SSL Finals get underway in Montagu Bay

SSL Finals get underway in Montagu Bay
PHOTO COURTESY OF STAR SAILORS LEAGUE

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – Tied in with the “Best of the Best” Regatta this week, the Star Sailors League (SSL) Finals is back, and the international event is underway in the waters of Montagu Bay, here in Nassau.

The line-up is being termed as the most diverse in the history of the seven-year event, with 23 teams made up of sailors from around the world battling for the top prize. The qualifying rounds got underway yesterday. They will sail through Friday, and the final is set for Saturday to determine who will be 2019 “Star of the Sailing World”.

The star-studded line-up is laden with Olympic sailors (past and present), America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race winners and champions from all manner of classes at world, European and continental levels.

Across the 23 teams taking part, 22 nations are represented including, for the first time, Spain in seven-time Round the World Race sailor Roberto Bermúdez de Castro, who campaigned the Star boat in the 2004 Athens Olympics. He will sail with Miguel Fernandez Vasco this week. Also here for the first time is Uruguay with former Snipe World Champion Ricardo Fabini, the runner-up at this year’s Pan American Games. He will be sailing with Argentinean Federico Calegari. From the Far East, also sailing in the SSL Finals for the first time, is South Korea, represented by three-time Olympic Laser sailor and triple Asian Games Champion Jeemin Ha. He will be sailing with Star veteran Mark Strube.

“I only heard about it this year,” said Ha of the SSL Finals. “It looked cool, but I never thought I’d be part of it. This is a great chance to sail against some big names. Compared to the Laser, the techniques on the Star boat are similar, but the steering is different – it is big and heavy, so the momentum is different. I don’t know yet how I’ll get on.”

In terms of age, the grand-daddy of this year’s event is yacht racing legend Paul Cayard, back sailing in The Bahamas with his 2004 Athens Olympics crew member Phil Trinter. The renowned Louis Vuitton Cup and Whitbread Round the World Race winner, himself a former Star boat world champion from 1988, turned 60 this year, but is far from hanging up his sea boots. He finished fourth at the SSL Breeze Grand Slam and sixth at the Star worlds in Porto Cervo, Italy, in June this year.

While several up-and-coming Olympic contenders are competing this year, including 25-year-old British Laser sailor Lorenzo Chiavarini (sailing with German Kilian Weise), the youngest is Finland’s Oskari Muhonen who will be sailing with Ukrainian Vitalii Kushnir. He is one of only four sailors to be a two-time winner of the Finn Silver Cup which is for sailors under 23 years of age.

Olympian Tonci Stipanovic, from Croatia, the Laser silver medallist from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, is here in The Bahamas and will be sailing with Finn sailor Tudor Bilić. Given that the last two SSL Finals have been won by Paul Goodison, a former Laser gold medallist, and Jorge Zarif, the Finn Gold Cup winner, Stipanovic is expected to have a good chance.

While Zarif is busy campaigning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, his crew Brazilian Pedro Trouche will defend their title, sailing with the event’s sole Kiwi, 2006 Star World Champion Hamish Pepper.

“I am really happy to have the chance to return and maybe defend the title,” said Trouche. “Sailing with Hamish is very different but last year we had some nice tuning up together, so we started talking about sailing together this year.”

Of this year’s line-up, Trouche observes: “We have more younger guys and the line-up is stronger. In Nassau we can also have some breezy days so the game is open. I really don’t know what is going to happen.”

Pepper is one of several Star boat powerhouses among the last generation to compete in the former Olympic keelboat at the 2012 London Olympics. They include Swedish gold medallist Freddie Lööf, sailing here with American London 2012 competitor Brian Fatih, and gold medallist from the 2008 Beijing Olympics Iain Percy, sailing with Lööf’s 2004 Star World Championship-winning crew Anders Ekström. London 2012 bronze medallist Bruno Prada returns, sailing with Poland’s Mateusz Kusznierewicz. Also back is SSL President France’s Xavier Rohart who will sail with Pierre-Alexis Ponsot.

Of this group, favorites must be Prada/Kusznierewicz, this year’s World Champions in the Star boat, but Kusznierewicz doesn’t see it this way. “That was almost six months ago and other people have improved since, so our expectations are normal. The SSL Finals is a very special event, the only one where you come up against Olympic, World, European and Continental Champions, America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race winners, etc. There are old friends, but also new faces – we really enjoy it. It is impossible to say who will win – at least 10 out of the 23 have a chance.”

Three Match Racing World Champions are competing, including Britain’s Ian Williams sailing here with former Star World Champion Steve Mitchell, who achieved this accolade a record six times. Then there is U.S. Virgin Islander Taylor Canfield sailing with Arnis Baltins, the present M32 catamaran World Champion, who won the title in 2013, and the 2017 champion, Australian Torvar Mirsky, sailing with Ireland’s Robert O’Leary.

Another Star boat old guard, who have covered more miles than most in recent years, is Italy’s Diego Negri, sailing with Germany’s Frithjof Kleen, Paul Goodison’s 2017 SSL Finals winning crew. Kleen now runs the SSL training center in Riva del Garda, Italy, where many of those racing here in The Bahamas have been training. From that, Kleen reckons two of the “dark horses” this week could be Portugal’s Bernardo Freitas, sailing with former Lars Grael crew Samuel Gonçalves and Chiavarini/Weise.

However having finished third at the last year’s SSL Finals, Kleen believes they have a good chance: “We are very confident that if nothing goes too wrong we should be in the top 10. It will be nice to see the big battle between the legends like Percy, Mateusz, Freddy, etc. but everyone has proved they are very good sailors who have earned the right to be here.”

The last four teams from qualifying will contest a thrilling final race and the first to finish will be the winner of the 2019 SSL Finals and take home the lion’s share of the $200,000 prize purse.

Interested persons can follow all the action live and free streaming on the internet at the website www.starsailors.com with expert commentary from special studio guests. On the water, the latest in hi-tech camera technology helped by a virtual support, will provide thrilling viewing. Persons can also visit the event’s Facebook and Instagram pages, and on Twitter, to be updated on the SSL Finalists, social events and more of the Star Sailors League major event of the year.

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