In a muscular 20-22kts breeze they immediately lead around the windward mark from the first start, doing enough to show they feel completely at home in the stronger breezes on this stretch of the Mediterranean.
Meantime the strong French group, who are actually on their home, training waters off La Grande Motte finished their final session, among them world champions Billy Besson and Marie Rioux, Volvo Ocean Race and Little America’s Cup winner Franck Cammas with Sophie de Turckheim, and Italy’s world ranked number one pairing of Vittorio Bissaro and Silvia Sicouri arrive in La Grande Motte after winning the class in Kiel and Hyeres.
“All the good teams are here, I think the French will be very strong Billy Besson and Marie Riou plus the Spanish Iker Martinez will be very strong as well and hopefully we will be up there as well. To say who will win at this stage is a very difficult question. I think a little bit depends on the weather.” Cautioned double Olympic silver winner Bundock. The Australian team field five pairs, working with 1996 Atlanta medalist silver medallist Andrew Landenberger as coach.
“We have a good squad and we're all working together at this stage the selection for the Olympics is still wide open so we're all progressing towards that.”
The Australian pairings include Curtis, who won silver in 2012 in the women’s match race along with Lucinda Whittey. Whittey sails with Euan McNicol who coached the trio to silver in the Women’s Match Racing in 2012.
“ Between us we have got a lot of silver medals but we need to convert some of those silver medals into gold ones.” Bundock smiles, “ I think we have got a lot of experience, I've been around for quite a long time now but this is my first season back into the Olympic classes so we're pleased how we have progressed so far, finishing on the podium in the last three events.”
“I still think the level of sailing will increase a lot between now and the Olympics, I still think it will take another big jump.”
Most of the fleet have their eyes looking forwards to the ISAF World Championships in Santander, Spain in September, an essential selection and funding marker for many crews as well as a sought after title, and these Europeans Championships are also an important top level racing opportunity along the road. And within the European Championships fleet there is such a broad mix of sailors following some diverse options at the moment. Cammas arrived back today direct from the start of La Tour de France a la Voile where his Groupama M34 programme will race without him until the Mediterranean.
The Spanish Volvo Ocean Race entry that Martinez will skipper has just arrived in Spain but America’s Cup winning coach Bundock says his primary focus is winning an Olympic gold in this new Olympic catamaran class:
“It's a decision other people have made, whether they are going to concentrate just purely on the Olympics or whether they are going to try to do Volvos and America's Cups or whatever they are trying to do.
I think it is good to do a little bit of cross training but when it comes down to it I think you really need to focus on one event and for me at this stage it's the Olympics and then after that I'll probably go back to America's Cup.
There's still another year after the Olympics before the America's Cup and last time I did the final two years in the America's Cup and that was long enough and with one year after the Games I think it might be ideal.”
The quality in the fleet is pretty much second to none in Olympic sailing at the moment. Among the past medal winners are Greece’s Sofia Bekatorou (one gold, one bronze), Spain’s Iker Martinez (one gold, one silver), Bundock (two silvers), Argentina’s Santiago Lange (two bronze), Pippa Wilson (one gold), the Netherlands Mandy Mulder (one silver), Curtis (one silver), Whittey (one silver) and Denmark’s Allan Norregaard (one bronze).
Racing starts Monday with the 71 boat fleet representing 28 different nations, running in two fleets through qualification, then gold and silver fleets to a medal race next Saturday.
Silvia Sicouri, ITA, World No. 1: “We made a good start to our season and we are happy with that. We keep working hard and are looking forwards to racing here. We have just won in Hyeres at the World Cup. We were eighth at the world championships and eighth at the Europeans. We feel stronger and better since last year but then all the fleet is getting better all the time. We trained in Cagliari supported by the Italian Federation and also sailed there with the Austrians and so we had the chance to do some speed testing with them. And so the most important thing there was that we sailed in all kinds of conditions. So we feel confident in no wind to 30kts. We are very good in the boat together. We were sailing Hobie 16s. I was sailing with my sister and we had the chance to sail together in a skiff in a university race and from there we started in the Nacra 17. Vittorio is from Garda I am from Grosseto.”
“ I don’t think about if we can win here or not, we just try to sail well and make no mistakes and the results will come. We worked a lot together and so now we hardly need to talk.
The level of the fleet is very high and of course we have non Europeans here too and they are very good. The world number 1 is just a number, it means nothing to us. Looking at the entry list it looks really good, with some great sailors here. But on the water everyone is the same, it does not matter if it is Bundock or anyone, on the water we just want to beat them.
Pippa Wilson, GBR, “ We have raced the circuit and done a fair bit of racing. It is a bit learning curve for us. But we are looking forwards to racing here. But with me new to catamaran sailing then every day is a schoolday. We have been here three days and sailed a day and the breeze filled in, we did some practice racing and it went well. We are fit, healthy and raring to go. We are building up to Santander and the worlds and really just making sure we are getting better racing and you cannot really practice racing so you want to race at big events and so it is a balance between training and making sure you are moving forwards. It is such a great boat and now we have learned to sail it it is a bit less scary. We had a good week at Sail for Gold and were just one point off winning. We made some little mistakes which cost us a lot but it is good to do that and learn. We always say it is good to get your arse kicked but it is by people who know how to sail. It is nice know that everyone is bloody good sailors and all the top sailors have been attracted to this class and that makes it all the more challenging. John and I have known each other for a long time and it was a case of his experience in the Tornado and he managed to drag me out of retirement. Obviously everything is happening very quickly and so it is important to make the right calls at the right time.”
Ben Saxton GBR: “ This is a new place I've never been here before but I've heard of it before so its really nice to be here. It’s fun to be somewhere new and the sun is out so we're happy.
Today we'll go on the water, sail for a couple of hours, do some practice racing and try and get ready for the racing and learn as much as we can. Our goal is to sail well, we're really building up to the world championships which is in about a month so right now all we want to do is sail well.
“ There's a big bunch, there’s probably ten boats - ten, fifteen boats- that are really quite good so all of us have got it all to play for. There's no, nobody is a long way ahead and also nobody is a long way behind so its all really close.
I sailed 470's for three or four years and then I’ve sailed the Nacra for a year and a half now. Before that I hadn't sailed the catamarans but I had done a lot of sailing in all boats, yachts, dinghies, big things, small things. My crew, Hannah Diamond, she had done Laser Radials for a bit, I sailed against her in Optimist and then she did Laser Radials then she stopped sailing for two years during university. Then she was just starting to sail the 49er FX, did that for a couple of months then I said no come sailing with me.
Strong points? I think we're quite quick which makes the racing a lot easier. The weaknesses are that we are still learning a lot about catamarans but that’s nothing bad, theres a long time to go and everyone has weaknesses.
Why are we quick? That’s the million dollar question, I dont know why. I dont know we just are.
We have actually we got in the boat about a month after the other British guys and were close to them, not too far behind them immediately and now there are three or four of us Great British guys who are all really similar but we seem to be quite quick. We don't have a really bad wind, which makes us on average quite quick because some people really struggle when it's really light or really windy.
In the winter we were over in Faro, Portugal because that’s as warm as we could find without it being really far from England.
We train all together which is really good. Coached by Maurice Paardenkooper and we've got a really good set up there.”
Billy Besson (FRA), World Champion title with Marie Riou: "We are really very proud to be having this great event here in France, and in particular in La Grande Motte. We have trained many times here with the Nacra and I spent six months here last year with the Hydros project. We're really happy to be here, it’s a great place and it should be a great week.
Here, one our big goals is the validation of our material: we got a new boat that we will be competing with. And from that starting point we will try to do our best. Our main competitors? Many crews have their chance. Since the start of the year in the top three it has been between Australians Darren Bundock / Nina Curtis, Italians Vittorio Bisssaro / Silvia Sicouri and us.”