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More air time with Tom Slingsby

by John Curnow on 7 Nov 2010
Tom Slingsby after winning his third Laser World Championship Cathy Vercoe
A little while ago, we saw how Tom Slingsby had no sooner won his third Laser World Championship, than he took to the air to get back in Australia. Once here, he got his foiling Moth out and took to the air, yet again, in preparation for the Heaven Can Wait event on Lake Macquarie.

Thus, Moth Month had begun for he and fellow Olympian, Nathan Outteridge. However, there's no time for any dust to settle in the air for this sailor’s hectic program includes Farr 40 and Moth World Championships over the next few months. Nonetheless, he was good enough to answer a few questions on his wins in Europe, including that brilliant one with John Bertrand and Andrew Palfrey in the Etchells class.

Tom has also been nominated for the prestigious ISAF Sailor of the Year title, which will be held in Europe, so there’s yet more airtime for Tom, soon enough. ‘I will be seeing my good mates, Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page (the Men’s 470 crew), over in Athens for the ISAF awards and am really looking forward to it. It is an honour to be nominated and to be held along side of all of these great sailors.’

After the Etchells World Championship win in Ireland, we know what John Bertrand and Andrew Palfrey thought of Tom’s exceptional ability to read the wind and place the boat, but what has Tom got to say about sailing with them.

‘With John you basically learn how he is with sails and masts and all the technical things - how to set up a rig and sails. As soon as we were not going so quickly, John would say ‘okay, we are a little slow’, have a look up the rig and within seconds, he would be able to figure out the problem and we made the necessary adjustments and were straight on the pace again, right after that. John was amazing at identifying the problem. Also in regards to the team, he is so good at communicating and he keeps everybody very happy.

If I was calling tactics and I made a bad call – John would straight away give me positive reinforcement, say ‘don’t worry, it happens’. He put his full trust behind both of the other members of the team and when you have that from a legend like John, well it’s a pretty big confidence-building thing.’

John’s old nickname was Aero, derived from the fact that he is an aeronautical engineer. Generally, he’s now known as J.B, but right up to ’83, all the America’s Cup guys called him Aero.

He is pretty analytic and very considered, which no doubt stems from his character, but also chosen career.

Another form of airtime that Tom has seen John involved with, is the way he conducts himself with the media.

‘John is just amazing. He has 10 people lined up to talk with him and do interviews and he manages to get around to everyone. No one feels like they want to scoot off. He always keeps everyone very happy.’

Tom’s other crewmember in the Etchells was Andrew ‘Dog’ Palfrey. ‘Doggy is amazing with the kinetics on the boat. He is also a very good set of eyes for me, when I was a bit confused about the wind and stuff. He would have a good look and sort of say what he thought it was doing, and then we would both make a good decision from all that deliberation.

Also with preparation, Dog was just terrific - anything that could break on the boat was replaced. Because of the boat work Dog and John performed, we had a perfect set-up and it showed in our speed. It makes tactics easy when you have got a great team like that.’

Sydney will host the 2012 Etchells Worlds late in February, to which Tom said, ‘Yeah. We were actually talking about it on the way in from the last day. I had initially planned to get my own team together, but now I think I might sail with John again and it’s the same for Dog.’

The day after the Etchells win, Tom got some more airtime organised, as the 26 year-old had to back it up on the track at Hayling Island in the UK, for the Laser World Championships. Incidentally, that event was Tom’s 10th appearance and third win in the class.

Disappointed by the lack of success in his Laser at the Beijing Olympics, Tom was certainly motivated by his second in the Farr 40 Worlds and of course, the win in the Etchells, literally just hours earlier.

Tom has been the Laser for about 13 or 14 years now, which is a long time in the one class. ‘The body is starting to get a bit sore after sailing, but hopefully I have a few years left in me’, said Tom, who then added, ‘Yeah, better out on the water than soccer, for me.’

The Perth 2011 titles are the next Laser Worlds and we asked Tom what he might favour as conditions there. ‘Hopefully we will get some good wind and waves. From here on to the Olympics, it would be nice to have big Championships, which are similar to Weymouth, so you can see who the contenders are – see who you can work at trying to beat. I am sure we will get a good breeze there.’

Paul Goodison is the current Olympic Champion, so one wonders what he’s going to be like in strong conditions. ‘Paul did well on the final day at Hayling Island in the low 20s, actually’, said Tom. ‘He excels generally in a lighter breeze and earned his name from that, but if he changes his heavier weather stuff, he can be just as quick as anyone.’

Of his 22nd at the Olympics and the 17th at the last Worlds, Tom simply says, ‘Yes I was slow in Qingdao, but at last year’s Worlds there was no problem with speed. I got two black flags; I got one in the last race of Gold Fleet, which I won.

I would have been seventh overall, if I hadn’t have gotten that. I had one really bad day, we had three races in Gold Fleet and I think my best result was a 22, 29, 31 or so. That just ruined me last year, but it seems that I have ironed out most of the problems and it was a lot better this year.’

Taking the opportunity to look forwards a little, Glenn Bourke, three-time Laser World Champion, the CEO of Hamilton Island and the man who managed sailing at the 2000 Olympic Games, said of Tom, ‘On the 20th anniversary of my winning a third world Laser title, it is so great to see another Aussie doing exactly the same thing. Tom has proven himself to be an outstanding competitor and perhaps more importantly, a fine person.

For me, those Laser world titles lead to so many wonderful opportunities in sailing and in life. I can only presume they will do the same for Tom. Let's hope he continues this form and goes on to win Olympic Gold in 2012.’

Tom appreciated Glenn’s thoughts and was hopeful of some great opportunities in the future. For now, he is keen to see how things go with his sailing, from here and beyond, saying, ‘I would love to go down the professional sailing road and just love to get into the America’s Cup. At the moment, coaching isn’t really for me; I want to try to further my sailing career, but who knows down the track. After all this, I definitely want to go down the America’s Cup road.’

His one-time adversary and now coach, Michael ‘Blackers’ Blackburn, also received a special comment from Tom, ‘Yeah. I’m not looking to get really old like Blackers.’

In terms of the 2012 Olympics, Tom says that he just wants to hold it together. ‘These events have been a great way to start my campaign off, so now it is about taking the momentum and keep building from here.’

So then, is a fourth Laser Worlds a possibility? In terms of overall amassed titles, the Brazilian, Robert Scheidt is the only person with more. He has eight of them in fact, from a glamour period in the mid-nineties. Tom, somewhat circumspect about that, just says, ‘I think he is - yep. I don’t know if I will get there, however, it is too long and too painful a road to catch him.’

Australia’s Laser Olympic Representative and World Champion has been out on a lot of craft in the last 18 months, so we were also keen to find out whether this was of Tom’s own making, to keep fresh, or following on from encouragement from the Australian Sailing Team.

‘No it is usually just me. I like testing myself in other classes. I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of backup through Michael Blackburn, my coach with Yachting Australia, which has allowed me to do those things. I wasn’t actually expecting them to give me the okay for the Etchells World’s, seeing as that regatta finished a day before the Laser’s started! Looking back at it, I am really glad that they did and they seem very supportive of stuff, if I think I can do it. They trust me and they give me the necessary support to do so.’

Outside of Tom’s commitments in the Laser, it’s all about Etchells, Moths and Farr40s. ‘I have the Moth and Farr40 World’s in the first two months (Lake Macquarie and Sydney, respectively). I am not too sure what Etchells World events we will be doing, I’ll have to see about San Diego in June 2011, but yes, whatever else comes up and it can be slotted in, I will probably do it.’

Is a desire to learn and do the unconventional integral to Tom? ‘Yes definitely. Coming from a Laser, you don’t learn too much about technology, apparent winds and high-speed sailing stuff, so I have always been keen to do it. I did the A-Class World’s one and a half years ago for the very same reason. It is just a new challenge, something I don’t know too much about. I really just want to learn about that sort of sailing, expand my knowledge, as it were.’

So then, just how much foiling Moth sailing has Tom done? ‘So far, it is not that much. Prior to Moth Month, I have probably done about 30 days of Moth sailing, all during our last summer. I am planning to do quite a lot this month. The day I got home I rigged up the Moth and got it going. I am excited to sail it, as it is the only boat I can sail by myself out on the Brisbane Waters for three hours or so and just have a lot of fun. I am excited to try and learn and yes, get as good as I can before the World’s in January, 2011.’

Tom really likes the fact that you are out there just to have fun. ‘Yeah it is good. Even if I weren’t going for a World Championship or something, I would take it out for fun all by myself. I don’t need another boat there to have fun. It is an awesome class like that. It is a cross between flying and sailing - an amazing sensation. I have one or two Farr40 events during October, but other than that I will be in the Moth every day I think.’

It seems he may well have learned something from his time with JB and Dog, for he has put in a lot of effort to boat work and making sure things don’t break. ‘I saw one of the biggest sharks I’ve ever seen on Lake Macquarie at the start of the 2010 Etchells Nationals, with Doggy and John – it was unbelievable. Not too sure what species it was and I did not hang around to ask it, either! It was just massive.’

Others saw the same creature or some of its pals, up near the top mark.

It was a very quiet day and the water was very soft. On the day, Tom, John and Andrew were coming up the middle of the course and people were banging the right-hand shore. ‘Yeah I remember that’, said Tom. ‘And it was big and was not a bull shark. They have caught white pointers in there.’

‘It’s a bit different with the foiling Moth as you cannot hear them coming along. I have seen a shark ahead of me once at Gosford. It was just a little fin, but you sneak right up on them and they don’t see or feel you. It really is quite unnerving.’

Given Tom’s ultra-impressive tally of championships and race wins across many classes, it seems he can get past any issue like nerves and get on with the job at hand.

As he goes in to Moth, Farr 40 and Etchells championships, somehow you get the impression that it will certainly all benefit this most impressive of young sailors in his build up to the 2012 Olympic Games and some serious business he has left to do in that arena.

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