Less than 48 hours remain until the start of this year's British Open Team Racing Championship for the Wilson Trophy (3-5 May). At 12 noon on Friday, all eyes will turn to West Kirby's Marine Lake to see if home team and current Team Racing World Champions, West Kirby Hawks, can defend their 2012 Wilson win against 200 other top sailors, amongst them, 2012 Olympic 470 silver medallists, Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell.
With 34 top teams from across the UK, Ireland and the USA, the calibre of the competition is in no doubt. Some 300 races are scheduled for the weekend; with 8am start times, the club's volunteer organisers are hoping to complete around 24 hours of racing.
Having made the final play-off for the last four years running, and having won the Trophy on two of those occasions, hopes are high amongst the West Kirby Hawks. Team captain, Andy Cornah, says: "We are feeling confident going into this year's Wilson, having performed well at all the big events - and done more training than previous years. We have a slight team update with me changing crew after sailing with Hamish Walker for nine years; I am now sailing with Charlotte Lawrence, an experienced team and match racer."
But could this crew change prove to be the chink in the Hawks' armour that the other teams will be hoping for? Interestingly, Hamish has made the switch from the Hawks to helm for Spinnaker, a highly experienced team that recently won the UK Team Racing Nationals title for the second consecutive year, which was also sailed on West Kirby waters. Hamish's fellow helms are Tom Hebbert, past World Team Racing Championship runner-up, and Sam Littlejohn of fleet racing fame; they will certainly be amongst the teams vying to make Sunday's quarter-final cut.
Now in its 64th year, the Wilson Trophy is credited with being not only the largest event of its kind in the world, but also the toughest. Andy continues: "There are lots of good teams this year, including Spinnaker, another West Kirby team, Wessex Exempt, Southampton Male Voice Choir, Royal Thames Yacht Club, plus strong US and Irish teams, and of course, the British Sailing Team, which will be really interesting to see how they get on."
Fronting the British Sailing Team are 2012 Olympic 470 silver medallists, Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell, who have teamed up with multiple national champion and past Endeavour Trophy winner, Christian Birrell. All three helms are relatively new to the team racing scene, but are looking forward to cutting their teeth at the world's premier team racing event.
Luke says: "I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to enjoy the sport outside the relentlessness of Olympic sailing. These moments don't often get to come around often, and you never know where you can learn lessons to take to Olympic racing."
Strong competition also comes from across the pond, with teams from Rhode Island and New York Yacht Club making the pilgrimage.
Mike Huang, who was a member of the New York Yacht Club team that won the 50th anniversary Wilson, is once again representing NYYC, and also believes the competition to be open this year.
He says: "Who will be the toughest opposition? Some years it's obvious and others, like this year, it's a complex question. Each team has a competitive cycle and when there have been US teams that have kept the same team while racing together each year, they become dominant as there are few who can manage the time to do so. Then team members begin to have stronger work commitments and as practice wanes, so do results and the team that was 'green' two or three years ago, has now risen to become quite crisp.
"This cycle can been seen globally and looking through that lens, this year's Wilson line up shows experience mixed with youth on many of the teams and I believe the game will be more wide open. We certainly have a lot 'under the hood,' and the hope is always that we knock enough dust off in the early rounds to charge in the qualifying rounds. If we get in there, you're likely to be quite entertained by our performance going forward!"
When it comes to youth teams, leading the charge for the Under 21 trophy will undoubtedly be Schull Youth team. The Irish youngsters have an excellent track record, winning the U21 category at this event last year, as well as the British Schools Dinghy Racing Association Team Race Finals, and having claimed a silver medal in the U21 category at the last World Championships.
Other young teams hoping to excel will be Magdalen College School, and a number of top university teams, including the current British University Champions, Bristol University.
The Wilson Trophy is sailed in a Swiss League format, ensuring that racing remains tight for all teams throughout the qualifying rounds on Friday, Saturday and early Sunday. Crowds of spectators are expected to pack West Kirby's lake wall in their thousands, taking advantage of free grandstand seating and live commentary, not to mention the chance to see two of Britain's Olympic heroes in action sailing just metres from the lake wall.
The final rounds are scheduled to take place on Sunday from 2pm, when the action reaches its climax, with the top eight of 34 teams entering a play off for the all-important final match.
All that remains now for the volunteer organisers at West Kirby Sailing Club is to make the final preparations before the teams and umpires arrive for the first round draw on Thursday evening, ahead of what should be an exciting and fun weekend for spectators and competitors alike.