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SailGP: Kiwis give sailing masterclass on Day 1 of SailGP Christchurch

by Richard Gladwell/ 17 Mar 22:01 PDT
The SailGP fleet in action on Race Day 1 of the ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix in Christchurch, New Zealand © Bob Martin/SailGP

New Zealand's SailGP team, skippered by Peter Burling, gave a sailing masterclass, thrilling their fans, on Lyttleton harbour for the opening day of the SailGP Christchurch regatta.

The Kiwis were not rattled by an earthquake centred in Akaroa Harbour, about 15nm from Lyttleton, which hit about 90 minutes before the race start and was felt by spectators ashore.

Racing was delayed for around 15 minutes while organisers waited for a pod of rare dolphins to move through the race course. Lyttleton Harbour is a marine mammal sanctuary.

When racing did get underway, it started in a 15kt breeze blowing straight down the harbour from the entrance and with a slight chop - making for ideal foiling conditions.

The Kiwis were a model of consistency in the face of inconsistency by the rest of the nine-boat fleet, being the only ones not to finish worse than third in any of the three races sailed.

The Canadian entry skippered by another Kiwi sailor, Phil Robertson, was less consistent than Burling and friends but nevertheless had a first and third placing to go with a fifth place in the opening race. The Canadians lie second on the points table for the event - with 24pts, four astern of the Kiwi team.

Emirates Great Britain, led by Ben Ainslie, also had a somewhat inconsistent performance, with a third in the first and third races and a fifth place in Race 2.

The Season 3 overall leader, Tom Slingsby (AUS), looked set to control the leaderboard again after two races. However, they reported a failure on a rudder elevator. They dropped back from a handy third to finish 9th in the day's final race, dropping back from second in the overall standings to lie fifth overall and 10 pts behind the Kiwis.

With two races to sail before the cut is made for the three-boat final, the Australians proved that no one is invulnerable, and at least five teams are seriously in contention to make the final race cut.

The Kiwis did have a slight speed edge, which was attributable to being able to pick the shift and pressure rather than the superior setup in the one-design foiling catamarans.

Their masterstroke came in the final race, where they went to the back of the start box, looking to make a long timed run for the centre of the line.

However, a misjudgment was made, and they crossed the course boundary incurring a penalty from the umpires with 20 secs left on the start clock.

Forced to start behind the last boat, the Kiwis looked to have ended their dream run. However, they gybed inside the fleet at the first mark and fired down the right-hand side of the course, opposite the bank of 15,000 spectators.

They looked to have found another of what Luna Rossa's Francesco Bruni called a "kiwi puff" in the 2021 America's Cup - meaning they found a favourable shift and stronger pressure. With the benefit of this Kiwi Puff, Burling and friends shot from being last around the first mark to be third at the bottom - and ahead of the Australians, who looked to be having a good day, and on their way to a place in the final.

The Canadians led the race from start to finish. The Kiwis played the tactical game to perfection, covering the boats behind but still attacking the front, and finished just 3secs behind the Canadians, with Emirates Great Britain 7 secs behind in third.

Whether it resulted from the fairly intense America's Cup training that the Kiwis have been undertaking in the so-called Auckland summer, they were the only crew not to have a handling snafu. They did not beat themselves, as did most of the other crews at one stage of the racing or another with muffed foiling tacks or dropping off their foils in an avoiding action, from being unaware of the position of other right-of-way boats.

The French America's Cup/SailGP crew did not dominate as they did at the last event in Sydney. They won the first race - making a winning streak of four races from their three wins on the only day of racing in SailGP Australia. But a 6th and 5th placing in the next two races dropped them back to 4th in the overnight standings - 10pts behind the Kiwis and 2pts behind Great Britain in third overall.

Despite all the frustration, delay and uncertainty about the weather and if the fleet would be repaired after the wingsail damage caused by a maelstrom that hit the de-rigging boats at the end of Day 1 in Sydney, SailGP Christchurch could not have gone better. It is not often that a new venue gets it right on the first day, but SailGP Christchurch aced it.

The expectation is that there will be a repeat tomorrow, which will be even sweeter for the local fans if the New Zealand team can continue their run of form.

To once again quote Francesco Bruni from his 2021 AC media conferences, maybe the NZ team's competitors will find that "beating the Kiwis is like trying to drown a fish - underwater!"

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