Zac Littlewood – 2023 Sailing Review

I started 2023 with a gnarly concussion. I was training on the bike, with the laser guys, in Adelaide when I came off my bike. Helmet completely broken and a sore body, I was given bed rest until I got better. Two months later, I started to feel back to usual self and was allowed to get back into the boat full time.  When hearing this, I decided that instead of staying home and slowly building the training for 4 weeks until Palma World Cup, that I would continue with my pre injury plan to go to Andora, Italy for the European Championships in a week’s time.

To my surprise, I felt good in the boat considering the last 3 months and was sitting in the Top 20 heading into the final day of racing. However, Laser sailing can be brutal in a way where all it takes is few mistakes to slip down the leader board pretty fast. The last day of racing, I struggled to concentrate and had a bit of mental fog. A few signs that I wasn’t quite right yet post-concussion.  I dropped down to 44th overall on the last day, something I wasn’t happy about, but had the understanding that I didn’t give myself the time and preparation to be at that standard of physical, and mental fitness. Post event, I had to be happy with the racing experience and grit I showed that week, and felt it was better than training at home and not getting this exposure.

A week of travel and a bit more of getting my head and body back on track, I arrived in Palma for the World Cup. Honestly, I felt more ready and the pre training in Palma was going well. First two days of qualifying were solid. I sailed well and knew I still had more to give in the next few days. Day 3, last day of qualifying, I had a bit of a shocker on the first race. Had a bad start and didn’t have that easy speed I normally had to work back through the fleet. I finished in the 30s. The second race, I knew there was no room for error, and I had to get a keeper on the board to get through to Gold Fleet without stress. The next race I had a good start and was looking good but just didn’t cross the boats above me and found myself tacking back to the left and rounded the top mark deep. Couldn’t find my way through the fleet again and crossed the finish line unsure. I missed gold fleet by a point, which meant I’d be in silver fleet for the remainder of the regatta. Devasted, and clearly way below the standard I put for myself. Again, how brutal racing this fleet is, and how a few mistakes you can go from being solid, to being in B group.

Post Palma, I focused on where I was and what I needed to target for the Hyeres World Cup. There wasn’t a sense of worry, but what can I control and what needs to change for the next event. Hyeres, keep in mind is only two weeks after Palma, so there isn’t much time to do much but be in a good headspace and get the body feeling good for another hard competition. I had a more solid qualifying series, just sitting around the Top 20. In the final series, just wasn’t good enough in the 5-12 knot range. I ended up finishing in 46th.

Quite a big gap where I am, and where I want to be, so after arriving home from Hyeres, I got straight back into the boat and getting back to the level of fitness I had preinjury. A month later, I went back to Europe and trained in Marseille with our squad. In July, we travelled to Belgium, for some exposure to sailing in current, to get ready for the Worlds in The Hague in August.

The Worlds in the Hague was the same setup as the Worlds for the Perth 2011. Limited entries, medal race format and Olympic quota spots up for grabs. Most countries started their selection event for the Games here, so it’s an event everyone is peaking for. The format spread across 8 days, to allow for reserve days so you could get the complete series in. I sailed a much different event here compared to the start of 2023. I felt like I was making better decisions, coming back through the fleet and wasn’t as mentally drained at the end of each day. It was a big positive that the training May-August, was paying off and the post-concussion was much of the past. I did, however, make some big sailing mistakes this week though. I lost around 90 boats/points at the top mark alone. I did catch up in most races, but the lack of current exposure in big fleets was the difference in deciding to duck that extra boat, or tack below at the top mark. There is live feed from the first day of finals, where 40 boats got stuck at the top mark as the current was so strong. I finished the Worlds in 34th, something that I didn’t think resembled how I was feeling in the boat that week, but after losing so much in congestion situations, I was content that things were on track and I had big areas to focus on before the next Worlds in Adelaide, in a few months’ time.

I had a week off water post Worlds, and found myself in a similar position to post Hyeres, wanting to be back in the boat in Perth. A month later, I was back travelling interstate as we had National Camps in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and then finishing in Adelaide in early December, getting ready for Nationals and Worlds later in January. It was a big lead in, and I felt quite prepared. At the nationals, you had nearly the same fleet as the Worlds. I finished in 19th at the nationals, and had some areas identified for the Worlds which I thought I could modify for the Worlds in two weeks. 

Forecast for the start of the Worlds was 8-16 knots, with a bit more wind on the back end of the week. With a solid 3 days of racing in 8-16 knots, I finished the qualifying series sitting in the Top 20, only a few points off Top 10. I was sailing well, felt fast, gained boats downwind and didn’t lose any points being stuck on top marks…. It was a totally different week, felt like my body and mind was in a good place and even though I was making some mistakes, I could come back to a good score. The first race of finals, we had 6 general recalls. On the 5th general recall, I was called over (BFD). That week, we had 11 races scheduled, with only one drop, so I knew now that there couldn’t be any more big scores. Since being BFD, I sat the race out and watched. Eager to not have two bad races, I started the next race and finished in the Top 18. Happy with the recovery of the day, I was still in hunt for Top 10. The next day, day 5 was the last day of finals racing. After Day 5, 1st to 10th had a medal race and the rest of the fleet 11th – 152nd had one fleet race. The wind on Day 5, was solid 22-24 knots. I was ready, felt like I had the speed and fitness to compete. I had a good start for the first race of the day but made some costly tacks to reposition and found myself mid-fleet. The second race of the day was better and finished in the Top 20. I knew after, that I didn’t have the day to get into the Medal race, I was sitting in 22nd overall. However, with the points so close, it was possible to move up into Top 13 with the one race left. We did 25min of the one race and I was on track for a good race. However, due to how big the wind shift was on the first beat, the race committee cancelled the race on the downwind. Since it was then past the last warning signal, they didn’t restart the race so the regatta was done. It was a strange ending to a World Championships, as I would’ve liked my chances at another race, but I was content with where I placed after a challenging 2023 season.

It’s a weird feeling working up until a peak event and then it finishes. As I write this a few weeks after Worlds, I’m already getting ready to go away again back to Palma for the World Cup next month in March, and hopefully the French World Cup as well. It’s going to be another busy period until July, and I couldn’t do this without the financial support of Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club and the Ron Tough Foundation. The support of WAIS, under Matt and Tristan is also huge in the support when I come home and gear up for these big events.

So, stay tuned and chat soon. Zac