St. Petersburg sees Ben Ainslie face Leigh McMillan in full pursuit of a third Extreme Sailing Series title


St Petersburg

The last time the fast-running waters of the Neva Riva played host to a successful invasion of the Winter Palace was at 21.45 on the 25 October, 1917. A blank round was fired from the cruiser Aurora signalling the storming of the palace, which also houses the Hermitage Museum collection, the start of the revolution which overturned Tsar Nicholas, and heralded the start of over 80 years of communist rule.

On Tuesday, in the dead of night, the lifting bridges which criss-cross that still famous river were lifted as normal but also allowed the 12-strong fleet of 40-foot racing catamarans to take up, across from the gilded Imperial Russian Navy Admiralty building – it remains the nerve centre of the Russian navy – their moorings under the shadow of a stock exchange building which is being restored.

Looking down is the gilded dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Looking across is the four-square building which housed the KGB. Looking on will be spectators watching an Extreme Sailing Series regatta which features four potential America’s Cup challenge teams, including that most modern of British nautical knights, Ben Ainslie. Winning an opening Olympic silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games, followed by four consecutive golds, culminating at London 2012, may almost have been easier – though huge amounts of work went in to every one of them – than cracking the path to winning the America’s Cup in 2017.

One man determined to give no quarter is a fellow British Olympian, Leigh McMillan, in full pursuit of a third series title wearing the colours of The Wave, Muscat, one of two teams representing Oman Sail. The other, Oman Air, also has a British skipper in Rob Greenhalgh, whose brother Pete is on McMillan’s crew along with double Olympic gold medallist Sarah Ayton.

Oman is using sailing as part of its youth development programme trhough sport, with its own long-term Olympic ambitions. McMillan is a driven skipper who doubtless has America’s Cup ambitions of his own. This week his other opponent is the vagaries of a track which features sometimes no wind, sometimes gusts which makes the twin-hulled boats fly and always hems fast boats into a narrow corset.

“Sometimes you feel you are competing as much against the conditions as against your rivals,” says McMillan, adding: “It’s a massive challenge and what doesn’t change is the adrenalin and intensity. On the morning of every race day the nerves are jangling as much as ever.”

Going into this fourth regatta of the 2014 series, McMillan is lying second to the team that ran him so close last year, Switzerland’s Alinghi, skippered by Morgan Larson. Only a tie-break denied him the trophy last year. Ben Ainslie’s J.P.Morgan-sponsored BAR is eighth out of 11, a couple of places behind a Gazprom-sponsored Russian team which has Britain’s Paul Campbell-James on the helm. He joins Ainslie at the next regatta in Cardiff, in place of Paul Goodison, another British Olympic gold medallist. Having been at the heart of Italy’s Prada-backed Luna Rossa challenge for the America’s Cup in San Francisco last year, Campbell-James will also be able to talk through some ideas about wingsail controls, which return for the next Cup in 2017.

And lurking always is Team New Zealand. Enormously experienced, enormously talented, now assured of its next tranche of money going forward to the next America’s Cup and with Peter Burling taking over the helm from Dean Barker – deep into an A-Class catamaran campaign – and 2012 49-er silver medal partner Blair Tuke alongside him, both benefitting from the tactical input of Ray Davies.  They are lying third.

The 2014 EUROSAF Champions Cup in Kiel, Germany brought twin silver success for Britain in the 49er and 2.4mR events, and Britain took the series’ top nation trophy for the second year.
Dave Evans and Ed Powys held on in some tight, light wind 49er ‘theatre style’ racing on the final day to add silver to their victory on home waters at the Sail for Gold Regatta earlier this month.

A solid final day for 2012 Olympic gold medallist Helena Lucas in the Open 2.4mR saw her improve from her overnight position of third to claim the silver medal behind local sailor and fellow Paralympic gold medallist Heiko Kroeger.

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