By David Pendered
Four Ukrainian sailors in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, two men and two women, demonstrated the resolve that is evident in the country’s current resistance to Russian invaders.
The two men won a gold medal in a double-handed dinghy, the 470. The two women won a bronze medal in the women’s division of the same class.
Winning medals isn’t the point in their success. The triumph was the victory of individuals who collaborated to prevail against elite competitors in weather conditions that were beyond every nation’s preparations.
In Olympic sailing classes, boats and rigging are identical. Physical conditioning comes with the job. Weather is the greatest shared variable. Consequently, winning can come down to strategies and tactics built on accurate forecasts of which sides of a racecourse are to be favored by wind direction and water currents.
Because the wind and water failed to develop as predicted in the 1996 games, sailors had to toss out race plans devised with input from graybeards on shore. Sailors relied on their own ability to read constantly shifting wind conditions, and their skill to move their boat quickly through waves and water currents that were not expected.
The Ukrainian men’s team dominated the fleet of 36 teams competing in the 470.
The performance was so strong the duo had clinched the gold after the 10th race and didn’t compete in the final event. Their score was 40, which was 20 points below the silver-medal British team. The Russian team finished fifth, with 66 points. In the 1996 games, sailors discarded their two worst finishes to create a tally where the lowest score won.
The Savannah games were the best of three Olympics for Ukrainian skipper Evhen Braslavets and crew Ihor Matviyenko. They went on to sail together in the 470 in Sydney and Athens, finishing sixth and ninth, respectively.
The Ukrainian women’s team took bronze in a field of 22 boats. They finished with 38 points, trailing Japan with its 36 points and an indomitable Spanish skipper who tallied 25 points. Russia did not field a women’s 470 team in 1996.
The women stayed together for Sydney, winning the bronze in their last Olympics as a team. For the 2004 games in Athens, skipper Ruslana Taran won silver in the three-person keelboat, the Ylgling. Crew Olena Pakholchik retired after Sydney. She had medaled in two of her three Olympic appearances, after finishing sixth in the 470 in Barcelona.
In Savannah, the races were staged on courses where the famed Bermuda high never was fully realized.
This cycle of clockwise winds brings a typically reliable pattern of afternoon sea breezes blowing in from the southwest. The pattern is so predictable that it was cited as a reason to keep the yachting event near Savannah, despite calls from the international sailing community to move the regatta to Annapolis, Md., or Miami. The two cities have a higher profile on the international circuit.
However, the Bermuda high didn’t greatly influence winds in the summer of 1996. No one at the sailing venue could explain it. Possibly the pattern was disrupted as a result of Hurricane Bertha, which had passed off Georgia’s coast before making landfall as a Category 2 storm in North Carolina. That was just 10 days before the start of Olympic sailing. Regardless, the steady flow of southwesterly breezes did not develop as sailors — and their land-based tacticians — had anticipated.
Instead, thunderstorms interspersed with lulls in the wind became familiar. Neither is conducive to sailing small boats around the fairly shallow waters southeast of Tybee Island, where waves can build quickly when the breeze freshens.
The final report from the National Weather Services of its forecasting activities during the event paints a vivid picture of conditions. The weather report for the first day of racing cites the challenge facing both sailors and meteorologists, who were stationed in boats on the racecourses.
“The boat crew [meteorologists] experienced heavy rain which reduced visibility to well below [unreadable symbol] mi, wind gusts to near 30 kt, 3-ft confused seas, and several nearby cloud-to-water lightning strikes,” the report observes. “Once the storms finally moved east, winds weakened to near calm; and it became necessary for the weather boat to tow 3 yachts several miles back to the Day Marina.”
Note to readers: David Pendered covered Olympic yachting from 1994 through the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, at venues in Miami and Savannah. He covered sailing in the X Paralympic Games, on Lake Lanier, when sailing was a demonstration sport and medals were awarded to the top three finishers — Great Britain, Canada and the United States.