Slingsby steers Aussies to SailGP win on wild day at Cowes

On a wild, windy Sunday on the Solent, veteran Australian skipper Tom Slingsby steered clear of mayhem and dominated SailGP’s European debut at Cowes, England.

Slingsby and his experienced crew full of America’s Cup veterans, Olympic medalists and world champions kept their foiling, 50-foot catamaran in control better than everyone else and won all three races to regain the overall lead in the fledgling global league.

“The conditions were where it sort of favored experience,” Slingsby said in a phone interview. “I think if it was five knots lighter and the waves were smaller, we’d have had a harder time. But with more wind and survival kind of conditions pushed together, experience paid off.”

Rome Kirby’s Team USA capsized just seconds into the first race but regrouped and finished fourth and fifth in Races 2 and 3 to jump into third place in the global league.

The British team wasn’t as lucky in home waters. Its catamaran had a devastating nose dive late in the first race that damaged the boat and sent CEO and wing trimmer Chris Draper somersaulting part way out of the cockpit. He was bruised but his safety tether helped keep him on the boat, which dropped out of the competition and had to be towed to the dock.

Slingsby, an Olympic gold medalist who won the America’s Cup with Oracle Team USA in 2013, bested his Aussie rival Nathan Outteridge, the skipper of Team Japan, and took a 169 to 165 lead with just the Marseille regatta and its $1 million, winner-take-all match race finale to go.

The Australians hit a SailGP-record 50 knots (57.54 mph/92.6 kph) as they crossed the finish line of Race 1.

Team Japan, which came into Cowes with a one-point lead over the Aussies, had finishes of second, third and third on Sunday. Saturday’s two races were canceled due to gale force winds, so the condensed schedule included three fleet races with no match-race final between the top two scoring teams.

Slingsby had beaten Outteridge in the match race finals at the first two SailGP regattas, in Sydney and San Francisco, before Outteridge, an Olympic gold and silver medalist and America’s Cup veteran, dominated the New York regatta, including a win against the Aussies in the match race final.

“In all honesty, I didn’t feel like we sailed immaculately,” Slingsby said. “I felt like we were getting through the conditions and surviving. We were having issues and dealing with them. We dealt with it better than the other teams and came out victorious.”

He said flight controller and tactician Jason Waterhouse “deserves to be MVP” for handling the foils in the rough conditions, which included big seas as well as strong wind.

“We’ve sailed a lot as a unit and it paid off,” Slingsby said.

The final regatta, Sept. 20-22 in Marseille, France, will feature eight fleet races before the top two teams advance to the $1 million, winner-take-all match race finale.

“Look, this doesn’t mean anything,” Slingsby said. “We’ve still got to win the final race of the series, but it’s good for our confidence.”

The U.S. team is a distant third with 123 points after its remarkable comeback. Great Britain is fourth with 120 points, followed by China with 117 and France 115.

The American boat nose-dived just after the start of the first race and then hung precariously with the starboard hull hanging out of the water, before slowly rolling over, with its wingsail hitting the water.

Kirby, an America’s Cup teammate of Slingsby’s in 2013, said he wasn’t quite sure yet what caused the trouble.

“That’s racing,” he said in a phone interview. “We were pushing the boat on the upper limits and stuff happens. A huge shout-out for our shore team and the technical team for getting us back in time for Race 2.

“This is a series where you’ve got to keep racing, keep battling, and we got out there.”

Kirby said the wingsail was severely damaged and the boat lost its instruments.

“We made the most of it,” he said. “Obviously it’s not the prettiest way to do it, but we’re in third, competing for a podium spot. We have a shot at getting close to the guys at the front.”

Dylan Fletcher’s British team won Thursday’s two practice races and was looking for a good regatta in home waters.

“We were having a fairly safe but good race and when we went bow down we just broke the boat and unfortunately the tech team weren’t able to fix it so that was game over for the day,” he said.