To find the admirable athletes and inscrutable language of sailing, one must ride one hour from Tokyo through the great highways and great infrastructure of the great country to this island that crams a ton of beauty inside a 2.5-mile circumference. There’s even a beach town on the way in with a crowded beach and dudes toting surfboards and people going to and fro barefoot on sidewalks.
Cross quickly from the mainland onto the island, and here it is: the grand sailing neighborhood with its inconceivable logistics, its big boxes of big equipment lined up and adorned with flags — the stylish Brazilian, the stylish Danish et al — near the occasional warning signs about what to do in the event of tsunami. Now hear the sailing dialect, as from gold medalist Martine Grael of Brazil as she told of having one crummy hell of a time with teammate Kahena Kunze when “we got a sheet caught, quite well caught, in a way we had never had before.”
The listeners all nod knowingly about the sheet, except for those who look it up again and recollect that a sheet seems to be a rope or a chain used to adjust the sail in the wind.
Of course, if ever you sat in a sailing team meeting, here might be the notes understandable to the layman: “the … and … jib … f--- … mast … and … the … f--- … breeze … f---ing … and … the.”
Technical beyond technical, it must be the sport hardest to translate from the experience (of the athletes) to the words (of those trying to interpret the experience of the athletes). Even just looking up the disciplines, referenced as “skiff” on this page but “49er” over on that one, can loose disruption in the skull.
At one point Tuesday, Grael explained what happened in a women’s skiff/49er FX race to those who understood in their bones the definition of a women’s skiff/49er FX race, as well as to others in the room.
“There was a little current line there,” she said, “that we wanted to go to the right, and we didn’t want to get stuck on the starting line with the other boats, so we held back a little bit, but as the boats tacked to come closer to the race [uncertain of word] we got a little bit [uncertain of word], space, we were trying to [uncertain] to a few boats, and then figure out what was gonna be possible and (uncertain) more space there and we just tried not to [uncertain] …
It sounded like a monstrous task, and that’s where the admiration wells for a sport one can appreciate without really having much idea of what’s going on. Anna Burnet, who won silver with partner John Gimson in the mixed multihull/Nacra 17 foiling, said, “Yeah, I think sailing these boats in waves is quite terrifying,” soon adding that makes it important to “push harder to make it safer in a way.”
It’s also a sport where Andrew Rice of World Sailing, who handled most of the questioning in the four news conferences of medalists Tuesday, put an insider question to men’s skiff/49er bronze medalists Erik Heil and Thomas Plossel of Germany:
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
The people in the room who were not clueless, which meant most of the people, reckoned that meant Jesus Renedo, a legendary sailing photographer raised on the north coast of Spain but residing in Mallorca, according to the bio on his website. Renedo bounced around the news conferences, photographing the medalists and then sometimes hugging them afterward, snapping and hugging, hugging and snapping, all while barefoot and all while charming.
Of course, residing on Mallorca does boost one’s chances of being charming.
The question referred to the apparent fact that Heil and Plossel thought they’d finished fourth, behind Spanish sailors Diego Botin le Chever and Iago Lopez Marra, who would have won gold had they based the competition only upon beautiful names.
Then, apparently, Rendon rode up in the photo boat and asked Heil and Plossel to pose for a happy medal photo, whereupon Heil and Plossel apparently told him to buzz off.
“So we were pretty sure that Diego and Iago had won the bronze medal,” Heil said. “Jesus came after a few minutes and told us to celebrate for a picture, and we told him to go away and just make the picture of Iago and Diego, so thanks to Jesus for that.”
That’s because it’s complicated like most everything in the sailing demimonde, operating on a system of points for a series of races, such that Plossel said, “We were very uncertain about it, because we counted ourselves, and we obviously counted wrong.”
If the sailors count wrong on occasion, imagine what happens to the interlopers.
Sailors also speak in their own sub-dialect of the dialect, but luckily, this one is understandable to all. Asked about how his day had gone, Britain’s Stuart Bithell, who shared a men’s skiff/49er gold with Dylan Fletcher, deadpanned, “So far, so good, I guess. A few hours left. Anything can happen.”
Nearby, silver medalist Blair Tuke from the sailing haven of New Zealand, a three-time Olympic medalist and two-time America’s Cup conqueror alongside partner Peter Burling, said of the Brits, “Like these boys mentioned, the racing this week’s been very tight.”
Some sailing passages just plain soothe the imagination. Plossel, for example, said he and Heil first sailed a regatta together “in May 2001 on a lake in Berlin,” enabling the mind to drift to a lake in Berlin. In his mirth over a silver medal in the men’s one-person dinghy (heavyweight)/Finn event, Hungarian Zsombor Berecz said at one point, “As you know, Hungary doesn’t have sea,” a point that both deepened the impression of Berecz’s achievement and conjured thoughts of the Danube flowing through Budapest.
Hints do arise of internecine strife in sailing, proving there’s internecine strife in every nook of the world. Talk veers to the perpetual changing of the disciplines within the 10-event Olympic regatta, decisions made by governing bodies within governing bodies under the governing body of the IOC. Some categories stay. Some go. Some arrive anew. There have been 59 (!) categories coming and going since sailing began when the modern Olympics began, at Athens 1896.
So one hears accounts such as this from Gimson, who used to race in the Star class, nowadays gone, and who has been at this medal pursuit more or less for 20 years: “I mean, the dream of an Olympic medal is what kept me going … But the second time around where my discipline was dropped, you know, a few years into the class and invested a lot of time and money in it, I had to question my life choices at that moment. But the dream never died.”
These daily daredevils can adapt, so Joan Cordona Mendez of Spain, a 23-year-old pup who snared a bronze in the men’s one-person dinghy or Finn (heavyweight), said he would enjoy his medal now for a sport about to be axed and then figure out which new discipline he might pursue later.
With the mixed-gender divisions in fashion in all sports, mixed multihull/Nacra 17 will remain, so that all six medalists, three male and three female, raised their hands when Rice asked who might return for Paris 2024, with sailing out on the Mediterranean at Marseilles.
“I need the gold one,” the 38-year-old Gimson said from the silver area of the dais.
“We’ll see in three years,” said Ruggero Tita, who won gold for Italy with Caterina Banti, and with that, he concluded the dialect for the day even while springing thoughts of distant seas up ahead, proving again that any sport can overcome inscrutability with Japanese islands from heaven, Italian sailors named Ruggero and barefoot photographers from Mallorca.