The second part of Rob Kothe’s scene-setter article ahead of this weekend’s first ever British SailGP event scheduled to take place in Cowes, England.
With many Australian sailors very experienced sailing the America’s Cup AC50 foiling catamarans, it’s not been surprising that they were fast out of the blocks on the SailGP scene.
Tom Slingsby’s Team Australia scored first in Sydney, with Nathan Outteridge’s Team Japan, also stacked with Aussies a close second. The two teams led again in San Francisco, but Japan was struggling with equipment issues, and Slingsby’s Team Australia once again walked away with the Match Racing final, making it two wins from the first two events in the 2019 season.
However, because Larry Ellison’s SailGP provides each boat with real-time access data from their opponents, while the learning curve was near vertical for the other four teams, they had plenty of clues.
Great Britain proved to be fast learners. They had an impressive outing in San Francisco, edging out Australia in the third race and then showed they were bridging the experience gap with their first bullet in the fourth race.
Ex-San Francisco, Great Britain was just a single point behind Team Japan, so ahead of the New York regatta and they looked likely to challenge the two series leaders.
But it was not to be, severe conditions on Day One in New York, with wind funnelling between the skyscrapers. Disastrously the British team capsized their boat before the first race start.
Great Britain’s flight controller Stu Bithell explains ‘It was gusty, we did a couple of practice laps, the boys were sailing well. That one big gust hit us, it was 34-37 knots, and we got a little bit out of control. In these boats, that enough. We were thrown into a pitchpole, the leeward hull dug, both hulls stopped, and the whole crew went flying forward a car crash.’
Day One was over for the British team – but they were not the only team in trouble.
Team USA, the hometown heroes, as wing trimmer Riley Gibbs suffered a late injury. Their shore team manager Jeff Causey was pressed into service. An experienced sailor for sure but this would be the first time Causey had even sailed on the F50 let alone trimmed the wing.
But then the racing started.
In the first race on Friday, sailed in sight of the Statue of Liberty, conditions were more than challenging, gusts into the ’30s with lulls of 0-5 knots in between. There were differences in wind angles of 30-40 between boats just 20 metres apart.
Tom Slingsby, helming his flighty F50 like a Laser Olympic Gold medallist could was jumping from puff to puff and took the first win.
He said ‘it was crazy out there. I’ve not sailed in conditions like that before. There was a lot of survival sailing just trying to get around the track.’
But in the second and third races, the Australian team trailed Team Japan across the finish line.
Japan’s skipper Nathan Outteridge’ tacking was tricky because it was so puffy, so you could never be sure about how quickly you might accelerate and on top of that the current was trying to push you over. Our strategy was to come in on port and then tack. Downwind you can be speeding along at 40 knots but directly ahead was a massive hole, so you had to be to jink to stay in pressure. ”
Team China’s Phil Robertson, a world match racing champion pushed his boat and crew hard, and in the wild conditions it paid off with two thirds and a fifth.
Tightened course on day 2, in slightly calmer conditions but the wind was still blowing through the Jersey shore skyscrapers.
In the first race of the day, Team China lead for the first two laps but then fell in a hole. Japan won by 25 seconds from Australia, followed by GBR and USA.
In the second race, France won the start, behind them Team Japan with a penalty had to start a length behind Australia but Outteridge was first to the top mark. In the final fleet race, USA saw boats ahead hit a lull, and headed for the Jersey shore back into second, then ran along the Manhattan rim. At the top mark for the third time, USA led by 30 seconds and took their historic first win ahead of Japan, AUS and GBR.
Team USA’s Rome Kirby – ‘Losing our wing trimmer ahead of day one was devastating. All we could do was get around the course without breaking anything. Today our wing trimmer coach Tommy Johnson flew in from Denmark, arriving in New York four hours before racing and we were back showing how we are progressing in this fleet. It’s great to get our first win at a very tough event, in front of our home crowd, and we will push hard from here.’
Team China Phil Robertson’ We had two thirds on day one, and we had an excellent start in the first race today, led to two laps, sailing almost perfectly then we sailed into a hole and finished fifth.
‘The team has made significant improvements. I am happy with the direction the team is going, and we will be a threat in the future.
‘We will have time in the simulator soon, and then we have a good training block before we start racing in Cowes. We will be fighting for wins and podium finishes there.’
Team France skipper Billy Besson – ‘Some good moments and some disappointing ones for France. We have a second simulator session planned for the end of July, and we will have five days on the water in Cowes before the races. Cowes conditions will suit us. The racecourse will be bigger than New York, and the wind will be more linear.
‘Naturally, we are especially looking forward to Marseille, the Million Dollar Grand finale. The show will be amazing and having the support of French fans on-site will help for sure and give us extra motivation. There too we expect more even breezes. Either a 10 knots sea breeze or a 20 knots Mistral.’
Now to the New York match race final Japan vs Australia. In Sydney and SFO Slingsby beat Outteridge in the event deciding Match Races but would Outteridge break through at the third attempt?
The race – 14 knot, flat water. Slingsby into the box first, tried for hook coming in hard on Japan. Penalty on Australia, a full boat length, after contacting Japan.
Japan led at first mark, but both boats hit a lull, and Australia found breeze first and speed away but hit the wall at the top mark. Australia was the first to escape, led by 20 seconds. Another lull and coming from behind Japan got the puff first and was into next mark five seconds ahead.
Keeping their cool, Japanese came down with speed in a line of pressure and were 250 metres ahead at the weather mark for the final time and headed to the Manhattan finish for a deserved regatta win.
Outteridge- ‘Revenge! On Day 2 we were in the lead at the first mark in all races except one. Our strategy worked well, but I think a lot of it was our ability to accelerate faster than the other teams.
‘What worked best for us over the regatta was our boat handing, particularly our gybing and our top mark bear away. Having the ability to sail the boat, made the racing enjoyable, we missed a few shifts, we got a boundary penalty, and that penalty with Team Australia, a few mistakes, but overall a good weekend.
‘Looking to Cowes, we’ve still got an edge. The most significant challenges we are expecting will come from Australia, Britain, sailing in their home waters and the USA. We expect to see them competing for lead and race wins, and we will have to watch out for both China and France who have both shown flashes of brilliance.
‘The British sailors are very talented, they have some bad luck here in New York, which set them back but they will come again. They’ve had a lot of time in the simulator in London, and it shows.’
Slingsby- ‘We lost the match race final on the last run, hitting a hole, it’s frustrating, but we are all on the same racetrack, we need to do a better job than we did today. Japan has been catching us all the time, and now they have overtaken us.
‘Ahead of Cowes, we need to come up with a good plan that will put us back in front. I’ve raced in Hayling Island and Portsmouth and Weymouth before but never Cowes so very much looking forward to the atmosphere and the racing.’
Brits break 50-knot barrier during training
Slingsby is not wrong about the talent and potential of the British crew. If raw speed is any benchmark the British will be a handful on their home waters after becoming the first SailGP team to break the until-now illusive 50-knot top speed barrier during training ahead of Cowes SailGP event.
The historic moment occurred during the British team’s fourth day training on the Solent – the current ridden and sandbank strewn stretch of water separating the Isle of Wight from the English south coast – when the British crew were officially recorded at a speed of 50.22 knots.
‘Cowes has a long history of hosting iconic sailing events and we knew this stretch of water, with the right conditions, could set us up well for breaking this record. It’s unbelievable how far sailing has progressed in the last few years and SailGP and these F50s really represent the next generation of our sport. We now can’t wait to hit it again in racing and really showcase these fantastic boats.”
Once again, going into the latest SailGP event the two leaders will have less training days than Great Britain, USA, China and France, so potentially we could see the fleet compress even closer.
Interesting times lie ahead!
SailGP 2019 Leaderboard
1. Japan Nathan Outteridge 140
2. Australia Tom Slingsby 139
3. Great Britain Dylan Fletcher 106
4. USA Rome Kirby 105
5. China Phil Robertson 93
6. France Billy Besson 93
Note: The Australia SailGP Team have been penalized one point from the overall season leader board due to a rule infringement in the match race at New York SailGP, where there was contact between them and the Japan SailGP Team.