* Winds make for thrill-packed first day
* Worse weather expected but regatta will go on
* Complaints from some rowers, smiles from others (Adds quotes, weather conditions)
By Angus MacSwan
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 6 (Reuters) - The 2016 Olympic rowing regatta got off to an unpredictable and incident-packed start on Saturday as winds whipped up the water on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, causing big problems for rowers and some anger.
Australian gold medal contender Kimberly Brennan just avoided a major setback when she scraped into the repechage round after nearly sinking. A Serbian boat capsized.
The weather will be worse on Sunday, officials said.
The tough conditions belied a sunny day in a spectacular setting, with the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado overlooking a lake ringed by mountains and forest.
The regatta kicked off with a samba band playing on the finishing line pontoon. But as morning drew on, the winds whipped up the waters, especially in the less-sheltered middle section, making for slow times.
It became a real test of rowers’ skill and plenty of crabs were caught.
Brennan, favourite for the gold medal in the women’s single sculls, almost became an early casualty. She left it until late in her heat to overhaul South Korea’s Kim Yeji for third spot and a qualifying place.
She tipped buckets of water from her boat afterwards. Hoping to become the first non-European Olympic champion in that class, Brennan only managed 14th place in the heats, which were topped by Mexico’s Kenia Lechuga Alanis.
She was not happy.
“I’ve been speaking to a lot of rowers in the boat park and there’s a lot of discontent,” she said. “I was pretty close to sinking out there, which would generally be an indication that the course isn’t rowable.”
The International Rowing Federation (FISA) defended its decision to carry on and said it was satisfied conditions were the same for all competitors across six lanes.
New Zealand’s Emma Twigg was also among the complainers, saying the races should have been postponed. But Lechuga Alanis was delighted that the weather had played to her strengths.
“I learned to row on a reservoir with waves. I felt super confident from the start knowing the wind was blowing like crazy. I hope the course stays wavy,” she said.
In the men’s pairs, in which all-conquering New Zealanders Eric Murray and Hamish Bond romped home, the Serbian boat crewed by Milos Vasic and Nenad Bedic capsized when they caught a crab.
The Canadian boat came to a stop in the men’s quad, robbing them of a final place. On the other hand, the Croatian brothers Martin and Valent Sinkovic mastered the conditions to shine in the men’s double skulls.
Egyptian sculler Negm summed it all up most colourfully.
“Halfway through the course this huge wave just went into my boat. It went all the way up to my face,” she said.
“I’ve never really raced in water like this. This was a new extreme, but it’s good experience. In the end I kind of feel like a Viking coming out of it.”
FISA executive director Matt Smith said Friday’s weather report had predicted a “really nice” day but it turned out to be wrong. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday will be worse, he said.
However, races would be staged on Sunday despite the calls for a postponement, he said.
“What would be the justification of postponing it if (some) rowers can handle it?,” he said. “You have to be ready for all weather ... that’s part of rowing.”
Editing by Ed Osmond and Tom Brown