Taking a slender two point lead into the medal race at the ISAF World Championships, Australian Laser champion Tom Burton knew he had to sail the race of his life to win. But it was Dutchman Nicholas Heiner who handled the difficult conditions best and raced away to a massive victory in front of the main grandstand.
After five days of light conditions, today was similar to yesterday, with strong winds and a choppy, disorganised sea state. The 15 knot wind was blowing at right angles to the tide and throwing white caps into the air that would eventually bring two sailors undone.
Burton has sailed in big events before but he has always been the hunter, not the hunted. Today he had a gold dot on his sail and a target on his back as most of the 10 boat fleet sailed up the course to check conditions before the race. Nick Thompson of Great Britain, who boasted three world championship medals but no gold, was the sailor breathing down Burton's neck while Heiner was a further three points back and quite capable of an upset.
Everyone obviously believed the boat end of the line was favoured as over half the fleet, including Burton, were off the starboard quarter of the start boat when the Blue Peter came down with a minute to go.
Drifting slowly to their left, the line straightened but Burton found himself shut out. He was forced to reach even further left and drop into a hole only fourth boat from the pin end. Gassed off the line, he headed left and kept going that way when others tacked, before beating all the way back to the right hand side where only Olympic silver medallist Pavlos Contides of Cyprus thought the winds were better.
While those who had stayed near the middle played the little lifts that were coming down the course, Burton and Contides were getting constant knocks and lifts and the knocks won. At the top mark Burton was in last place and facing the prospect of no medal at all.
The downwind runs were mayhem, with spray flying as the Lasers surged down waves. Burton closed the gap but was still last to go through the gate and had made little progress by the second top mark.
It was this third leg where Heiner made his move. A significant wind shift favoured those on the right, where Heiner held sway, and he turned for the run home with a solid lead of more than 50 metres which he rapidly expanded. Surfing wildly, he almost broached about 200 metres from the line but still would have had time to get back in and win.
Eyes now turned to the race for the minor medals, where Nick Thompson was doing all he had to do – be in front of Burton. Until he picked the biggest wave of the day.
“Nick just went down the mine in front of me. I was on a wave and surfed past him,” Burton explained. He said the runs were the wildest he'd experienced, feeling that at one stage his cockpit had filled with water. “I couldn't see anything because of the spray, but the boat felt really heavy,” he said.
It was also a major surfing incident that finally brought the erratic Contides undone – he snapped his mast after a wild broach.
Obviously disappointed not to have won his first world championship gold, Burton has shown he is a worthy successor to Olympic Champion Tom Slingsby as Australia's premier Laser sailor. In a fleet that included double Olympic gold medallist Robert Scheidt, now four times world medallist Thompson and Olympic silver medallist Contides, he finished with Silver and has two years until Rio, during which he will contest many more medal races.
The Laser squad under super coach Michael Blackburn delivered only Burton to the medal race, but there were five in gold fleet. It is a tight squad that will push Burton all the way, perhaps as far as an Olympic Gold.
The womens Laser Radial medal race was held on the same course before the men's race and resulted in a triumph for Olympic silver medallist Marit Bouwmeester of the Netherlands. Holding a commanding 10 point lead prior to the race, she did everything she needed to do – sailing up the middle of the course, throwing a loose cover on her two closest rivals and finishing a comfortable third without ever doing anything dangerous.
It was the chasers who had to take the risks and Veronika Fenclova (CZE) was the one who pushed the corners too far. She went looking for a wind shift to the right and came up empty-handed, finishing last in the race and dropping out of the medals.
Josefin Olsson of Sweden was a delighted runner-up, pipping Olympic bronze medallist Evi van Aker (BEL) who won the bronze by a single point.
So it was a double for the Dutch, who look destined to lift the President's Trophy for overall points which Australia won at Perth 2011.
– Roger McMillan in Santander