You could feel the tension in the air. Australia and Great Britain weren’t just sailing for the Olympic gold medal. Whichever pair won the 470 class at London 2012 would also win the status of “top dog” for their country. Australia had two golds. Great Britain had a gold and two silvers.
In the blue corner were the world champions, Mat Belcher and Malcolm Page. Mal had seven world championships to his credit, plus an Olympic gold medal. Mat had four world championships. They were undefeated in the last seven regattas they had sailed and were unbackable favourites prior to the Games.
In the red corner were the challengers, Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell. This was their first Olympics and they had already exceeded expectations by getting to within four points of the champions at the end of the 10 preliminary races. They were very respectful of their rivals, but made no secret that they thought they could win. They just needed to put one other boat between them and the Aussies and the gold medal would be theirs.
Media boats milled about shooting footage, coaches passed last minute instructions and calmed frayed nerves, the Aussies were tipped against a support boat, checking a final bit of gear, then headed off up course. Their coach, the Medal Maker Victor Kovalenko was proudly wearing his gold and green tracksuit and hovering behind in his coach boat like an anxious sheepdog minding the flock.
The wind was light from 145 degrees, the course was flat and it was hard to tell which side had more pressure. Then the five minute gun went.
It was obvious that the Australians were going to assert their authority. They went straight for the GBR pair and started to match race. A jury boat was in close attendance. There was a whistle and a red flag and the Aussies did a penalty turn.
This allowed the British out from under, but quickly Mat Belcher put his bow on their stern and it was on again. Both boats fell back into the second line, and that favoured the Australians. Luke Patience swung the tiller and the British climbed out of danger and into the line of boats assembled on starboard tack.
It was first blood to the Brits as they hit the line ahead of AUS11, all going left. GBR tacked and Australia followed, even though they were several boats lengths behind.
By halfway up the course it seemed that every skipper had a different idea of where the best wind could be found. All 10 boats were spread across the course and it was impossible to tell who had the edge until they reached the top mark.
As it happened, neither side was really favoured. GBR was first around followed by Croatia and the Aussies, who had recovered from their bad start by staying on the right.
There was just eight seconds in it, but GBR had the gold medal in one hand – they were in front and with a boat between them and the enemy.
All week the Brits have been faster upwind. Then the legendary downwind speed of the Australians had been more than enough to counter that advantage. Today was no exception.
Within seconds, the Australians were through Croatia and hunting the British bulldog. Heading left into the middle of the course, Mal Page had the spinnaker trimmed to perfection and Mat Belcher was carving an arrow-straight line.
Now the Australians held the medal and the British people on the media boat were suggesting that Patience had to drop back and engage, to allow that vital third boat to catch up.
If they were even thinking such a thing, the British very quickly didn’t have the option. Belcher and Page had sailed the perfect line and went through the bottom gate four seconds ahead of Croatia, who had found a lift out on the right, and seven seconds ahead of GBR.
Now it was a game of chasey. The Australians again went right and the British tacked across onto port to follow them. They came towards each other and Australia tacked away, not wanting to get into a dogfight that would allow the rest of the fleet into the fight.
GBR approached again, then tacked away. The Aussies covered. Three quick tacks and counter tacks were thrown near the top of the course, but the Aussies had the advantage and sailed to the mark.
The tacking duel had cost some ground and again Croatia was in front, rounding 12 seconds ahead of the Aussies. Argentina had also taken advantage of the duel and was in front of GBR, whose cause was all but hopeless.
You don’t give Mat Belcher and Malcolm Page a 21 second start downwind and expect to beat them, and so it proved. A penalty for pumping was the final straw for the Brits and the race became a procession to the finish.
For a moment it looked as though Australia would win both the race and the gold medal, but Croatia prevailed. The Aussies crossed four seconds behind and promptly stacked their boat, just as Slinsgby, Outteridge and Jensen had done when winning their gold medals.
Lucas Calabrese and Juan de la Fuente secured bronze for Argentina by crossing fourth, and they did likewise. Then in a very noble gesture, Patience and Bithell also threw their boat into the water and swam to the Australians to congratulate them. There were three 470s floating face and all six medallists were wet and cold and didn’t care.
Mat and Malcolm climbed onto the coach boat and hugged Victor. The crowd on the Nothe saw it on TV and cheered.
The Brits righted their own boat and thanked their coach, then they had a microphone thrust under their noses. “We got ahead but we also got ahead of the rest of the fleet,” said Luke. “They sailed a fantastic race…”
The Australians righted their own boat and suddenly there were three sailors in it. Mat’s wife Rike, about to start the women’s 470 final, had abandoned her helm, Kathrin Kadelbach, and was hugging her husband. All the time apart, the financial sacrifices, the long weeks trekking around regattas had paid off.
You have all seen the interviews. You know what Mat and Mal had to say. I won’t repeat it all here.
We know that this was Malcolm Page’s last 470 race. We know that Mat Belcher and Victor Kovalenko intend to carry on.
It’s too early to know what will happen in the future for any of these three champions, but we do know this. Whatever they do next, they will do it well.
- Roger McMillan
"We sat out ex southern tropical cyclone "Oswell" in the river Tweed and where fortunate to get through unscath..."
John Bindon yacht Torea on One cruiser'...
"Thank you… !
I have just bought a Adams 31 which has yet to be sailed home to Cygnet from the Hawkesbury. Afte..."
Nick Cole on Cruising Tasmania's East Coast