Welcome to Lucerne on the last day of May, a less tourist-heavy, calmer place with a fresher breeze than we are used to at the regular July regatta. Apart from expecting to see Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians and Chinese round every corner — this is the European champs so they aren’t allowed to play — it’s business as usual on the Rotsee, which delivered its trademark quick conditions and some flying finishes for the first day of this year’s regatta.
Let’s start with the surprises, mostly sprung in the repechages where Irish world lightweight doubles champion Gary O’Donovan (currently in the single) and new French lightweight double Pierre Houin and Thibault Colard found themselves bumped to Saturday C-final with a distinct lack of ceremony. Both had struggled early on, but will be disappointed to finish their campaign so early.
The racing was surprisingly tight, but with some big names cruising gently ahead of more challenging racing to come. The flat water was ruffled occasionally by a gentle tailwind, but it was difficult to tell whether Dutchman Stef Broenink really was the quickest M1x as he came in a second faster than the revived Oliver Zeidler (GER) and considerably faster than Robert Ven (FIN), Kjetil Borch (NOR) and Ondrej Synek (CZE), the other heat winners. The women’s equivalents were utterly predictable: Magdalena Lobnig (AUT), Sanita Puspure (IRL) and Jeannine Gmelin (SUI), in that speed order. Meanwhile Mirka Topinkova Knapkova, as well as posing a challenge to the commentators (who mostly wimped out and just called her Knapkova), got a timely revenge on Lisa Scheenaard, sending her to the repechage — which of course the Dutchwoman won.
The men’s quads was a flurry of egg-whisk rate, in which eight of the nine crews qualifying looked capable of medals and there was little to choose between the Brits, Dutch and Italians who took the heat wins. The single-qualifying women’s quads were more variable: the Netherlands and Ukraine harried Germany hard in the first heat while Poland were comfortably through alone in the second. A reined-in women’s eights race for lanes was won by Britain, while in the revamped men’s eights the Dutch had the most control of the situation, narrowly but confidently beating Britain as Germany held off Romania in a much slower time.
While we’re talking of time, there are some European Championship bests to look for — those with a longer memory will recall that the Europeans was not well supported until relatively recently, and so some of the events have weak records ripe for smashing. As the day wore on the brisker wind tended to help, and by the afternoon many finishes were within 15 seconds of the European best. The LM4x was the first to go: initially Italy slicing four seconds off the Glasgow 2018 best time, but beaten six minutes later by France, who went two seconds quicker than that. This prompted Romania’s W4- to have a go (eight seconds ripped out of the Glasgow time) followed in rapid succession by the Dutch (three more seconds) in the same event. A longer-standing mark was demolished by Belarus in the LW2x (previous record set by legends Milani and Sancassani in 2012), and the German W4x did themselves no disservice nicking half a second off the quads record set in 2014. The Dutch M4x matched this with a 0.12 shave from the Poznan 2015 mark, and their M8+ rose to the challenge with a 1.25 decrease in the eights record from the same year.
It’s hard to measure success at this stage, but looking at stats Germany and Italy have seven outright heat winners from their country to the Netherlands’ five and seven defending champion crews, including the Croatian Sinkovic brothers, could in theory still retain their crowns, although two of them had to come through the rep to qualify on the medal pathway. But a number of other 2018 winners, including the Romanian W2- and Dutch LW2x, have one or more changes since last year, with varying degrees of success, and Norway’s defending LM2x champions, Kristoffer Brun and Are Strandli, entered but then pulled out before the draw.
The thermostat goes up again on Saturday with increasingly hot conditions and increasingly intense racing, including what is likely to be barnstorming men’s eights and quads repechages, followed by the keenly-contested non-Olympic events: lightweight singles and lightweight men’s quads.