SailGP takes flight

The season-opening SailGP on Sydney Harbour attracted thousands of spectators, transfixed by the world’s fastest sail racing.

Photography by Eloi Stichelbaut for SailGP

02 March 2020

The event quickly became “The Ashes” on water, featuring blistering performances from Tom Slingsby’s Australia Team and Sir Ben Ainslie’s Great Britain Team presented by INEOS.

Ben Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history, had a debut to remember as he skippered the Great Britain team to victory in all three races on Day One. But local fans were not disappointed, as Tom Slingsby’s Australia Team came in second, not intimidated by their British rivals.

Ainslie, competing in SailGP for the first time in the Championship’s second season, had been identified by last year’s top-finishing helmsmen Slingsby (Australia) and Nathan Outerridge (Japan) as the man to watch, and their prophecies came to fruition with a dominant display securing Great Britain a maximum of 30 points on a dramatic afternoon.

Defending champion Australia managed to secure second place on the overall leaderboard alongside Japan, finishing with 23 points, ahead of USA (19), who impressed in perfect sailing conditions as the wind reached speeds of 26 kilometres per hour.


A collision between the Spaniards and Billy Besson’s French team saw the latter unable to continue beyond the opening race, with the Spanish team docked a total of 9 points for their actions to finish the day on 15, while Denmark (13) were docked 2 points for colliding with Japan in the same race.

Both young teams, Spain and Denmark showed plenty of exciting glimpses which promised a lot more ahead on Day Two.

Ainslie praised the conditions, as well as the work of his team on Day One. “You can’t really ask for better conditions than a 15 to 20 knot southerly on Sydney Harbour.

“There were a lot of difficult manoeuvres to be executed, but I think our team did a great job and the guys on the boat were fantastic. We are delighted with three wins and will try and build on that.”

By the end of Day One, the board stood at: 1st Great Britain SailGP Team 30pts; 2nd Australia SailGP Team 23pts; 3rd Japan SailGP Team 23pts; 4th United States SailGP Team 19pts; 5th Spain SailGP Team 15pts (9 pts deducted for damaging France boat in Race One); 6th Denmark SailGP Team 13pts (2 pts deducted for contact with Japan in Race One) and 7th France SailGP Team 5pts.

Day Two began with a tight start line in the first fleet race, where all seven supercharged F50s were back racing after France were forced to retire on Day One due to a collision with the new Spain SailGP Team.

The wind on the race-course today was a lot lighter than during the action on Day One which meant a different set up for the teams and new challenges to overcome.

The conditions for the second race of Day Two in Sydney weren’t so kind to Ben Ainslie and his team. Having led the charge across the start line, the Brits were seen suddenly dropping from first to last in a matter of seconds as they watched their six rival nations – Australia, Denmark, France, Japan, Spain and United States – fly past in the standings.

When questioned, Ainslie said: “We got stuck on Steel Point and just couldn’t get going again, basically becalmed, so that was a bit disappointing.”

Regardless of this set-back, the team proved their worth as they rapidly worked their way back up the fleet to finish the second race in fourth place, extending their points lead yet further going into the final match race of the event.

The eagerly anticipated race between Season 1 Champions Australia and the British SailGP Team was ultimately won on the start line as Australia’s sailing superstar, Tom Slingsby, was penalised for an early entry into the start box.

“Apparently we were a quarter of a second early,” he said. “I thought we were OK, but we weren’t. To get rid of that penalty in the pre-start, in no wind, meant we were a sitting duck really.”

Reflecting on some of the costly errors incurred by the team during racing, Slingsby said “As a team, our speed, our teamwork and our maneuvers are all fine, it’s just that when the pressure came on at times we made mistakes. The Great Britain team sailed unbelievably over the two days, but if we sail as well as we know we can then (the other teams) won’t be an issue. We just need to stop making the errors we did here.”

Ainslie had a clear game plan in the match race. “We were asked which end of the line we wanted and normally you would say we’ll take the port entry and get in there first and get control.

“But we had a look at the start box and realised the wind was so patchy and shifty, actually that entry would be tough to keep the boat moving as we’d have to throw in a couple of manoeuvres and we didn’t want to get caught out like we had before.”

In their calm manner on board, the British team – consisting of Ben Ainslie, Luke Parkinson, Iain Jensen, Matt Gotrel, Richard Mason and Neil Hunter – crossed the finish line for the final time to be crowned champions of Sydney SailGP and establish themselves as contenders in the Championship.

Ainslie, the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, was making his SailGP debut and was quick to divert credit for the victory to his teammates, which included Australian Iain Jensen (a 2012 Olympic Games Gold Medalist).

“I have enjoyed this fortnight in Sydney immensely and it’s certainly been one of the best sailing events I have ever taken part in. Having the team that I have around me, I thought that we could be in good shape; we have a lot of experienced guys, we came together as a good team and it’s great to finish as winners.

“We still have a lot of small things we can improve on, we will go away ourselves and look at that, but we’ll keep racing hard. It’s been a magical first event.”

After the first event of Season 2, Great Britain sits atop the leaderboard with 47 points, followed by Australia with 42, Japan with 39, Spain with 31, the United States at 31 and Denmark with 22, while France rounds out the standings with 14 points.

Japan featured in every match race last season and will look to fight its way into the top-two at the next event in San Francisco.

It was an impressive debut performance for the young Spain team and helmsman Phil Robertson, as they earned three second-places finishes over the course of the event and established themselves as podium contenders for Season 2.

The fellow newcomer in 2020 – the Denmark SailGP Team presented by ROCKWOOL – finished the event sixth but showed flashes of high-level ability throughout the two days of competition. After sustaining damage to its boat and having to retire from two races on the first day, Billy Besson’s French team finished seventh.

Rome Kirby and the United States team finished fifth and will look to gain ground on the leaderboard when the global championship returns to San Francisco Bay on May 2 & 3, followed by New York, Cowes (UK) and Copenhagen.

At the first US event of Season 2, all seven boats will be boosted by the addition of a first-of-its-kind modular wingsail that will likely allow the F50s to fly at record-breaking speeds.

With stronger winds and new modular wings, the event will likely see some teams breaking the 50-knot mark again after the British team claimed top speed in Sydney, just shy of this with 49.1 knots.


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