Is it worth sailing fast and loose downwind, is it worth it - even if you risk capsizing every once in a while? For Norwegian sailor Eivind Melleby, it’s never a question that he’s considered for very long. Since his teenage years in the Europe dinghy Melleby has displayed a talent for fast offwind sailing that has served him well throughout his long career, from the Optimist, through to the Europe, the Laser and for the past 13 years, the Star.
Melleby recalls: “Back in the early 90s when I was racing the Europe, it was a very strong class in the Scandinavian countries, and I think probably more competitive than the Laser at the time. Then the Laser was selected as a new Olympic class, and we were able to carry a lot of techniques from the Europe into the Laser which helped a lot in the early days.” One of those techniques was sailing the boat more aggressively downwind, more on the edge of control. A looser leech on the mainsail was great for acceleration but also made the boat more prone to capsizing, although Melleby didn’t care. “I was able to make 200 metres on the boats around me, even if I did one capsize,” he smiles. Surely not as fast as the legendary Robert Scheidt though, the Brazilian maestro fabled for his downwind speed. “Faster. I’ve always been faster than Robert Scheidt downwind, in the Laser and the Star. Check the stats on London 2012 if you want”, says Eivind with a smile.
What’s surprising is that Melleby has even been able to carry over his aggressive style of ‘on the edge’ downwind sailing and adapt it to the heavier, less kinetic Star keelboat. “We have our own unique downwind style in the Star, which is a bit different to what we do in the Laser. It’s in the way we roll the boat and utilise the rolling to gain power instead of using the sheet to pump. I don’t believing in pumping the sheet, I don’t think it’s the best thing to do. Rolling will always be better. But you’ve got to roll without cheating.”
And there lies the problem, knowing how much rolling you can do without getting pinged by the on-the-water umpires. “We hadn’t been flagged for two years going into the Olympic Regatta at London 2012. We were leading the first race of the regatta by about 150 metres, going down the final run, and we were penalised for rolling.” By the time Melleby and Petter Mørland Pedersen had taken their penalty they dropped to second across the line. Not a disaster, but, “it would have been nice to win the first race of the Olympics”.
Melleby ended up fourth at London 2012, and was part of that extraordinary Medal Race where Freddy Lööf and Max Salminen (SWE) sailed past Iain Percy/ Andrew Simpson (GBR) and Robert Scheidt/ Bruno Prada (BRA) to claim a shock gold medal. “We sailed past Percy on that final run to the finish,” recalls Melleby, “so we were probably the difference between Percy or Freddy winning. It was so close even Freddy didn’t know that he’d won straight away. It took a while for everyone to work it out.”
Although he took around 10 years out of the sport between the end of his Laser campaign for Atlanta 1996 (he was pipped to selection by Peer Moberg) and the start of his Star career in 2006, Melleby can’t ever see himself giving up the sport again. “I think I will do it my whole life. It’s different now that I sail part time,” says the 46-year-old. “I’ve got a proper job, project management in software, loving wife and two kids, so the priorities are different. Although that can make it frustrating coming to regattas like the Star Sailors League Finals and feeling underprepared, wishing you could have done more time, worked more on the boat, and so on.” Even so, his results in the Star in recent times have been impressive, particularly at the World Championships: 6th in 2011, 3rd in 2014, 1st in 2017, 2nd in 2018.
At the Star Sailors League he had been struggling in previous years, so for 2018 came out a little earlier to the Bahamas and stepped his own rig into the SSL boat that he was lucky to be using. “It’s a little stiffer and our boatspeed was better,” says Melleby who, crewed by American sailor Josh Revkin, finished fourth overall. Having made it through to the four-boat, winner-takes-all final for the first time he was disappointed not to have climbed on to the podium. “We found ourselves on the back foot out of the start; we did a mistake before the start and had to tack to get out of it, got squeezed at the start line, which was pin-end favoured. The left-side of the race course was also favoured, but we were forced to race from the right-hand side of the others. We were trailing the whole time, and it wasn’t quite windy enough for us to use our downwind speed to pass anyone. But it’s still a great experience. I think the SSL uses a really good format, because you need to perform in every race, although you don’t need to win until the last one.”
This fourth place, the third very recently claimed at the 92nd Bacardi Cup in Miami, with the second spot at the Worlds, and his 2017 World title still counting 50% of the points, Eivind rises for the first time in his career on top of the Star Sailors League ranking, dispossessing Diego Negri from #1 skipper after many weeks.
While Melleby gets older, his love affair with sailing never diminishes. “The tactics are an interesting game of managing and prioritising risk, and I love that. Even when you’re not as fit and strong as when you were younger, there are always things you can improve in this game. There always new things to learn in this sport.”
by Andy Rice - Sailing Intelligence