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Kanagawa natives set out to master new yachting class

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The wind was more like a zephyr, so the yacht was not running as swift as it could have.

Still, it was comfortably plowing on the bay of Sagami.

“It was maybe about 30 kph,” Wakako Kajimoto said after the boat returned from practice to Enoshima Yacht Harbor on a sunny day in mid-October.

But the sailors — Kajimoto and Takaaki Kawata — are eager to make a bigger splash in two years, when the venue will host sailing competitions during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The two are not just aiming to compete, but are looking to win a medal and hopefully raise the sport’s profile in Japan.

They are competing in the Nacra 17 class, the newest Olympic sailing discipline that made its debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. It is the fastest class and the yachts may exceed 50 kph with ideal winds.

The Nacra 17 is a multihull watercraft featuring two parallel hulls of equal size. “Nacra” is the name of a Dutch catamaran (multihull) watercraft company and the “17” came from the length of the boat, which is 17 feet (5.1 meters). Kajimoto steers the boat while Kawata serves as the crew to adjust its balance.

At the Olympics, participants will compete for a week, including a pair of off days, in more than 10 races. Placements in each race are converted to points and sailors with lower combined points will be placed higher.

Sailing, which has always been included as an Olympic sport with the exception of 1904, is one of the few sports in the Summer Games that is overly affected by the natural environment. The Japanese pair believe they will have a home advantage over their rivals at the next Olympics. Both Kajimoto and Kawata have been familiar with Enoshima harbor, which was created for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, since they were children.

“We’ve been practicing here because obviously the Olympics will be here,” Kajimoto said. “Both of us have practiced and raced here since we were children and know this place so well, so we want to win here. We strongly believe we won’t easily fall short at the place we know so well.”

Kajimoto and Kawata, both 35 years old, began training in earnest about a year ago when they acquired their craft. But it has been over two decades since they began yachting at junior sailing clubs from neighboring towns in their native Yokohama.

Ambitious goal

In December 2016, Kawata asked Kajimoto for the first time to compete together in pursuit of a lofty goal: Olympic participation.

Kawata is an alum of the University of Tokyo’s School of Medicine and had served as a physician at the university hospital. He came out of an eight-year retirement from competitive yachting to once again chase his Olympic dream.

Kajimoto was seeking a race partner after she failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in the Nacra 17 class. The London 2012 participant, who was ranked No. 1 in the world but finished 14th in the 470 class, was attracted by the introduction of hydrofoils to the Nacra 17 class for 2020. The hydrofoils lift the hull up and out of the water, greatly decreasing drag and increasing speed.

“When I looked for a partner, I wanted to have one that could stay motivated,” Kajimoto said. “I thought that we would be able to share the same objective.”

Deciding to race in the Nacra 17 class was not a complicated decision for the duo to make. It’s the only mixed competition in Olympic sailing, and both were also fascinated by the addition of hydrofoils.

“In order to pair with a woman, it was the only class,” said Kawata, who is on leave from his full-time physician position. “Like (Kajimoto), I was on a boat with a foil, and I enjoyed it. It was a new class that has just been included (at the Olympics), which means nobody really knows how to ride it yet and that will give everybody a good chance to be competitive. We both thought that if we kept working on it, good things could happen.”

Both are motivated by the dream of an Olympic medal, but first they must secure a spot in the competition — a task that won’t be simple. Only 20 teams — one apiece for each country — will take part in the Tokyo 2020 event. At August’s Sailing World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, Kajimoto and Kawata finished 46th and are currently ranked No. 41 globally.

The pair finished 16th in a 25-yacht competition (first among Japanese participants) at a World Cup circuit event and 10th in a 17-boat race (third among Japanese) at the Olympic Week tournament, both international regattas held at Enoshima in September. Because of the combined results in the two tourneys, the pair did not qualify for the Japanese national team for 2019.

As the host country, Japan has already been assured spots in all sailing disciplines, but the Japan Sailing Federation has set a target of near the top 20 in world rankings.

It was a discouraging outcome for Kajimoto and Kawata, who missed out on financial support from the federation. While they don’t have abundant funds, the pair are backed by several sponsors as well as a crowdfunding campaign.

European training

With just three Japanese teams competing in the class, limiting the amount they can improve by practicing domestically, Kajimoto and Kawata have managed frequent trips to Europe to train with other teams at their base in Galicia, Spain. The two have already had three long training camps this year alone and will take off for a fourth in Galicia next week.

“The best way to get better is to have someone faster right next to you and compare your differences with them,” Kajimoto said. “We can more clearly see the differences in settings on the yachts and how we navigate.”

The pair have hired Spaniard Anton Paz, who earned gold with his partner Fernando Echavarri in the Tornado class at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as their coach.

“There has not been a class for catamarans with foils before, so I think there are only a few coaches that can teach it,” Kawata said. “Without him, we wouldn’t have performed half as well as we have.”

While they are not yet able to compete on par with the world’s best, the pair are not helpless, having mapped out firm developmental plans at the start of their project.

At first Kajimoto and Kawata concentrated on piloting a faster boat, which they feel they have been able to achieve as the 2018 season concluded. Now they intend to put more effort into strategy, which Kawata said the pair had “sacrificed” to focus on speed.

Because competitive yachting includes turns and frequent zigzags surrounded by many other craft, sailors need the ability to read the wind as well as the fastest routes.

Kajimoto and Kawata agree that they have improved and feel they can reach the next level if things progress according to their plans.

“A year has passed and I’ve started realizing what we should do with the boat and things like that,” Kajimoto said. “Moving forward, we know we will have to face tough battles, but honestly, I am looking forward to it. We will raise our skills and hopefully capture a medal at the Olympics.”

Kawata is confident the two can crack the world’s top 20 in the 2019 season, which will begin in March. Japan’s Nacra 17 representative pair will likely be selected based on results at May’s European Championships in Weymouth, England, as well as the world championships in Auckland, New Zealand, which will be held Nov. 29 to Dec. 8.