As the world’s Olympic racers were arriving in Xingdao, China to take part in the 2008 Olympic Games sailing warmups this past weekend, 160 youth sailors gathered in the Santa Monica Bay for a regatta not unlike what those elite athletes will be participating in.

One-hundred-ten boats were in attendance for the 2008 Junior Olympics, a record turnout for the annual event, with some of the hottest sailing talent under 21 battling hard in the shifty and often unpredictable conditions of the Marina del Rey seascape. The program was created by US Sailing to promote sailing to America’s youths.

“For junior sailors with world-class ambitions, J.O. [Junior Olympics] events provide an opportunity to compete in large regional fleets with Olympic-style racing,” says US Sailing. “Sailors who excel at J.O. events typically progress to the national arena.”

This was certainly the case for Andrew Campbell out of San Diego who won in the Junior Olympics laser class in 2000 and now is representing the United States in this year’s Olympics in China.

“It went very smoothly,” said race chair Rick Turner of the local event. “We were using a trapezoid course, which is the Olympic course. That allowed me to put four classes out there simultaneously with very little chance of them running into each other.”

Turner was pleased not only with the conditions that began light on Friday, building to ten to 15 knots by Sunday, but also that there were about 40 more competitors in attendance than the last time they held the event. In addition, Olympic gold medalist Hal Haenel was on hand and surprised everyone by awarding hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) units to the winners.

“The kids were amazed,” said Turner. “Usually at these events you get gold, silver or bronze medals, but we gave them each a gear bag and then Hal came with that — plus our sponsor Gil donated a bunch of door prizes.”

On the water, the winners came from the far north and the far south. Reece Bennet from South Western Yacht Club won first in the CFJ (Club Flying Junior) Class, then on the other side of the geographical spectrum was Oliver Toole from Santa Barbara Yacht Club who won first in the Laser Radials, the largest fleet in the event. And San Diego Yacht Club’s Shone Bowman won first in the 420 Class. With a name like Bowman, the kid is destined for nautical greatness.

On the local front, Ben Spector from the California Yacht Club won second in the Laser Radials, building on some recent high-level sailing. Spector scored 23 points in nine races, destroying the next in line who had 44 points. Unfortunately for Ben, Oliver Toole is a heavier guy and was virtually unbeatable once the breeze picked up. Toole clocked in bullets across the board except for one second place. But Spector sailed an extremely respectable regatta.

“I had trouble in the start of it, in the really light air, but on the last race [of the first day] I kind of got myself together and from there, as the breeze picked up, it got easier and easier,” said Spector, who was boarding a plane on his way to the 420 Nationals.

Asked if he felt an advantage being in his backyard, Spector said, “I feel pretty comfortable here. Usually the sea breeze does come in and I can figure it out. It’s often a rightie and maybe one leftie in the afternoon. And I feel comfortable with the chop where everyone else has a hard time dealing with that.”

Del Rey Yacht Club also saw some standout juniors from its program do well. Adam Pokras came in fourth, two spots behind Spector in the Radial Class, and Julian Soto finished fifth in the Laser Division.

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