New Zealand, 2014 National Championship
Worser Bay Boating Club, Worser Bay, Wellington
18 - 21 April
By Matt Stechmann
This year the southern (if you are a North Islander) OK stronghold of Worser Bay played host to the New Zealand OK Nationals. Held over Easter, fleet numbers were slightly down on previous years, however all the leading contenders for the title were all still present and making their presence known around the compound. There was some anxiety amongst the fleet, especially the smaller and/or less experienced members, with the fast approaching ex-tropical cyclone Ita expected to lash most of the country with gale force winds over the weekend. Yet, as dawn broke for the first day of racing, the fleet was meet with near perfect sailing conditions from the Northeast, along with the typical chorus from the locals…”It’s not normally like this….”
Race 1 started in a moderate 15 knots from the NE making strategy for the first beat complicated with no obvious favoured side. As it turned out the first beat was a fairly one sided affair, with a drag race to the left hand corner becoming the favoured option for the front runners. Making his intensions known early was defending champion, Russell “Mudzy” Wood (NZL526), who led around the top mark and set off down the first reach showing a clean pair of heels. He was followed by 2012 Champion, Ben “Judge” Morrison (NZL530), who was posing an ever-present threat to Wood. Rounding out the top places were local favourites Matt “Menace” Stechmann (NZL549), Luke “Colt” O’Connell (NZL546), Paul “Gouch” Rhodes (NZL517) and Steve “The Lead Dwarf” McDowell (NZL545) all chasing hard to make up ground. However, with Morrison gaining fast down the first reach, Wood managed to find a private gust down the bottom reach and hold his lead into the bottom mark. Wood then applied the afterburners up the second beat, showing his well-known upwind pace to sail away for victory in the first race. The chasing pack crossed soon after in the order of Stechmann, Morrison, O’Connell, and Rhodes after a fierce battle for the minor places.
By the time the committee were ready to start Race 2 the wind was threatening to disappear altogether. The race was eventually started in a much softer 5-8 knots from the same NE direction. This threw a spanner in the works for the “Fat Five” (Wood, Morrison, Stechmann, Rhodes and O’Connell) who were all hoping for consistent power sailing conditions for the entire series. It was not to be. Taking an early lead and showing lightning pace in the light wind was Mike “Sultan” Wilde (NZL535), his many years’ experience paying off in this highly competitive fleet. He was closely followed by McDowell and youth America’s Cup Sailor Matt “Munter” Stevens, with McDowell taking the lead down the second reach. The order stayed mostly unchanged up the second beat, however, showing the blistering pace he has possessed all season, O’Connell smoked through on the run and rounded the final bottom mark in 2nd. McDowell held his nerve to take the win, with O’Connell in 2nd followed by Stevens and Wilde, with Rhodes taking his second 5th for the day.
Race 3 was once again set to be a light affair although from the more traditional direction of Northerly. The race was started in marginal drifting conditions making the first beat as much of a lottery as it was a race. The early leaders gained an advantage from having their own little private breeze out in the current on the right hand side whilst the rest of the fleet remain stranded inshore. At the top mark it was the one time Olympic hopeful Miles “Vertical Smiles” Addy (NZL524) who had stamped his authority on the race with O’Connell, Marty “Spare Ribs” Weeks (NZL485), Chris “Chrisopopolous” Fenwick (NZL509), Joe “Kaumatua” Porebski (NZL523) and Jono “Rabbit” Clough (NZL498) all in the mix. Down the second reach O’Connell once again showed his superior speed flying past Addy and sailing away to take a commanding victory in the last race of the day. From there, Addy held on to a well-earned 2nd place with Weeks, Fenwick and Porebski rounding out the top 5. This race represented a major gain for O’Connell, with many of the traditional favourites choosing the lefthand side up the first beat and being punished for it, including Morrison, Stechmann, Wood, McDowell, Rhodes and Stevens who all now had a bad race on the score sheet.
So after a mixed day’s racing Luke “Colt” O’Connell was showing why he held the favourites tag with a handy lead, having only accumulated 7 points for the day. In Second overall was Steve “The Lead Dwarf” McDowell on equal points with Mike “Sultan” Wilde who was in third. First item on the night’s agenda was the NZOKDA agm where matters of high importance were discussed at length and a number of important issues considered and decided. In general the current health of the class was celebrated, as it rightly should be with 49 competitors taking part in this season’s NZOK Tour series of OK regattas around New Zealand. Following on from this was what is fast becoming an OK tradition: a curry night. The fleet all ascended on the local curry house in Miramar to continue earnest discussions of important sailing topics and life in general whilst keeping the gears well lubricated with the fine array of nutritious beverages on offer.
Day 2 dawned with a moderate northerly being forecast. Everything was on the line as, with a storm forecast for day 3, the race committee had indicated an intention to wrap the series up by the end of day 2 by holding 4 races in the expected 15-20 knots breeze.
Race 4 got away on time, and straight away order was restored with the Fat 5 fighting it out at the top of the fleet. Wood led around the first mark and was soon passed by Morrison on the reach, who was in turn passed by young Colt O'Connell who took advantage of his lightning downwind pace to grab the lead. Colt went on to hold his lead right to the finish, through some brilliant upwind sailing despite being pushed hard all the way by Morrison who was determined to make amends for his poor showing in race 3. Following on from that were Stechmann and Wood who were in a neck and neck battle all the way around the course, neither willing to give an inch. The top 6 was rounded out with former OK Interdominion champion Brad “Precious” Douglas and then Rhodes, who were an ever-present menace to the leading bunch.
Race 5 was sailed in much the same conditions, and turned out to have an almost identical result. Colt showed his class once again, taking his 3rd bullet for the series. Morrison was 2nd, after yet another hammer-and-tongs battle with O’Connell. This time it was Rhodes finishing 3rd and taking his best result for the series. Then low and behold, Wood and Stechmann, battling their way to the finish and once again it was hand-to-hand combat all the way. This time Wood took the upper hand and crossed in 4th.
The wind picked up to a nice 15-20 knots in Race 6, and this gave the powerful Wood all the opportunity he needed to power into an early lead at the top mark, which he held for the entire first triangle with Stechmann and Morrison chasing hard. Down the run there was a dramatic lead change – while Wood and Stechmann battled hard down the inshore side of the run, Morrison sailed hard by the lee and into the current down the lefthand, channel side to go from 3rd to 1st and lead around the bottom and final mark, with Wood and Stechmann once again almost tethered together around the track. The race was still all on at the bottom mark with only a short beat to the finish remaining. Morrison led the charge out to the right, waiting for the right time to tack and cement his lead, with Stechmann following close behind. Wood split off early looking for some leverage from the left. Morrison quickly reacted, tacking over to cover Wood’s move. Wood immediately tacked back onto port to force one more play by Morrison, while meanwhile Stechmann was banking it all on one last roll of the dice at the right-hand corner. Morrison predictably put in a covering tack on Woods line, but was not quite laying the finish, meaning Wood had one more chance, with a hitch out to the left. By this stage Morrison was under fire from both sides of the track, with Stechmann now heading for the finish on the starboard layline. Morrison chose to minimise tacks, continuing to the starboard layline and tacking directly ahead of Stechmann. Now only one problem remained for Morrison - Wood, who was steaming in on the left hand lay-line in pressure and rotated to the left. As all 3 boats converged on the finish it was unclear who would have the advantage. In the end Morrison had just enough to take victory and record his first bullet for the series. Wood snuck across just ahead of Stechmann in another neck-and-neck battle.
Meanwhile, flying under the radar, a short way back in 4th, was the ever consistent Luke "Colt" O'Connell who with that result had managed to secure his first ever OK Dinghy National title.
After crossing the line the front runners gathered briefly to congratulate the new champion, but celebrations were short lived as there was still one more, very important title up for grabs - The Tiki.
Race 7 - Tiki Race. Even winning the Nationals for the first time is not enough reason to sit out a Tiki race and O’Connell lined up with the full fleet for the 7th and final race of the 2014 OK Nationals, all with the hope of grabbing an ever elusive tiki. There was also a very tight battle on for 2nd and 3rd overall, with Morrison, Stechmann and Wood the obvious candidates but all with a bad race on Day 1 to worry about. As the gun sounded to start the race it once again became clear who had been putting in the miles this season. Morrison jumped out into an early lead and gained a big advantage from the left. Stechmann and Wood were next, coming in from the right and trading blows down the reaches. McDowell, Rhodes and O'Connell followed close behind putting pressure on the leading bunch. In the end Morrison showed good fitness and boat-handling to sail away for a big win and a well-deserved Tiki. Stechmann was 2nd through the line, dragging Wood through in 3rd. In 4th place was McDowell finding some form again for the last race. Then, scoring his worse result for the series with a 5th place, was O'Connell, the new New Zealand OK champion for 2014. With this victory O’Connell also wrapped up the 2013/14 NZOK Tour in emphatic style, taking that title from Morrison who held it for the 2 previous seasons.
And so yet another epic season of OK sailing in New Zealand comes to a close. But not for long, with the 2014-15 NZOK Tour set to kick off with the 2014 Brass Monkey at Napier over Queen’s Birthday weekend. Big numbers are expected for this regatta, as it represents the start of the final run-in to the 2014 OK Worlds in Melbourne at the end of the year.
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