where we wanted it. It is always a challenge sailing with equipment that isn’t working well – the same with anything in life really. The skill here is to not let that affect everything else you do. It is common within our sport to not feel fast enough, or to be zoned in on perhaps a rope which is too short and causing frustration which, in turn, then has a negative impact on your decision making, strategy and communication within the team. Dealing with these situations is something we work hard on in our Olympic sailing campaigns, and I am pleased to say I managed to bring it into the team during the J70 World Championships! There were many things that could have distracted us, but focussing on them would have stopped our learning, stopped our enjoyment and taken away from everything we were trying to achieve during this event.
I feel so lucky to have been able to sail with such a fantastic group of women. Each crew member bringing so much different knowledge and experience, each with an open mind so hungry to get better - it was truly inspiring to be around. No ego, no complaining, 6 people coming together with a common purpose and striving to get the best from each other. Throughout the event, in almost every single race our results got better – even though the final 3 races we were into the Gold fleet. Usually results might get a little worse as you qualify for the Gold fleet as the quality of the racing gets higher due to the fact that all the top boats are racing together rather than being split between 2 fleets.
A huge thank you to Musto for the awesome team kit, Andrew Pindar and Jonathan Calascione whose financial support made this event happen for us. I can’t wait to do some more J70 events hopefully with this amazing team!