West Point Grey: Sailors chart course for Rio Summer Olympics

Zach Mesman and Daniel Franz-Hernandez sail their 49er in Vancouver's English Bay for 'ideal' training conditions

With its squalls and still air, blustery winds and shifting tides, the erratic conditions of English Bay could be the competitive advantage two sailors need to reach the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

The sailing team of Zach Mesman and Daniel Franz-Hernandez train up to four days a week offshore from Spanish Banks in their 49er, a 16-foot double trapeze skiff that reaches exhilarating speeds and was crafted specifically for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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Designed for speed and maneuverability, the 49er is responsive and its sailors must be alert. English Bays volatility tests Mesman and Franz-Hernandez thoroughly.

"We get everything," said Mesman listing gale-force winds, zero wind, 25-knot currents and slack water. "It can be really dead and all of the sudden, the wind picks up and its time to adjust our settings on the boat. Its a great place to train. Its a really good place to train if youre trying to get to Rio, for example, because Rio is going to be relatively light and shifty."

"The easiest way is to say that you grip and pray," said Franz-Hernandez playing up the breakneck velocity of the 49er. "You grab on and you just hope that you stay on the boat. Even on slow days when there is not a lot of wind, that boat absolutely flies. Its unlike any other boat I have ever sailed because of how it respond to any movement or small adjustment. It can be the difference of being on the boat or in the water."

Mesman, 21, and Franz-Hernandez, 23, have set an ambitious course for the Olympics after a lifetime of sailing in B.C. and Ontario. They moor their boat at Jericho Sailing Club and both coach and teach at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.

They each have to maintain a weight of roughly 175 pounds and must be fit and strong to properly handle the lightweight but high-performance watercraft. "Were probably eating three to four thousand calories a day," said six-foot-one Franz-Hernandez, who is an inch taller than his teammate.

"The 49er is a very physically demanding boat," he added. "Were doing a nine-foot sprint every time we tack, every time we go from one side of the boat to the other. Either you get there or you go swimming."

Mesman and Franz-Hernandez are constantly refining their two-handed sailing techniques with the help of their coach Erik Stibbe, and top among the skills they must master is how they talk with each other. Over the phone in an interview with the Courier, the pair is chatty and comical.

"They key to that one is functional communication," said Franz-Hernandez. "I dont usually stop talking so it was a question of getting me to talk about the right things."

He will call out the changing conditions to Mesman and together they decide how to adjust. In some cases, a sudden gust will demand their immediate attention.

"A wind shift of three degrees makes a huge difference," said Franz-Hernandez. "Increase, decrease, there is a constant discussion of whats going to happen."

Added Mesman, "Its very much a prediction. Most of the time we get it pretty close. Daniel calls most of the shifts on the water,"

"Thank you," Franz-Hernandez interjected and Mesman continued, "And when that happens there are some pretty interesting results."

"You should hear our communication then," said Franz-Hernandez. "You know the term, swear like a sailor?"

Before they came together a year ago, the pair had been competitors. At regattas held on the same waves they now chart as a team, Mesman and Franz-Hernandez were briefly opponents on competing crews.

"It was short-lived," said Franz-Hernandez, who grew up in Ontario and whose fathers company Franz Environmental Inc. helped ship their 49er to Jericho. "But the most important thing is that I won."

Now that theyre competing for a shared goal, the friends and teammates cant remember the last time they went a day without seeing each other. Theyre on the water up to four days a week in their 49er, plus theyre tending to the skiff, coaching, teaching and hitting the gym almost every day.

Mesman was training to sail in another Olympic event, but when windsurfing was almost cut from the summer cycle, he changed disciplines.

He was in Victoria at a windsurfing regatta when he heard the Olympic future of the sport was not guaranteed. He called Franz-Hernandez from Cadboro Bay. "The first one I thought of to race with was Daniel. I phoned him, going, Do you want to race the 49er and go to the Olympics? His response was, Well, yeah."

The summer season begins for Mesman and Franz-Hernandez in June at the Waves Regatta at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. The Pacific Coast Championships follows in July at the Gorge in Portland, Ore., and in August they will compete at the U.S. Nationals in New York.



Watch Zach Mesman and Daniel Franz-Hernandez hit 20 knots on English Bay for the first time in their 49er.

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