Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Sailors split on competing in dirty Guanabara Bay at Rio Olympics

Greek skipper Panagiotis Mantis and teammate Pavlos Kagialis compete in the 470 class on a breezy Biscayne Bay on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016.
Greek skipper Panagiotis Mantis and teammate Pavlos Kagialis compete in the 470 class on a breezy Biscayne Bay on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Sailing Energy

Sailors competing in the spectacular Sailing World Cup Miami have not had good luck with the weather, which has included everything from light winds to torrential downpours. But they have been complimentary of Biscayne Bay, our beautiful blue backyard and regatta mecca in the wintertime.

Again on Friday, the bay was busy with 500-plus sailboats. Stern-to-bow traffic on the race courses illuminated the seamanship of the sailors, including nimble dancing aboard the winged 49er and 49erFXs, synchronized teamwork on the Nacra 17 catamarans and muscular fitness on the sailboard RS:Xs. The athleticism is something to behold as they hike out over the waves, raise spinnakers and pump their sails.

The World Cup, which concludes Saturday with medal races, has been especially critical in an Olympic year, as 711 sailors from 64 countries try to qualify and prepare for the Rio de Janeiro Games and a sailing venue that has some similarities to Miami’s.

But one thing vastly different about Guanabara Bay is its notorious pollution. Sailors are still concerned that raw sewage and floating garbage will cause health risks and competitive pitfalls at the Olympics. They are not optimistic that organizers will clean up the problems in the next six months.

“It’s quite dirty and disgusting,” said Danish 49erFX sailor Marie Olsen, who has competed and trained in Rio recently. “We saw condoms and tampons. A half-dead fish jumped into our boat. It smells bad. You have to remove plastic bags that get wrapped around the centerboard or stuck on the rudders. It’s really annoying that you have to keep your mouth closed and spit out any water that might splash into your mouth.”

Olsen’s partner, Ida Marie Nielsen, was among many on her team who got sick during a test event in August.

“I lost 10 pounds from vomiting so much,” she said. “We’ve had to get five or six vaccination shots. As soon as we get on shore we hose ourselves off immediately. If our water bottles touch the water we throw them out.”

The Danes, who are 2014 world silver medalists, showed cellphone photos of debris. Nobody wants to capsize into the brown water. Neither they nor manager Henrik Voldsgaard can understand why the venue isn’t moved to Buzios, a coastal resort 100 miles from Rio, which is what the recently fired CEO of the world sailing federation suggested until he was told to “gag myself on the subject.”

“It’s much cleaner, with better wind, too,” Voldsgaard said. “But money talks.”

And organizers are banking on breathtaking shots of Guanabara Bay, overlooked by Christ the Redeemer monument and Sugarloaf Mountain.

Independent testing by The Associated Press showed disease-causing viruses and bacteria linked to alarming levels of human sewage in the bay. The International Olympic Committee has downplayed the reports even though Rio organizers admit that a promise made during the bid process to remove 80 percent of the pollution by 2016 hasn’t been kept. Despite hundreds of millions spent on cleanup efforts, there are still spikes in fecal coliform bacteria because many towns and favelas haven’t been hooked up to sewer systems and planned treatment plants haven’t been built.

Martine Grael, competing in Miami in 49erFX, daughter of five-time Olympic medalist Torben, is part of Brazil’s first family of sailing. The Graels grew up on the bay. Her uncle, Lars, said he has seen four corpses in the bay over the years. Her uncle Axel, vice mayor of Niteroi, is president of a Projeto Grael, an environmental nonprofit. Martine lamented that pollution has only gotten worse since she was a girl.

One sailor said he rammed into a submerged couch in the bay. Another said he cut his leg and came home with a flesh-eating disease. Others have seen dead horses, dogs and cats plus the occasional mattress or TV.

But Lars Grael said there’s no need for panic about infection, and five-time Olympic medalist Robert Scheidt said he is not worried.

“I think the Olympics is going to be very special for Brazil,” said Scheidt, who stayed on for one more Games and switched to the Laser class in order to compete in his home country. “I think people exaggerate the problems. I’ve never gotten sick in 25 years of sailing there. Deep down in the bay, of course, there’s garbage and the smell is not always good, but everything that floats will be cleaned up. For the sailors who say they won’t come — I wish all my opponents would do that. But I will go. It’s the Olympics.”

Ian Elliott, a Laser sailor for Canada, recalled a train derailment and oil spill at Lake Wabamun in Alberta and an e-coli scare in Lake Winnipeg.

“They said if you don’t have any open wounds you’d be fine, so we all slathered on antiseptic cream,” Elliott said. “Whether the water in Rio is a bit dirty or a lot dirty, sailors will still sail. They’re not going to miss the Olympics.”

Elliott said polluted venues are now part of the sport. Olsen and Nielsen said Istanbul and Buenos Aires weren’t pristine either. But they love Biscayne Bay.

Said Elliott: “Considering that it’s an urban venue, it’s one of the cleanest and clearest. You don’t mind getting wet here.”

Linda Robertson: 305-376-3496, @lrobertsonmiami

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