Back after 18 months – 44Cup sets sail this week in Slovenia
23 mag 2021
Following a huge effort on the part of the local organisers in Slovenia, the class, as well as the owners and teams arriving from the four corners of the globe, the 44Cup season will fire up again this week at the 44Cup Portorož.
Taking place over 19-23 May, the Slovenia stopover of the 2021 44Cup marks the first time the high performance 44ft one design monohulls and their owner-drivers will have met on the race course since Palma in November 2019, following the cancellation of the entire 44Cup in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eight teams are due to line-up this week including Igor Lah's Team CEEREF, which won the 44Cup overall in 2019 as well as the last event in Palma. The Slovenian team finished 2019 just two points clear of Chris Bake's Team Aqua and Vladimir Prosikhin's Team Nika, with Bake's team claiming second overall on countback. All three will be fighting it out again over the weekend.
Across the fleet there is a sense of great relief to be out on the water again after such a long, long period off. “We all can’t wait to get sailing again,” enthuses Adrian Stead, tactician on board Igor Lah’s Team CEEREF. “I’ve been speaking with Igor and he is super excited. It will be great to get back into the boat and all get together and remember how to do things. It seems like it has been eons since Palma in 2019.”
The challenge, explains Stead, will be for everyone to get back to the ultra-high level they had reached by the end of 2019. “We have got our plan. We will be doing some training work with Charisma and we have got our new coach Hugh Styles, who will be helping to force the pace and who will pick up on stuff.”
Team CEEREF will be competing with their same winning crew as in 2019, including Lah’s son Tine, who is Team CEEREF’s offside trimmer. The Slovenian team starts the season with the 44Cup’s coveted ‘golden wheels’, fitted to the reigning champion’s RC44 yacht. However Stead says that the golden wheels are “a bit slippery” both physically and metaphorically - it is by no means certain they, the defending champions, will hold the top spot at the end of this week.
Some teams were in Portorož early to get some vital training in but when the adrenalin truly starts pumping on Thursday with the beginning of racing, the novelty of being back on board will quickly evaporate. “Last time we all sailed in 2019 season, it was as close as it has ever been and we know that everyone is capable of winning an event and everyone is capable of winning the season. It will be great fun as usual,” concludes Stead.Mitja Margon is an especially busy man at present being the local organiser of the 44Cup Portorož and also the offside trimmer on Team Nika. For the former 470 dinghy sailor, who twice represented Slovenia in the Olympics with Tomaž Čopi (Team Nika’s mainsheet trimmer), it has been a stressful few months after the event was cancelled last year and, with COVID-19 restrictions changing on a weekly basis, yet they had to make a call two months ago on whether this event would take place.
Finally it was Igor Lah who suggested delaying the 44Cup Portorož by one month and it was this which ultimately has allowed it to go ahead. “He pushed for May and I am sure if we had tried to hold it in April, we wouldn’t have made it,” says Margon. “Now people can fly in without too big problems and we will probably see everyone who was supposed to arrive.”
This will be one of the first truly international yacht races to take place on the Mediterranean since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly the 44Cup Portorož would also not have happened had there not been the will across the board for it to do so. In addition to Igor Lah, who is backing the event with Vladimir Prosikhin, and the rest of the RC44 owners, support has also been received from the local businesses, a dedicated team at GoSailing who have worked hard to make the event happen with the guidance from the Slovenian Sailing Federation and the local government. “One month ago, all competition was forbidden in Slovenia. Luckily we are now out of that, and being a world class event we can hold the event in a restricted way with slightly fewer rules to follow than there were before.”
While the event is going ahead, it will be purely a sporting event with full COVID-19 protocols in place to minimise the risk of transmission and all social functions, for which the RC44 class is famous, cancelled. Owners and their crews will form their own bubbles. Everyone involved in the event is staying in the same hotel where they are the sole guests. Time in Portoroz will be spent either at the hotel, at the dock or on the water. In addition everyone involved in the event has to have a mandatory lateral flow test upon their arrival and at 48 hour intervals throughout the event and physical interaction even between race officials and sailors will be limited.
“From this point of view there are a lot of things that are not normal for a normal event,” Margon explains, “but the situation in Slovenia is improving every day and we are having are less and less restrictions as we get closer to the event.”
Fortunately once out on the water, owners and crews will be able to pocket their face masks, admire the magnificent backdrop of the ancient town of Piran and then focus on the job in hand – getting to the front of the fleet in one of sailing’s most competitive one design keelboats.
With its light start, brilliant sunshine and the ancient town of Piran and the still snowcapped Slovenian Alps as a backdrop, the day could not have been better for the 44Cup fleet, to blow away the cobwebs after such a long absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having not lined up since November 2019, 44Cup racing resumed today for the high performance owner-driver one designs, with three races successfully held on the Bay of Piran. These started in 6 knots and built to 12 over the afternoon.
The 44Cup Portorož is being hosted by Vladimir Prosikhin and Igor Lah, owners of Team Nika and Team CEEREF respectively. Team CEEREF is the 44Cup's Slovenian flagged RC44 while two key crew on board Team Nika once represented Slovenia in the Olympic Games, come from Portorož and one, Mitja Margon, is this event's organiser. It was thus appropriate that these two RC44s won the first two races. Team Nika posted by far the most consistent results today, coming ashore with a four point lead while behind her the competition is far closer with just four points separating second from seventh places.Team Nika's performance looked set to have been even better until the final beat of the final race when they were leading, but were forced to tack away from starboard tackers on two occasions. This caused Pavel Kuznetsov's Atom Tavatuy to take the lead at the final top mark rounding only for the Russian team to get pipped at the post by Hugues Lepic's Team Aleph.
Racing resumes tomorrow with stronger winds forecast.
In a fleet as close as the 44Cup is rare that one team dominates but, perhaps because of the 17 month absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yesterday at the 44Cup Portorož there was one stand-out performer, Team Nika. But today even Vladimir Prosikhin's team was outshone by RC44 legend, Chris Bake, his Kiwi tactician Cameron Appleton and Team Aqua. Team Aqua seemed unable to put a foot wrong and managed to score three bullets. Like Team Nika on day one, Team Aqua ended the day with a four point lead with Hugues Lepic's Team Aleph still second maintaining the most consistent scoreline across the, fleet but with three teams within three points of the Frenchman.
If yesterday provided the perfect light reintroduction to 44Cup racing after the long enforced break, today was a step up in wind strength with a warmer southerly spending most of the sunny afternoon in the mid to high teens. The direction allowed the race committee to set up the start line off the much photographed seaside town of Piran, Portorož's more ancient neighbour.It didn't seem to matter where Team Aqua started today, they always made the best of the first beat and had always pulled into the lead by the all-important first top mark rounding. From there they lost the lead to Charisma in the first race up the second beat, but just recovered to pull ahead on the final run. In the subsequent two races they were strongly challenged by Team Aleph and Team CEEREF respectively, but each time sailed sensibly, defending well. Even at the finish of today's final race when there was a head-down, five way dive for the finish line, they kept their collective head to come out on top.
Tomorrow the forecast is for the wind to be once again from the south, but a little stronger still. Will Team Aqua be able to continue her winning streak or will a third team come to the fore?
For the first 44Cup event in 17 months, Portorož could not have offered better conditions to date, slowly ramping up the wind strength to the third and penultimate day of the Slovenia stopover when the wind was at times solidly into the early 20s and gusting to 25 knots.
While Chris Bake's Team Aqua was the undisputed champion yesterday, first home in all three races, today reverted to familiar 44Cup form with three different winners. In the first race John Bassadone's Gibraltar team on their rebranded Peninsula Racing finally joined the dots up the race course to lead at the top mark, clinging on to the finish.
Team Aqua once again showed the fleet the way around the race track in the second race, to score their fourth bullet in five races. Finally after an outstanding opening day, followed by a dire day two, when they seemed to be lacking speed and luck, Vladimir Prosikhin's Team Nika came good in the big conditions to win today's final race.
But today was less about winning races. In fact neither of the two top scoring teams won a race today but otherwise maintained superb consistency. Local Slovenian hero Igor Lah, had the best day across the eight boat fleet posting a 2-4-2 and was regularly nipping at the heels of the leader. The same was true of Pavel Kuznetsov's Atom Tavatuy with an equally level headed 3-3-4. As a result these boats have now moved up to second and third places overall behind Team Aqua.
Tomorrow is the final day of the 44Cup Portorož and three races are scheduled in similar conditions to today. The day will kick off with the top five RC44s still within six points. As a result who will win and who will make the podium remains wide open – familiar 44Cup territory.
The last day of the 44Cup Portoroz again saw 20+ knot conditions, gusts and shifts that made for close, high adrenalin racing and plenty of opportunities across the race course.
After a difficult second day Igor Lah's local Slovenian team, Team CEEREF, was most consistent yesterday and today built on this, posting initially a second. This was followed in race two by a come-from-behind win as Torbjorn Tornqvist's Artemis Racing, for the first time at this event, led round the top mark. Team CEEREF chose to gybe early, enabling her to cruise into the lead upon which she then consolidated.
Going from fifth place to third on the final run of the final race was enough for the Slovenian team to win the 44Cup Portoroz by five points from Vladimir Proshikin's Team Nika.
Meanwhile a battle royal was taking place for the final rung of the podium. After managing a perfect scoreline of three bullets on Friday, followed by one more race win yesterday, Team Aqua had a miserable start to the final day which dropped her from first place to fourth. Fortunately Chris Bake's team fought back in the final race to come home second, enough to displace Atom Tavatuy. The Russian team's fourth place nonetheless was their best result since joining the class in 2019.
The 44Cup Portoroz saw a return to racing in the high performance owner driver one design class for the first time in 17 months. It was a tribute to the the perseverance of the RC44 owners and the class that this event was able to take place.
The 44Cup will resume in Marstrand, Sweden over 1st to the 4th July.