Sailors on crest of wave with gold strikes

IT’S safe to say that never in its 350-year history has The Cove House Inn seen anything like it before. Certainly, the locals – who have seen their quiet seaside pub, close to the Olympic sailing venue at Portland, turned into a Yachting Australia team headquarters – haven’t.

Over the past few months, regulars have become accustomed to the Australians’ high spirits. Their love affair with inflatable kangaroos. Their hungering for delicacies such as kangaroo burgers and Foster’s. Their beery bantering, which has prompted some Portland people to wear T-shirts with the subtle message, ”Aussies drink like faeries”.

But nothing prepared them for the wild celebrations that greeted the golden double by the Australian sailors on the waters that separate Portland from the traditional English seaside resort of Weymouth.

Sure, gold medals for Australia at these Olympics have come with the same frequency and reliability as London buses: none for a long time, then two at once.

First, young Tom Slingsby, from Gosford, a man whose talents for picking, anticipating and exploiting wind shifts has earned him the nickname ”the wind whisperer” won the men’s single-handed Laser dinghy event by a huge margin.

Then, just as the master of medal ceremonies was searching for a recording of that rarely heard national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, news came through that the youthful pairing of Nathan Outteridge and Iain ”Goobs” Jensen, playmates from Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie, had won the 49er skiff class.

Indeed, the pair – who almost missed the start of their race because they sailed over to give the victorious Slingsby a high-five – were so far ahead that today’s final race was not strictly necessary. ”Tom said, ‘Right guys, now it’s your turn [to win gold], so we did,” Outteridge said afterwards. No wonder The Cove House Inn crowd – so big it filled the pub and overflowed on to the famously pebbly Chesil Beach – went wild at the arrival of the pirate kings, the captains of the Team Australia fleet, who had proved that they, not Britannia, or Cypriots, or Kiwis, ruled the Dorset waves.

”Slingers” has many of the attributes of the archetypal Aussie sporting hero. He has been described as half ultra-competitive sea-monster, half laid-back Central Coast larrikin, and was given a guard of honour on his arrival. He repaid the compliment by spraying those closest to him with champagne.

Outteridge and Jensen, who have grown up together along the lake side, were more restrained – after all, they do have to go through the formality of today’s final. But, as promised on their triumphant return to the slipway, they would enjoy a beer with family, friends and supporters.

Slingsby has about a dozen family members and close friends in Dorset. They include his mother Mavis, father David and girlfriend Flavia Tartaglini, an Italian windsurfer, who watched his race among several thousand sailing enthusiasts sitting on the grassy promontory known as the Nothe. Outteridge, it is reported, has no fewer than 25 family and friends staying locally.

The three winners – indeed, all 13 members of the Australian sailing team – are close friends. They support each other, watch each other’s races and have been living together during the Olympics in the ”sailors’ village” at Portland, a three-hour train ride from London.

Hence the camaraderie, identified by Slingsby’s coach, Michael ”Blackers” Blackburn – a bronze medal winner in the Laser class at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – as a major factor in the sailors’ success, which he described as ”great for sailing, great for Australia”.

Slingsby, whose interests include cage-boxing, expressed the hope that his personal success would ”kick-start” an Australian gold rush. That may be wishful thinking this late in the Games, but aficionados of sailing – and who isn’t this week? – should not rule out Australia making more waves and winning more medals before competition ends on Saturday.

The precocious women’s racing team, comprising skipper Olivia Price, 19, and crew Nina Curtis, 24, and Lucinda Whitty, 22, all from Sydney, remain unbeaten in competition – though that will count for nothing in the coming, instant-death races. And Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page can still win a medal in the 470 class.

Meanwhile, three cheers for Australia’s gallant sailors.

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