The Finn Senior and Junior European Championship gets under way this weekend in La Rochelle, France. To date there are 95 entries from 31 nations and with a few exceptions virtually all of the top sailors are entered for what will be the classes third senior championship at the Atlantic coast venue.
It has been 10 years since the Finn Class sailed a senior championship in La Rochelle. Previously La Rochelle has hosted the Finn Gold Cup in 1996 and the European Championship in 2004, as well as the Finn World Masters in 1996 and 2013.
La Rochelle is located about half way down the Atlantic coast of France and is one of the most picturesque and historical cities along the coast. It includes one of the largest marinas in Europe at Les Minimes and has a very strong boat building industry.
The main feature of the town is the Vieux Port, or the Old Harbour, located at the heart of the city and surrounded by bars and popular seafood restaurants. The well preserved old city is a short distance from the host club for the event, Société des Régates Rochelaises (SRR), which was founded in 1860, and has a very spacious location at Port des Minimes, to the south of the town. It is highly experienced at running major events, having hosted some 24 World and European championships in the past three decades.
The racing will be held just outside La Rochelle harbour in a natural straight in the Bay of Biscay known as the Pertuis d'Antioche, or Passage of Antioch. This is enclosed on three sides by the Île de Ré, the mainland and the Île d'Oléron
The fleet is as deep as ever and includes 21 former Olympians, six former European champions and three former world champions, including the current European Champion Vasilij Zbogar (SLO), and the current World Champion Jorge Zarif (BRA).
While Zbogar is expected to be in contention, he will have a very hard time defending the title he won last year in Warnemünde, Germany. He placed sixth in the ISAF Sailing World Cup Palma this year, but has otherwise been training at his Valencia base.
In contrast Zarif has done all the major events this year, with a bronze at the ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami, followed by 19th in Palma, and then a more encouraging ninth in Hyères, including a win in the medal race. While his world championship win last year was a surprise to many, he has since shown he can compete with the best and can never be ruled out. It also has to be remembered he is still a junior.
The British, French and Italians are fielding the largest teams at 10 a piece, but without doubt the British have the strongest team in La Rochelle, with four sailors capable of winning races as well as the championship itself. Both Edward Wright (GBR) and Giles Scott (GBR) have already taken the title in previous years while Andrew Mills (GBR) and Mark Andrews (GBR) win races at this level on a regular basis and are quite capable of putting together a title winning series. Behind them are another five up and coming sailors, including last year's Junior European Champion, Peter McCoy (GBR). With the class raising the age limit for Juniors, he is able to defend his title, though to do that he will have to beat the current junior and senior World Champion, Jorge Zarif.
For the French team, Thomas Le Breton (FRA) and Jonathan Lobert (FRA) will be making a strong challenge. So far this year Le Breton has had the upper hand over Lobert, who won bronze in London 2012, so Lobert will be looking to even the score. Both picked up a medal at the ISAF Sailing World Cup Palma, while Le Breton added a bronze in Hyères last week. Lobert had to return home to La Rochelle early to fix his boat after a mid-series collision, so hopefully he will be back up to speed by Monday, in time for the first race.
If performance at Hyères was anything to go by then Pieter-Jan Postma (NED) will be a force to contend with as well. Overcoming a large nemesis last week with his first ever major win in the class, he will be brimming with confidence and could well be the surprise package of the week. Likewise, the new World No 1, Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO), who took the silver in Hyères, will be very confident going into the championship. He has previously won the Europeans in 2009 and 2010, and narrowly missed out on a third title in 2011. His return to form has been overdue, and, coming back from an enforced break, he will only get better in the coming months.
Of the other non-European countries competing, of which there are seven, New Zealand, is fielding a strong team which includes Josh Junior (NZL) and Andrew Murdoch (NZL). Junior finished strongly in Hyères to place fourth, following a top 10 finish at last year's world championship. Training with the more experienced Murdoch, the two have been putting in the hours, with Murdoch picking up the European bronze last year.
Other names to watch during the week include: the 2012 European Champion Ioannis Mitakis (GRE), Deniss Karpak (EST), Tapio Nirkko (FIN), Zsombor Berecz (HUN), Piotr Kula (POL) and Gasper Vincec (SLO). The Swedish battle between Björn Allansson (SWE) and Max Salminen (SWE) will also be of great interest.
Coming so soon after the end of the World Cup in Hyères, most sailors travelled straight to La Rochelle, so have been training in earnest this week in preparation, for what for many will be the last true test before the ISAF Worlds in Santander in September when the first 50 per cent of the nation places for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio will be decided.
Zarif and McCoy will join the 15 or so other juniors racing in the same fleet as the seniors as they compete for the European Junior title. The results are not extracted, it's the overall position that counts.
Conditions in La Rochelle often prove challenging as those who attended in 1996 will testify. In 2004 it was a much lighter event on the whole, but with sea breezes generally setting in the 14-18 knots range and with a strong chop due to shallow water, whoever wins next week will have been fully tested to their limits of fitness and ability, and in the Finn that is often the greater challenge.
At the moment, long range forecasts are showing a windy but changeable start to the week. Registration and measurement runs from Friday 2, May to Sunday 4, May, with the opening series of 10 races scheduled from Monday 5, May to Friday 9, May. The medal race for the top 10 and the final race for the rest will be on Saturday 10, May. The opening ceremony will be on Friday 2 May.
Images from 2013 European Championship in Warnemunde, Germany. (c) Robert Deaves
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