PALMA DE MALLORCA, SPAIN – As the 3rd event of the 2012 ISAF Sailing World cup wraps up in sunny Palma de Mallorca, Spain, an interesting battle is emerging between two unlikely parties.
Gordon Cook from Toronto has sailed the 49er longer than anyone in Canada and probably the world. Most would describe him as silent and pensive. But when you get to know Gordon he can be quite talkative and opinionated. Gordon, although it would never show, is beginning to feel the pressure of Olympic qualification.
In December 2011 at the ISAF Perth Worlds, 15 nations qualified for the 2012 London Olympics, leaving the remaining five spots up for grabs at the 2012 49er Worlds in Croatia in May. Shockingly, Canada did not qualify in Perth, meaning that Canadian 49er sailors still need to battle it out for the last five Olympic spots.
The annual Trofeo Princessa Sofia in Palma, Spain is the last tune up event before the big show in Croatia where so many dreams will be made and shattered, especially for the Canadian 49er teams. It is certain that at least two teams, with thousands of hours and dollars spent campaigning, will be packing up and heading home with their dreams unfulfilled. Canada presently has three 49er teams with an approximately equal chance of qualifying for the Games.
Gordon Cook sails with Hunter Lowden of Vancouver. These two former opponents from opposite coasts teamed up in 2009 after Gordon’s first Olympic appearance in Beijing. This team is definitely the favourite going into the qualifying series given that together they have years of 49er experience that can be measured in decades and Gordon is a former Olympian. However, their results have struggled recently and this is not the time to be firing blanks.
Jon Ladha and Dan Inkpen from Newfoundland are the new kids on the block. Sponsored by the iconic Newfoundland Screech Rum company, this team has the least experience and three years ago, no one would have expected these guys to be where they are today. Seen as loose cannons, this dynamic duo that are actually cousins have shown Canada and the World that they should be taken seriously even if their on-shore antics would indicate otherwise.
Current Canadian champions Billy Gooderham and Ian Hogan are from Toronto’s Royal Canadian Yacht Club which has produced so many of our Canadian Olympians. This team has incredible boat speed, especially in strong breeze, but has been un-able to make it count recently. Coming off a career best 31st at the 2009 49er Worlds in Italy, this team’s inconsistency has marked many of their recent World Cup events. Nevertheless, their incredibly strong boat speed and boat handling techniques make them a contender for the 2012 Games.
After a strong effort in January’s Rolex Miami OCR with all three teams competing in the medal race, the last two months have been set aside for training. All three teams did a training block in Miami after the regatta before shifting cross-pond to Spain. Ladha and Inkpen have hired a new British coach, Mark Asquith, with extensive 49er experience at the highest of levels. They’re hoping his knowledge will give them the edge they’ll need to qualify. Since January 2009 they have been on an incredibly steep learning curve, and they believe that Mark can continue to push them and prevent them from plateauing just before the critical moment. Meanwhile, Gordon and Hunter worked with Olympic 49er Silver medallist and former world champion Rodion Luka to hone their skills in Spain.
Ladha and Inkpen are coming off personal-best finishes at the Perth Worlds and the RMOCR. They intend to carry that momentum through Palma, as the sailors call it, and into the 2012 49er Worlds in Zadar, Croatia in a month’s time. “Our specialty is getting better faster than anyone,” Ladha mentioned during a break in one of their Spanish training camps in March. “Going into Palma, we are breaking down specifics; however, our ultimate goal is in Croatia. If we execute our plan, doing well and beating the other Canadian guys is a given,” the outgoing skipper continued.
However, the Cook & Lowden aren’t going to make it easy for the young Newfoundlanders. They figure that they are the team to beat going into the qualifiers a month from now, “we’ve had better finishes at most of the events, so we feel like we’re in front,” Cook said, adding that “there’s still lots of room for us to improve, so it’s anyone’s race.”
Although tensions are rising as the qualifier approaches, it’s no time for panic just yet. “We still have to qualify the country, so we’re not exactly out for blood on the race course,” Cook rationalized. He recognizes that this won’t be a cake walk, “we’re sailing well as a country, but I’m sure other countries looking for spots will contest that at the worlds.” Case in point: Bermuda. Once thought of as a long-shot, the Kirkland brothers from Bermuda have been improving and recently scored a 13th at Palma. Russia, Brazil, Poland, Japan, Sweden, Belgium, Greece, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Italy are all still looking for their Olympic berths. The latter awaiting the return of European champion skipper Pietro Sibello after he suffered a life-threatening blood clot in 2011.
Gordon is the man that has sailed the 49er most in Canada and sees that as an asset. He’s also been through this twice before, only having been successful once by qualifying for the Beijing Olympics at the 2007 ISAF Worlds in Cascais, Portugal. “It doesn’t seem much different this time around, except the fleet is a little bigger and there are quite a few more good teams.” Nevertheless, Gordon isn’t letting the pressure getting the best of him, hoping his previous experience will help him have sail well in each race and to have a good event.
However, the Newfoundlanders know they need to sail a perfect regatta in Croatia just to qualify. And that will be the focus of all their preparation leading into the event. Mark Asquith, their coach, jokes that “the way Jon sails, he wants to win it too much. It hurts. He’s just got to sail.” Jon’s risk taking style could be what wins it for him or what makes it all come crashing down and he recognizes that. “The way Gordo has always sailed, which does hurt him because he’s too conservative, but so different from me since I always take big risks. I’ll be content with small gains.” Jon and Dan’s strategy is simple, stay away from the corners, be safe, avoid letter scores, chip away and to take gains where they can. “I’m not afraid if Canada doesn’t qualify. I don’t give a damn. This is about Dan and myself. I truly believe that we will do it, where it counts the most. Forget statistics. We can do this.” Even Jon’s normally quiet cousin Dan chimed in, “we’re doing it, we’re going for it.”
Moving forward, all three Canadian teams will be training separately in Southern Europe in preparation for the big event. Unfortunately, there is no more collaboration at this point for these team mates. Win or lose, these guys are living an amazing experience, sailing competitively at the highest of levels. “These have been the best four years of my life,” Ladha lamented. He and his team-mates know only they can make their dreams come true.
President, Canadian 49er Class