It might come as a surprise to learn Sam Meech, one of the world's best Laser sailors, has never won a national Laser title in this country.
The 29-year-old collected bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics but doesn't often get the chance to line up at the nationals because of international commitments.
He was on track to do it at the Manly Sailing Club in 2019 but missed the final day (when leading) to attend Andy Maloney's wedding.
This year's Laser national championships starting at the Worser Bay Boating Club on January 22 is a rare chance for Meech to compete in a significant Laser regatta. He raced at last year's world championships in Melbourne in February, a key event in what he expected to be the buildup to the Tokyo Olympics, before the world was turned on its head due to Covid-19.
He still doesn't know what this year will look like, and has a plan A, B, C and D depending on different scenarios, but is approaching 2021 assuming the delayed Tokyo Olympics will go ahead in July.
That's why the nationals is a key regatta. Only six are so far entered in the open division of the standard fleet, including training partners George Gautrey and Luke Cashmore, but Meech expects they'll race with the apprentice masters (35-44), masters (45-54) and grand masters (55-64) to ensure at least 25 boats on the start line.
"It will be cool," Meech said. "I think we’ll be racing with all the masters so we should have a good fleet. If we can get everyone on the one start line it can be really, really good racing.
"Any racing helps. It would be good if we can to get a big-fleet regatta [in Europe before the Olympics] because it is very different racing 20 boats to even 30-40, but you are still going around a course and having to make decisions."
Meech has been working on his decision making over the past year, notably by sailing different classes like the Moth and, when he can get his hands on it, his sister's windfoiler. He also claimed the 2020 New Zealand Open National Keelboat Championships sailing the MRX and has been a regular alongside other NZL Sailing Team members racing in the Elliott 7s.
"The Moth is awesome for that because you need to make decisions a lot quicker," he said. "You can’t fudge it. In small fleets you can do another tack or cover but in big fleets you have to make decisions a lot earlier. Sailing faster boats helps."
Gautrey poses the biggest competition to Meech next week, with the 2019 world championships bronze medallist able to draw on local knowledge.
Gautrey is based in Auckland now but sails out of the Muritai Sailing Club, directly opposite Worser Bay in Wellington Harbour, and hopes Wellington turns on its charm.
Winds in excess of 25 knots featured the last time the Laser nationals were in Wellington and Gautrey is hopeful that “Welly will turn on the after-burners again”.
Both Meech and Gautrey travelled to Sydney late last year for a five-week training block with Australia's top Laser sailors including Matt Wearn, who has already earned a ticket to compete alongside Meech at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Kiwi pair immersed themselves in training and also finished second (Meech) and third (Gautrey) behind Wearn at the NSW state championships in a fleet in excess of 50 boats.
"We knew we were only over there for a certain amount of time and had to make the most of it with quarantine [once we returned home]," Meech said. "That’s what I really enjoy about sailing at other venues because you’re just there to sail. Life can sometimes get in the way at home.
"We got good numbers at the state champs so it was a proper length start line and a lot of good masters to line up against. We didn’t always have it our own way and if you had a bad start you could be pretty deep in the fleet. It was really good. Hopefully we get more of that at the nationals."
The ultimate goal for the year is the Tokyo Olympics and Meech is confident he will be ready, even if he's unable to compete in Europe at a major international regatta.
"I might be down on a little bit of racing compared to the Europeans but I have done a lot of racing in the past so hopefully missing a year’s racing won’t make that much difference," he said. "It only took me a few days after a big break in 2017 to feel like I was coming back. We just have to do what we can.
"I’m aiming to get at least one big fleet regatta to get that feel of racing under my belt but, if I can’t do that, I’ll look to try to simulate it at home. I’m really lucky to have some good training partners. George, especially, is going really, really well. I’m pretty lucky to have one of the best training partners in the world."
Entries are still being accepted for the national championships and all the details can be found here.
- Photo: Jon West