Lord of the Wings

The 2005 Moth World Championships were a watershed. Rohan Veal turned up at Port Philip Bay in Melbourne with an early Bladerider and fire in his belly, scoring a perfect eight wins from eight races.

It was his time and in my view, one of the finest championship wins in any class, ever. This was the era of foilers versus low-riders and like King Canute fighting the tide it was the last breaths of a dying discipline. And at that time only the top four boats – Rohan Veal, Simon Payne, Adam May and Mark Robinson – were foiling. Les Thorpe in fifth was keeping the embers of low-riding alight. We would never see see low-riders in the chocolates again.

©Martina Orsini

But eight from eight by the charismatic Aussie was a feat that was un-arguable and has stood the test of time. Rohan became the ‘Lord of the Wings’ and changed sailing forever. What he did there is something of historic note. He set a new direction for sailing, a new standard and a whole new expectation about what dinghies can do. It was electric to watch and Rohan, one of the nicest guys ever to step foot in a boat, took it all in his stride. And I was absolutely sure right there and then that the feat would never be beaten and that his results could not be bettered.

Rohan Veal in 2005 – ©Sport the Library

Sixteen years later, I have to say, it’s been matched, if not bettered. The absolute annihilation by Tom Slingsby of the 2021 Moth Worlds fleet in Malcesine, winning with two races to spare is a result of extraordinary significance. It is the number one sailing performance of the year. It eclipses Team New Zealand in the Cup. It’s just above Giles Scott in the Finn. It’s better than anything that the Vendee served up. It even ekes Kate McCabe. Eleven bullets from 12 races and only a second to discard when Kyle Langford ruined the party in flight seven (bragging rights for years to come Kyle!), it’s the most incredible performance – and what’s more, it’s against a white-hot fleet that are all pulling on the same end of the rope.

I absolutely loved the summation from Prada’s enigmatic Cup skipper, Checco Bruni when he said: “He’s 2 knots faster in all directions; he hikes better than anyone else; he’s technically near-perfect; he is 36 and I am 48. That’s the problem.” And the Italian is spot on. Slingsby is winning things at a canter by bundling up marginal gains in literally every single department and then performing when it matters relentlessly day after day. Big time sailing this. Junior sailors looking up should take note. This is how you win.

©Martina Orsini

So too, the marginal gains on his boat that are otherworldly and the attention to detail is exemplary. The Bieker design from Mackay Boats is head, shoulders, chest and torso ahead of the rest of the fleet. The new foils accelerate out of the tacks faster than greased lightening and upstairs Tom is rocking the astonishing North Sails Bi9 DSX Decksweeper all purpose 3Di that he helped develop after the 2019 Worlds. In short, the package, the platform and the details are spot on but it is, to coin a phrase: not about the boat – every one of the top boys has the same kit. It’s the sailor – pure and simple.

And the thing about Tom is that he’s a flawed genius – and my goodness how the world loves one of those. I remember the 2008 Olympic Games where Tom rocked up as the defending World Laser Champion and had a shocker, upset the bookies odds and finished 22nd. Now, there’s no shame in that – it’s the Olympic Games after all. We’ve all had regattas where we could do better but Tom left Beijing and went into a period that he describes as ‘dark days’ and didn’t step on a boat for nine months. Dangerous times for a 23 year old and we’ve all heard of people that fall from grace never to be seen of again. The mental pain of elite sportsmen can sometimes be too acute. Failure is amplified whilst success becomes mundane and uninteresting.

©Martina Orsini

Thankfully Tom dragged himself back from the depths though and by 2010 was winning Laser World Series events and added an Etchells world title (with ’83 Cup winning legend John Bertrand and Cowes’s favourite resident Andrew ‘Dog’ Palfrey) to his palmares before a string of stellar results leading up to the Gold at London 2012.

As a springboard, that medal catapulted Tom to winning the small matter of the tightest ever America’s Cup in 2013, the Sydney-Hobart in 2016 and then all the cash at the first Sail GP world series in 2019. But even today he’s prone to being bubbly or bust – we see it occasionally in the Sail GP series where, for whatever reason, he just isn’t ‘on’ and it’s an endearing quality. He’s human. He makes errors but crucially he owns them in a refreshingly honest manner. Here is someone who knows what the edge of the abyss looks like.

However, on his day he’s mustard and this week Tom was in another stratosphere. I would put this Moth World Championship up higher than anything he’s won before. It’s a stellar performance from arguably the greatest sailor on the planet and you’d have to think that the Ineos Team, with an open cheque-book, will be snaffling Slingsby and Goodison to keep Ben Ainslie honest – even if that is just in training. Slingsby’s market value is now that of a professional footballer and I can see a dream team being created at the uber Ineos outfit.

©Martina Orsini

Congratulations Tom – you just put a marker down not only in the Moth fleet but in the world of sailing. Your sport loves you equally for the dark days or sunny uplands and there will never be a better winner of the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award than Australia’s finest. Nailed on or the award is a joke.

A performance from the Gods. History has been made at Lake Garda. The new Lord of the Wings has been crowned. Brilliant.

3 thoughts on “Lord of the Wings

  1. It’s kind of a shame, but I feel like I (and maybe a lot of other fans who came in in the 2010s) didn’t really appreciate Slingsby until I got to see him leading his team in SailGP. I feel like at OTUSA I always sort of thought of him as kind of just “Jimmy’s sidekick”. And Jimmy is obviously a very strong personality and a superstar and it can feel like other people on his team can get overshadowed by him sometimes— but Tom is clearly a very interesting person in his own right and I feel kind of sad it took me a few years to realize that.

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