WEYMOUTH, England (Reuters) - British Olympic Finn champion Ben Ainslie showed his competitive edge even in practice on Saturday, getting out in front of the rest of the fleet ahead of the real thing on Sunday.
Racing on the "Nothe" course, which is nearest to shore, competitors in the single-handed Finn class engaged in the sailing equivalent of shadow boxing, testing the conditions, their equipment, their tactics and their bodies in the most physically demanding of the dinghies competing in 2012.
"It was good to get out there. There were fantastic conditions and it was on the medal race course and also the one we start on tomorrow. It's pretty tricky. It will be a tricky race tomorrow," Ainslie said once back on dry land.
Ainslie, 35, is looking to win a record-breaking fourth consecutive gold medal at Weymouth, after winning the heavyweight men's Finn class in Beijing and Athens. The Briton also won the Laser class in Sydney after a silver in Atlanta.
The medal course was selected because it brings the racing close to the spectators who have bought tickets to watch the sailing events at Weymouth, on the south coast of England.
But the choice has been controversial, with local residents upset that they were forced to have to pay to watch from what is normally a public space and the sailors concerned that the proximity to the Nothe peninsula will result in flukey winds.
With a brisk, cool wind blowing from the west during the practice race, the Finn sailors jockeyed for position during the upwind leg immediately after the start, with Ainslie emerging near the front when the boats turned and sped downwind, "pumping" their sails to achieve the best possible boat speed.
He had established a small lead after the second round, crossing the finish line first. The smaller course meant that racing was tight, although some of the sailors peeled away before completing it all. There is a superstition among some sailors about finishing a practice race.
Zach Railey, the silver medallist in the Finn class in Beijing, said beating Ainslie would be tough but possible.
"It's going to take me sailing extremely well. But I'm confident in my abilities," the American said.
The "shifty" Nothe course was the most difficult of the five areas the Olympic sailing will be raced on, Railey added.
The Olympic sailing begins in earnest with the first Finn race in a series of 10 starting at 1100 GMT on Sunday. The two-man Star class and the three-woman Elliott classes will also begin their racing after completing similar practice races.
(Editing by Justin Palmer)