Who says sailing’s not a spectator sport?

SAILS snap and crash as the dinghies bounce off waves.

We’re with a few hundred other people watching the Weymouth and Portland international regatta 2011 – the test event for the Olympics.

Sat on the slopes of the Nothe peninsula – the official arena for spectators of next year’s Olympic and Paralympic sailing races – there are flags, and cheers, and binoculars, and picnics, and all sorts of nationalities.

In the British camp we spy Wyke Regis’ very own world champion windsurfer Nick Dempsey, Olympic bronze (Beijing) windsurfer Bryony Shaw, 470 sailor Saskia Clark, and world Number Two Laser sailor Paul Goodison It’s fair to say that all the sailing boys and girls are a very fit bunch indeed – tanned nutmeg brown from all those days spent skimming over the water, honed from all that yanking of sheets and sails, white of tooth and bouncy of hair.

There’s a great sense of excitement as changeable winds bring the medal races closer to dry land. Team GBR came 4th in the 49ers.

The Stars class is won by the Brits, who came second overall (we think). Sailing is pretty confusing to follow, as the person who crosses the finishing line first does not necessarily win gold – it depends on their overall placing over a number of races.

Luckily, there’s lots of well-informed spectators giving a running commentary, so we eavesdrop, unashamedly. There’s lots of fevered mutterings and straining of necks as the sailors round the marker buoys. Who knows – the Olympic teams might even be announced this afternoon.

Ahead of the Finn race, Ben Ainslie tacks to the foot of the Nothe to say hello to his supporters. He’s a triple gold and silver Olympic medallist. This is nothing less than sailing royalty up close. What I wouldn’t give for a long lens right now.

The race starts, and it’s incredible to watch such sportsmanship in action at such close quarters. Ben’s in 4th place, heading towards Lulworth. The wind is light, so, to pick up speed, he physically yanks the sheet backwards and forwards by throwing his whole body to and fro. His force is so strong that the boat rocks up and down, up and down, and magically he glides into first place in the space of 200 metres. No-one can catch him. No-one can match him. Now I see why these sailors are called athletes – their sheer strength is astonishing.

How amazing that watching this event is free, in a public place. Despite the furore surrounding Locog’s commandeering of the Nothe Gardens and charging people up to £50 to watch the Olympic Sailing races next summer, we are quietly chuffed that we managed to get tickets to the medal day of the Finn classes. Will we be there to watch Ben Ainslie win another gold for Great Britain?

This is only the second time in my life I have felt proud to be British. (The first time was last April, watching William and Kate get married). Wow. Go GBR!


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