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New boats but familiar faces as GB sailors prepare for Palma season opener
The road to Rio begins in earnest this week for British sailors, with new boats, new crews and new racing formats being put to the test at the start of the 2016 funding cycle.
The Princess Sofia Trophy - the first European leg of the ISAF Sailing World Cup circuit - kicks off in Palma, Majorca, on Monday 1 April, with Beijing gold medallist Pippa Wilson a familiar face who is returning to the British Sailing Team ranks in a bid for Rio glory.
The regatta, which runs until Saturday 6 April, sees 61 British team sailors among the 850-strong international entry.
The Yngling was removed from the Olympic programme after Wilson's triumph with the Sarahs Ayton and Webb in Beijing, and although she tried out alternative classes, including a 470 partnership with eventual 2012 silver medallist Saskia Clark, Wilson stopped sailing competitively in 2009 to gain 'fresh air away from the sailing circuit'.
"I felt that I just didn't have the motivation emotionally or physically to give the campaign what it deserved," the 27-year-old recalled. "I was fearful of compromising Saskia's chances of winning the gold in 2012 and I wanted to commit fully to her, but in my heart I couldn't.
"I needed some time to develop away from sailing. I knew the decision I was making meant missing London 2012 - time just goes too quickly - and I knew that it would be an incredible Olympic Games, but I felt I had no choice. I needed space, new motivation and some fresh air away from the sailing circuit."
Wilson admits it didn't take long for her to miss the sport, and while she found the 2012 Games inspiring, she had already resolved before last year's Olympics that she would be returning to take up the challenge of multihull sailing in the new Nacra 17.
"It is fantastic to be faced with such a difficult challenge, mentally, physically and with a new teammate. That is what the Olympics and life is all about - so John and I have accepted the challenge and every day is focussed on trying to become the best in the world in this new discipline.
"It is a very large mountain to climb, and the road will be full of highs and lows, but at the moment it feels like home to be out on the water following a new dream and trying to make the best of every day."
Wilson and Gimson will be one of four British crews competing in the Nacra for the first time at the Palma regatta, with Olympic match racing helm Lucy Macgregor also making the switch to sail with Tom Phipps, the 470 European silver medallist Ben Saxton taking up the challenge with Hannah Diamond, and Rupert White and Nikki Boniface - former ISAF Youth World Champions - completing the British line-up.
British crews will also be making their competitive debut in the 49er FX - the newly-introduced women's skiff for Rio - with four teams taking to the startline. The British Sailing Team is experimenting with a squad rotation system during the early part of the season, with helm and crew combinations changing between regattas.
Kate Macgregor, former Elliot 6m match racing crew and sailing with Mary Rook for the Palma event, thinks the change in approach will benefit the new squad.
"I think getting as much experience from each other as possible is important. We've all come from completely different backgrounds, so learning from each other - even the helms learning from each other as well - will be really valuable to the squad."
The younger Macgregor sister is looking forward to getting some racing experience under her belt in the fast and challenging new boat, regardless of the outcome at this first event.
"I've never actually raced in a skiff, ever, so that's going to be the biggest learning curve for me. I think I need to not focus too much on the results, but just look at how I race a skiff, and how different the tactics are. Also the boat-handling - at this stage we just need to get completely on top of our boat-handling and not focus too much on the results."
Macgregor and Rook will be joined on the startline by fellow British sailors Charlotte Dobson-Sophie Ainsworth, Penny Clark-Nicola Groves and Frances Peters-Pippa Taylor.
Bryony Shaw, who recently picked a silver the RS:X World Windsurfing Championships, will be in action on Palma Bay this week, as will the 2011 Finn World Champion Giles Scott.
Alison Young will be among the names to watch in the single-handed Laser and Radial events, while Megan Pascoe will be aiming for back to back World Cup victories in the 2.4mR Paralympic class following her success in Miami in January.
470 European Champion Sophie Weguelin will be racing for the first time in the 470 women's event with new crew Eilidh McIntyre.
ISAF and the regatta organisers are continuing to trial experimental racing and scoring formats for the Olympic classes at the World Cup series events, including stadium racing for the 49er and FX classes, and two medal races for all other classes.
"It's an exciting time," said RYA Olympic Manager Stephen Park. "We have new classes, new boats in action for the first time, new partnerships both in our country and other countries, new racing formats and new scoring systems being trialled - all of which add to the interest and entertainment.
"As to whether any of the above will be a success, time will tell, but it's great to get the new cycle and the new season underway and see how the winter's training is paying off."
Click here for the full British Sailing Team line-up in Palma.
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– but the sailors praise the new boats