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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 18:25 GMT 19:25 UK
Sailing into a new era
49er crews
The 49ers of (l-r) Germany, Denmark, Italy and Japan
Sailing is seeking to attract a fresh audience at the Olympics with revolutionary new boats and dramatic onboard TV coverage.

The new 49er skiff boats made a colourful impact during their Games debut on Monday, skimming across Sydney Harbour under spinnakers emblazoned with national flags.

And although the country flags are going into storage after developing a flaw, many sailors hope the 49ers will widen interest in the sport.

"The only way to promote the sport is through exciting sailing," said Spain's Santiago Lopez-Vazquez, winning skipper in the opening 49er race.

It is going to change the image of sailing from watching grass grow to something which is actually exciting
  Australian sailor Julian Bethwaite

"The 49er is the boat of the future, it's fast, athletic, powerful and I see a lot of longevity in the class.

"If you see the (Olympic class) Finn bobbing up and down in two knots it is not appealing, but to see a 49er coming down under spinnaker, planing, capsizing, that's exciting."

Australian sailor Julian Bethwaite has waited for these Games since the late 1980s, when he and another sailor discussed the idea.

"We got together and held a very drunken lunch and got a napkin and drew the 49er," said Bethwaite, after watching his boats race.

"The whole point about the 49er is to try to generate support and enthusiasm in sailing.

"It is going to change the image of sailing from watching grass grow to something which is actually exciting.

"What you are seeing now is the break to the new crash and burn sort of sailing.

US team
Jonathan McKee and his brother Charlie, of the US 49er team

"You are seeing it in the America's Cup and now you are going to see it come through in mainline yachting."

Despite light, variable winds, the two-man winged skiffs flew across the harbour on Monday and jockeyed at every marker.

Organisers were later forced to postpone Tuesday's racing when a faulty paint job caused tears in the colourful sailcloths.

They had to order new, all-white spinnakers for each of the 17 competitors at a cost of $1,000 each. They will arrive in time for racing to resume on Wednesday.


But the concept of the 49er is not solely to entertain landlubbers with flashy spinnakers and high-risk sailing.

Bethwaite said it was also designed to attract a new breed of young sailors by ensuring it was a low-cost, one-design boat.

Each one costs around $10,000 and there is only one sail loft, in China, where you can buy a sailing wardrobe.

Japan team
The Japanese team in training

"Which means no one can get a better sail. There's no point having a wardrobe of 20 sails," Bethwaite said.

Before the latest arrival, the newest Olympic boat was the 30-year-old Laser.

And although some of the colour may have gone from the 49ers, competition manager Glenn Bourker remains buoyant.

"I'm a little disappointed that we don't have the country flags," said Bourke.

"It's a small detrimental affect. The boats are still the boats, nevertheless, and they're a wonderful, demanding and tricky boat to sail.

"So that won't change. The competition itself will be just as exciting as it always was."

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See also:

17 Sep 00 |  Rowing and Water Sports
Calm conditions hamper water sports
14 Sep 00 |  Rowing and Water Sports
Setting sail in Sydney
09 Aug 00 |  Rowing and Water Sports
Sailing takes over from yachting
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