13 July 2021
This coming weekend, Plymouth’s protected sound will take centre stage for what appears to be an eventful act. For Leigh McMillan, the British wing trimmer for France’s SailGP team, the return will almost feel like sailing on home waters.
“I’ve only actually sailed in Plymouth once before, and that was 20 years ago! The race zone is very close to shore, so to my mind, we can expect a very shifty wind both in terms of direction and strength,” he says.
“Such conditions are conducive to action-packed racing, opening up opportunities out on the water and chances to overtake. It’s going to be great for the racing and the show!”
Both the weather and strategy are key focuses for French time, following seventh placing in the previous stage at Taranto.
“In Italy, we were still concentrating on the boat handling and making good speed,” McMillan adds.
“However, in such light wind conditions, we may not have paid enough attention to the racing itself. As such, we missed a number of opportunities out on the water.”
Billy Besson, helm on the French F50, drives the point home: “We really need to pull our finger out! This is especially true in the drawing up of strategies, according to the different wind scenarios after the start. We need plan A, B and C.”
“The whole crew is called on. Everyone on board has to be on the same wave length when apprehending the field of play, be on the alert according to how things develop and have an eye on what’s happening outside the boat.
“On a technical level, we’re beginning to feel liberated and have the sense that we can do what we want with the boat. However, hunting down pressure in the light airs is fundamental. These boats are wind machines! If you have two knots more breeze, you really go a lot faster.”
The seven-day forecast is predicting light winds for Saturday and Sunday, potentially providing similar conditions to those encountered in Italy. Or, it may entail a configuration with three crew aboard the F50s.
But despite this being an important point, the great thing about the SailGP ranking after two acts is that no hierarchy has formed as yet.
With only five points between last and first place, it’s anyone’s game.
“The standard is incredibly high,” agrees McMillan. “The circuit has generated a great deal of interest over the past two years. All the top sailors have been keen to be a part of it. There aren’t many of the big names in sailing missing from the score sheet!
“The upshot of that is a massive challenge and a stunning level of competition. Every mistake you make out on the water is systematically penalised.”
“What’s very interesting is the fact that not one of the three boats that made the final in Bermuda managed to repeat the performance in Taranto. There’s a massive crossover, and you really have to battle hard to make the top three,” Besson affirms. “It’s virtually a fresh start after two events.”
Second on the leader board, one point shy of the Spanish leaders, the British will likely be spurred on by the desire for a revenge match in their nautical arena, in front of a home crowd, even in the absence of their iconic skipper Ben Ainslie due to personal reasons, replaced by Paul Goodison.
Astern of them, there is still just one point separating the Japanese in third place, the New Zealanders in fourth and the French in fifth position.
Billy Besson, François Morvan, Leigh McMillan, Matthieu Vandame, Olivier Herledant, Timothé Lapauw, Amélie Riou and Hélène Noesmoen have been hitting the road to England this week, devoting Thursday and Friday to training races.
“We’re going to have to push the envelope and revise down our safety margin, especially during the start phases,” says Besson.
“We’re so eager to get out sailing on these boats – we’ll be going all out on this one!”
The third stage of SailGP is scheduled for 17 to 18 July from 2:00 pm BST (11:00 pm AEST). Find out more.