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SailGP: Baptism by fire on opening day of SailGP Bermuda

by Richard Gladwell/ 25 Apr 08:02 PDT 25 April 2021
New Zealand SailGP Team helmed by Peter Burling in Friday action during Bermuda SailGP © Bob Martin/SailGP

The surprise of the first day of racing in SailGP Bermuda was the performance of the three America's Cup skippers and their star studded teams - all finishing outside the top three on the overnight leaderboard.

In particular, few pundits would have expected the current America's Cup champions to be in a very safe eighth in the eight boat fleet.

In Race 2 of the three sailed on Day 1, the three America's Cup skippers made up the last three places across the line.

At the top of the fleet, Season 1 champion Tom Slingsby and his Australia SailGP team top scored in every race and lead from the surprise performer Billy Besson (France) but on the same 23pts as Japan SailGP's Nathan Outteridge. Three points further back on 20 points is the first AC36 skipper, Jimmy Spithill (US SailGP), and 10pts behind Slingsby.

Today Slingsby certainly got beyond the drubbing he received in January 2020, on Sydney Harbour from Ben Ainslie in the aborted first round of Season 2, when Ainslie only dropped one race in the five race fleet racing section, and then gave Slingsby a sailing lesson in the Final Match race.

All the F50's have had upgrades during the COVID created off season, that has lasted over 12 months.

This year they feature two rig options - the original 24sq metre wingsail, and a new smaller 18sp metre model which facilitates racing in breezes about 20kts or so. The F50's also have two foil options - light air foils for improved lift, and the high performance set - for when the F50's will have no difficulty in foiling and can trade-off reduced lift for reduced drag from the foils, giving a more controllable boat at high speeds.

The breeze for the first day of racing was averaging 14kts and gusting to 19kts from 320 degrees or NW.

The eight boat fleet were surprisingly set up with the light air foils and full size rig. Given the forecast maybe this is not surprising - as setting up an eight boat fleet is not a simple, or a quick, exercise.

In the 35th America's Cup the cross-over point for going from the light air foils to the All-Purpose (AP) foils was around 12kts.

In the conditions that prevailed on Day 1, the F50's were probably beyond the cross-over for the light air foils and big rigs and ideally would have been on the All-Purpose or High Performance foils. The F50's were hitting 45-46kts on occasions on day 1.

Being over powered in a F50 will result in some rearing up, or bronco-type outcomes if the crew makes a small error with the flight control systems - and we saw several instances on Day 1. That will usually result in the boat coming off the foils in some way - which as we saw in AC36 is very slow.

The NZSailGP crew had just their second day of sailing in their new F50 - having had a few hours of practice racing on the previous day. That is not adequate time to get any foiling boat of this size/type up to racing capability, and it showed with the Kiwi's performance.

In a social media comment, Flight Controller Blair Tuke commented that they had control issues all day, and clearly they just had to work with what they had. In the final stages of Race 3, the Kiwis were sailing 15kts slower than the rest of the fleet, and with 8th place safely in their kitbag, they were either not pushing their F50, or had a serious control issue.

There were several flashes of good performance with the NZSailGP team. They were second around the first mark in Race 3 - behind Slingsby - and well in contact with the lead group.

There seemed to be a clear advantage in the right hand corner of the course - as there was in the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda, with crews getting more wind pressure - and therefore speed, in that sector of the course. Several times the Kiwis went left and paid the price - which is a little surprising as the right corner always seemed to contain more pressure and a better angle in the 35th America's Cup Match.

Heading into the left, while the lead boats went right was usually a good formula to dropping places, and no-one seemed to gain by heading into that sector for too long. Slingsby's strategy was not to "boundary-tack", but rather to tack when the breeze dictated, and they pulled off several dry tacks - which were not that common on Day 1.

Jimmy Spithill was the best performed of the newcomers to the F50 fleet. But he too had retained many of the US crew from Season 1, and with a worked over boat and crew familiar with their systems. Plus he had coach Philippe Presti's knowledge of Slingsby's set up and playbook from his involvement with the Australian team in 2020.

With all the 2017 America's Cup skippers, it should be noted that the F50 is a one design, and not a customised AC50, as they sailed in 2017. Key sailing functions may not be where they were located on the AC50, and for all their impressive credentials some upskilling and familiarisation is required. Skippers who sailed the F50 in the 2020 season, aren't constrained by that lack of F50 experience.

Burling was often handily placed in the first half of the racing - being second around Mark 1 in the final race, and hanging in there until Leg 3 when they were fourth place, midway ip the beat.

In the post-match interviews Slingsby referred to the carnage that was a feature of the mid-fleet racing. The Australian crew, with the exception of the first race was able to stay out of the ruck, and could focus on the racing ahead of them, rather than the carnage behind. The Australian's starting was always good and being ahead at Mark 1, after hitting 46kts or more on the first leg, was always a racing boost.

The New Zealanders always seemed to be punished heavily for even am imperceptible tactical or positioning error. The others did not suffer to the same extent. Denmark twice sailed out of the boundaries on one leg of the final race, while she cleared her penalties, they did not lose any places on the water.

Stronger winds are forecast for the second day of racing in SailGP Bermuda.

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