Ready to sail against best in the world

  • Mon Nov 14th, 2011 10:34pm
  • Sports

By Rich Myhre Herald Writer

On one hand, Michael Johnson of Edmonds has been trying to convince himself that it’s just another race.

On the other hand, a World Championship sailing regatta can really never be just another race.

Johnson, his wife, Joy Okazaki, and three other Seattle-area crew members are in Argentina this week for the 2011 J/24 World Championship on the Rio de la Plata outside Buenos Aires. The event begins today and continues through Saturday, with two races expected on most days.

The 57-year-old Johnson, the team skipper, is hoping for an upper-tier finish against an elite international field, including many crews with America’s Cup and Olympic experience. His team is one of nine from the United States, including two others from Seattle, with crews from Australia, Brazil, Chile, Great Britain, Italy, Peru, Uruguay and host Argentina comprising the rest of the 60-boat field.

“Every now and then,” Johnson said, “I wake up in the middle of the night and go, ‘Oh, boy, I’ve got a lot of pressure on me. For the United States and for the locals (in the Puget Sound-area fleet he represents).’ But you know what? We’re going to go have fun because that’s what it’s all about. We’re going to give it a try and do the best we can.”

The other team members include Peggy Prichard of Kirkland, and Bob Pistay and his son Brian Pistay, both of Seattle.

This is Johnson’s second World Championship and his first as a skipper. It is, he admitted, “kind of a lifetime dream. I’m excited to represent the United States, and to be one of the few to be able to qualify to be able to do that.”

“It’s very cool to be sailing against the best of the best,” agreed the 47-year-old Okazaki. “Our class (J/24) tends to draw people who are very competitive racers. It’s a one-design class, it’s very well known, and a lot of people use this as a stepping stone to get to the America’s Cup and the Olympics.”

The annual World Championship, she went on, “includes the best of each one of those countries, and they all had to qualify to get there. It’s not often that you get to sail with all the top people, so this is a privilege for us. It’s very special.”

Johnson and Okazaki met on a boat years ago — he knew a lot about sailing, and at the time she knew virtually nothing — and they have spent the past two decades sailing competitively together. They qualified for this year’s World Championship by winning the 2010 J/24 Western Regionals on Puget Sound in May of last year, sailing their boat Hot Pursuit.

“I’ve got a very good team,” said Johnson, who was born in Everett and has been sailing since he was a boy. “Most of them have been with me for at least five to seven years, and we’ve done regattas all over. So I’m not worried about the boat or my team. Now it’s just a matter of learning the venue.”

The Rio de la Plata is part of the border between Argentina and Uruguay on the southeastern coast of South America. It is an estuary between the capitals of Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay), and the confluence of the outgoing river and the incoming ocean tides should present some tricky water conditions.

“There’s really no other venue in the U.S. that has similar weather and water, except maybe Galveston, Texas,” Okazaki said. “So if it’s a light air and a lot of chop, or what Mike calls ‘lumpy seas,’ it’s very hard to keep the momentum of the boat going. That takes a little different skill and strategy than it does when you’re sitting on the lake with no tides, just wind.”

In sailing, as in football, there is usually a homefield advantage. Sailors from Argentina, Uruguay and other nearby South American countries sail frequently on the Rio de la Plata, and that familiarity should be helpful. Johnson, though, has considerable experience in previous national and international regattas. Also, Puget Sound is one of the best training locales for a variety of sailing conditions in the world.

Johnson, Okazaki and the other team members have been planning for this trip for more than a year. It will be an expensive venture, both in terms of time away from work and actual costs, with the latter expected to be around $40,000 (sponsors will help with some expenses), which includes the price to charter the boat they will race.

But the three weeks in South America and the fanfare of the event — there will be opening ceremonies with flags of all the countries, much like the Olympics — will surely be memorable. And then, of course, five days of world-class sailing.

Winning “is possible,” Johnson said, “though it would probably be somewhat of a fluke to get first place” given the number of top international competitors in the field. “But my team is really good, so if we can put together some tactics, if I can get some good starts, and if our boat has a little bit of speed … yeah, there’s a chance we’ll be up there.”

On race day, he added, “I’ll get nervous going up to the start. But as soon as the start goes off, it’s just total focus on the boat and total focus on what’s going on.”

And at that point, he said, “it’s just another race.”