Olympics Watch - The sailing centre

In the third feature of its Olympics Watch series, E&T looks at the state of the sailing centre - the 2012 Olympics' biggest success story so far.

The biggest 'good news' story of the London 2012 Olympic Games so far is that the venue for the Olympic sailing events is the first to be completed on time, to budget and is fully operational. Portland Harbour and Weymouth Bay are the venues, their waters having been rated by the Royal Yachting Association as the finest in Northern Europe. More than 400 sailors from 61 countries will compete for medals between 28 July and 11 August 2012, and an as yet unknown number of competitors will take part in the Paralympics from 31 August to 5 September.

The location is dominated by the long, arching shingle crescent of Chesil Beach of the Jurassic Coast, which stretches from West Bay in the north-west to Portland in the south. The beach is only 200m at its widest and rises to about 11m above sea level. On the seaward side it shelves steeply away for 300m until it levels off to a depth of about 18m. At the tip of the Beach, Portland Bill juts out, where, the Admiralty Pilot says, "tidal stream runs very strong and eddies of great extent form in the bays on each side of the peninsula". The streams run "continuously south and there is violent turbulence off the Bill, where they meet the east and west-going coastal ones". Heading inland to the north from there, a road snakes out, skirting Portland Harbour and then curves away, following the shape of Weymouth Bay.

It is the centre of sailing events housing the berths, offices, accommodation and all the paraphernalia to conduct the Games. But it is not a natural harbour. It was created in the middle of the 19th century through fear of war with France. Not only was Portsmouth heavily fortified in a programme of works later dubbed 'Palmerston's Folly' (after the Prime Minister of the day), but the Admiralty wanted another port on the south coast between Portsmouth and Plymouth. Portland was chosen.

In 1848, inmates of the nearby Portland Prison were dragooned into building a row of breakwaters that were thrust out into Weymouth Bay to partition off part of Portland Roads and construct a harbour. By 1872, one of the largest man-made harbours in the world, covering 8.6sq km, mostly 12m deep, was completed. Further breakwaters were added in 1906 as a protection against torpedo attacks. In 1914, HMS Hood was sunk there as a barrier to possible attacks by German submarines. But by 1996, the Navy concluded that it no longer needed a presence in Portland and sold the base for commercial use.

Sea conditions at Portland Harbour

Portland Harbour has a lot of things in its favour. It is sheltered from the predominant south-westerly winds by Chesil Beach; added breakwaters give protection from the south-easterlies. These features also stand as barriers against strong winds, large waves and currents. Together with the strong limestone of the Isle of Portland, they affect tides in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour, where the maximum tidal range is small, less than 3m. The Admiralty Channel Pilot says: "Tidal streams in Portland Harbour are irregular, the spring tide rate is approximately one knot and extends for only a short distance into and out of the harbour. But there are eddies off the heads of the breakwaters. Inside the harbour, tidal streams are imperceptible."

The Royal Yacht Association (RYA) controls sailing in Britain. David Campbell-James, the RYA's competition manager, says that "the biggest advantage of the site is that it presents lots of options for various courses in many classes. Inside Portland Harbour there is no tide and because the south westerly prevailing wind comes over Chesil Beach, the water inside the harbour is offered some protection and tends to be quite flat. Then you also have the option to take racing outside Portland Harbour and into Weymouth Bay, but there is tide across it. For 2012, it is the intention to have four courses in Weymouth Bay - one in Newton's Cove, two along the northern shore of the bay and one - the most tidal - towards the southern side of the bay. Courses, most likely for the RS: X windsurfers and 49ers, will also be used inside the harbour walls. Because of this flexibility in the courses, there are options to move races around in the event of bad and difficult weather."

Another yachtsman who knows the area well is Chris Knight of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (WPNSA). He says that what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is looking for in a venue is a level playing-field; the host country should not have an advantage. The strong feature of Weymouth and Portland is that it has 'clean winds'. The prevailing south-westerly and westerly winds blowing across Chesil Beach give a limited 'fetch'. A fetch is the length of water over which a wind blows. The fetch length, together with the wind speed, determines the size of waves. The longer the fetch length and the faster the wind speed, the larger and stronger the waves will be. But Weymouth Bay is a relatively sheltered basin with clean winds and small waves. This means that sailing conditions for the venue are almost neutral, so that local knowledge is of no great importance.

For the sailors, the courses are a short distance from shore to the race areas, which means you can get very good racing relatively close to the Academy (WPNSA), while in somewhere like the Solent it is difficult to get lots of courses reasonably close to a single venue.

The WPNSA

The important job of hosting the sailing events of the Olympic Games was awarded to the WPSNA, which has already been the centre for training British Olympic teams. The WPNSA was already operational and only relatively small-scale modifications were needed to meet the demands of the IOC: installing concerning berths, slipways and a breakwater.

The first project was the reclamation of 18,000sq m of land to provide additional parking areas for dinghies and slipways. One area of the harbour was partitioned off with temporary sheet piles, installed by using a piling rig from a floating barge. This area was pumped out and infilled with rock by excavators, bulldozers and rollers.

Another area was filled in behind a newly-constructed rock armour revetment (sea wall), that is the rock slope placed along the foreshore in front of the sailing academy to form a buttress for the reclaimed land. The slipways areas are located here and were made by pouring ready-mixed concrete on top of the reclaimed land infill. In the initial stage, sheet piles were driven in as a barrier, and pumps kept the water out while the concrete was being poured. The IOC wanted extra protection for the moorings and asked for a 200m rock breakwater. This was constructed by the use of a large excavator to place rocks, delivered by sea, and a grab tipping rock from barges. The excavator was then used to trim the breakwater.

Portland Stone breakwaters

It is almost a shame to use Portland stone to construct breakwaters. This wonderful local source is a limestone laid down in the late Tithonian stage of the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago. Officials love it: its polished, white-grey smooth surface proclaims authority in St Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and the UN Building, New York. It oozes civic pride in guildhalls, and confidence and trust in banks.

The new world-class facilities created here include cranes and boat hoists to lift the boats in and out of the water, 200m of slipway accessible in all wind and tide conditions, two deep water slipways, 30 mooring pontoons for up to 70 boats, 125 protected marina berths for yachts, pontoons with disabled access, boat storage and parking areas. An adjacent commercial marina will provide an additional 250 berths for the duration of the games and a cruise liner berthed at Portland Port will be used as accommodation.

Details of the sailing field of play

The sailing field of play consists of five waterways: four courses in the bay and one inside Portland Harbour, although there is still some doubt about this course. There are two legs for each race, with buoys positioned so that boats have to sail both windward or upwind and leeward or downwind. But the wind does not blow from one direction all the time; it changes constantly. Weather conditions are decisive. Every shift in wind strength or direction means that the buoys have to be repositioned. Olympic officials at sea monitor the weather and lay the buoys accordingly. The first buoy of the course will be upwind from the start line; this is the tacking leg. The downwind legs are where you will see the boats break out their spinnakers. Before a race begins, crews sail out to get an idea of the conditions and work out tactics for the start. There is a five minute countdown to the race start. Boats then jostle to get the most favourable position when the starting gun is fired.

In all, there will be ten sailing events in the Olympic Games. All test ship handling and sailing skills, but they are also tests of strength and agility; in events with two person crews, cooperation also comes into the reckoning.

Spectators

People usually watch sailing events from convenient vantage points.

Anne Garland, heroine of Thomas Hardy's 'The Trumpet Major', observed HMS Victory tacking across Weymouth Bay on its way to Trafalgar from a high point: "The courses of the Victory were absorbed into the main, then her topsails went, and then her top-gallants. She was now no more than a dead fly's wing on a sheet of spider's web; and even this fragment diminished……The admiral's flag sank behind the watery line, and in a minute the very truck of the last topmast stole away. The Victory was gone."

But the Olympic Games are different. You will still be able to see sailing ships in 2012, lots of them, but they will be smaller. For enthusiasts and spectators, there are plans to set up free 'Live Sites' and possibly ticketed areas with big-screen televisions giving information and commentary, as well as dedicated spectator boats.

Sailing is the 2012 Olympics main success story so far; it is the only Olympic venue that has been completed. The Olympic sailing course at Weymouth is ready. It was an obvious choice, too. Weymouth Bay is where our Olympic sailors have traditionally got together to practice in the past. The sailors who practiced here won four gold, one silver and one bronze medals during the previous Olympics in Beijing.

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