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The Globe and Mail

Veteran Canadian sailors can almost taste the Olympics

Piotr Myszka of Poland and Blanca Manchon of Spain arrive at Bathers Beach carrying the ISAF World Championships Flag to be raised to officially open the 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships on December 2, 2011 in Perth, Australia.

Mark Dadswell/2011 Getty Images

They are Star sailors, sea dogs with sailing in their blood, and together Richard Clarke and Tyler Bjorn aim to qualify for the Olympics in the next couple of weeks at the world sailing championships in Western Australia.

Three-quarters of the spots at the 2012 London Olympics will be decided in the testing waters off Perth and in Fremantle Harbour, with more than 1200 sailors from around 80 countries competing. It is the third time the world Championships have been held -- with previous editions in Spain in 2003 and Portugal in 2007 -- and will be the biggest sailing event in Perth since Australia's doomed 1987 defence of the America's Cup.

All of the 10 Olympic sailing classes are taking part in the regatta, with sailors eyeing 380 spots available for London. Canada has 30 entrants, the third largest contingent of the 78 countries registered.

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Friends from their younger days, Clarke and Bjorn are among Canada's best hopes for a medal, as they've sped up the ranks in a new Star-class boat design after joining forces only two years ago.

Clarke is known for his fleet boats in the Finn class, a one-man dinghy. He was ranked No. 1 in the world and went to the Olympics four times without catching the gold ring.

He comes from seafaring stock. His great grandparents hauled grain on tall ships between Britain and Australia, many times rounding the Horn of Africa with its turbulent waters. Both of his grandfathers died at sea: his father's father was killed on a PT Boat off the coast of Britain during the Second World War, and his mother's father died during a sailing race off the coast of England.

As for Bjorn, his father, Peter, sailed with Ian Bruce in the Star (a two-man rig) at the 1972 Olympics. And his brother, Kai, was a crew member for Ross MacDonald at the 2000 Sydney Games, where they finished fifth in the Star class.

Bjorn often competed against Clarke in the Finn class, outduelling him at the 1996 Canadian championships. He first got a taste of Star sailing when he worked as a crew member for Clarke during a week of training in 2003.

Bjorn became enamoured of a slick new Star boat, the PStar, in 2009, and persuaded Clarke to sail with him in the 22-foot sloop. They clicked, finishing second in the 2009 Bacardi Cup in Miami, in a field that included Olympic medalists, world champions and three past winners.

Currently ranked No. 16 in the world, Clarke and Bjorn must finish among the top 11 nations at this event to qualify for the Olympics, and "unless a disaster befalls them," qualifying should be straightforward, according to Paddy Boyd, executive director of the Canadian Yachting Association. Because some nations have several strong boats, the Canadians could finish 15th or 16th and still qualify, if there were only 10 nations ahead of them.

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The famed local "Fremantle Doctor" wind usually springs up in the afternoons and is sure to test the skills of the competitors, especially those unaccustomed to its vagaries. It should provide some spectacularly fast racing, with the events featuring small dinghies, windsurfers and just one keeled boat.

Among the 10 yachting classes at the London Olympics, Boyd expects six Canadian teams to qualify at these world championships and figures there are three or perhaps four with top-10 potential at the Olympics – and in the yachting world, that also means medal potential. In Olympic sailing, the top 10 boats return for a final that is worth double the points of the previous 10 races.

Finn specialist Chris Cook, of Toronto, finished fifth at the 2008 Olympics and has made a return to competitive racing. Cook has been working as a coach at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto, and trained recently in Florida with U.S. and Danish sailors.

"We think he's in good shape," Boyd said. "He is an outstanding talent, and we're all looking forward to his comeback."

While match-racing begins on Dec. 3, women's windsurfing, Finn, laser and men's 470 begin on Monday. Clark and Bjorn get into action on Dec. 11.

Other Canadians to watch include Nikola Girke, RSX women; Zac Plavsic, RSX men; David Wright, Chris Dold and Lee Parkhill, Laser; Greg Douglas, Finn; Isabella Bertold and Lisa Ross, Radial; Gordon Cook and Hunter Lowden, 49er.

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With files from wire services

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