HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Normally, this isn’t the time of the year when Luke Strickland and Christian Voyer would be preparing for a major sailing championship.
But they’re heading into uncharted waters just the same with a mix of confidence, some anxiety and plenty of excitement.
The Nepean Sailing Club athletes don’t question their abilities to handle the main sail, the spinnaker or the trapeze of their i420 dinghy. It’s the other questions that concern them as they have travelled more than 16,000 kilometres from Ottawa for the most significant race of their young lives.
Strickland and Voyer won two different Canadian championships in less than three months to earn a berth on Canada’s 13-member team for the 50th Youth Sailing World Championships in Mussanah Sports City, Oman. Racing begins Monday in the eight-day championship and ends Dec. 18.
In their four years as a team, Strickland, who is at the helm, and Voyer, the crew, are familiar with sailing on their home Ottawa River course and the Lake Ontario waters in Kingston. But they’ve had only one international regatta, which was two years ago in the United States. As Voyer said: “We were still learning. We were about 130th in a fleet of 200 boats. We were absolutely destroyed.”
Strickland and Voyer have been raised on the C420 (Club 420) boat and their only race in an i420 (International 420) was at the Canadian world team qualifying race in Halifax in early October. The C420 is strictly a North American boat, has a heavier hull, is reinforced for durability, has a stiff untampered mast and is easier to sail. The i420 is about 30 pounds lighter and is more responsive to winds, giving it a different feel.
“We’ve sailed so long together we know what the other is saying without hearing it,” Voyer said. “It’s a muscle memory thing. Part of our success is we have been together so long.”
The forecast for next week’s world championships in the Arabian Sea is for light winds in the morning, but ideal conditions in the afternoon, ranging between two and 16 kilometres an hour during the day. Ideal winds for sailing range between five and 12 knots (nine to 22 kilometres an hour).
Strickland, a Grade 12 student at All Saints High School, and Voyer, an architectural technician student at Algonquin College, are hoping for good winds to fill their main, jib and spinnaker sails – given that what they have gone through in the past five months has taken their breath away.
“I am over the moon,” Strickland said in a phone interview earlier this week as he waited with Voyer for their departing flight at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. “It will be a great experience. We’ve only sailed in Canada and one time in the United States. We’ll be sailing against the best, but it will be super exciting.”
“I’m happy, too,” Voyer chimed in on the speaker phone. “It will be cool. We’ve only sailed outside Canada once in the U.S. in 2019 to see how good the other people would be.”
That American experience told them they needed to train more and not just when they had a scheduled time with their Nepean Sailing Club coach Bradley Sheppard. They increased their training in 2019 and were motivated even more when they placed second at the Sail Canada C420 youth championships, losing the top spot by only two points.
Disappointed the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled their 2020 season, Strickland and Voyer entered the 2021 Sail Canada C420 championship fully prepared in Kingston in late July.
Strickland and Voyer started slow with two third-place results, a fourth and a sixth, but were almost untouchable over the final six races. They posted four firsts, a second and a discarded 49th in the second half of the 10-race championship, including winning the final three races.
Their dominance at the end allowed them to win the national title with 16 net placement points, which was one less than runners-up Asher Mclelland and Annie Tims of the Port Credit Yacht Club.
“After we won, there were a few discussions in the background,” Strickland said. “Some people said we were quite good and we should try the qualifying event (for the world team). People had given us some confidence and we heard whispers. Our coach said it was an option.”
After looking at the costs to compete in the qualifying event in Halifax harbour and making it a feasible venture, Strickland and Voyer, who had significant help from their parents, drove to the Nova Scotia capital.
The national qualifier was only an eight-race competition in the i420 boat, which was a brand new class to Strickland and Voyer. They took an early lead, but the standings were extremely tight between three boats entering the final race.
After a chaotic start for the eighth and final race, Strickland and Voyer had a strong opening segment. But the charge to the finish was equally chaotic as it took about an hour for officials to determine the race winner and the top-three placings.
“To be honest, we thought we had lost it (Canadian team berth),” Strickland said. “It was a great relief (to win the title). It would have been a long 14-hour drive back to Ottawa.”
Strickland and Voyer placed second in the final race to Asher Mclelland and Harrison Bruce, which left both teams tied for first in the overall standings with a net 20 points, after discarding their worst race.
The first tiebreaker was the number of first-place results, but both teams had two. Strickland and Voyer won the world team qualifier because they had four first- and second-place results compared to three by Mclelland and Bruce. Henry Simms and Sullivan Nakatsu of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron took themselves out of the team running by placing seventh and finishing third overall at 21 points.
“Our goal (for worlds) is to go and every single day be better,” Strickland said. “We haven’t been long in this boat.”
“We’ve lowered our expectations a bit more than we’re used to,” Voyer added. “It’s hard to judge how we’ll do. We haven’t sailed on the world stage or know what the conditions will be like. We’re used to the Ottawa River and we’re going from fresh water to salt water and there’s a lot of difference. We want to do as well as possible.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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