Alongside sporting triumph, the spectacle of defeat or disaster makes the voyeur return. We like our thrills, spills and crashes as much as we enjoy execution of sporting excellence. We watch action sports to hold our collective breath when things go wrong whilst not wishing ill on those involved – it’s compelling and thrilling. Seeing the extraordinary in elite sport drives fan engagement and propels the sport forwards. This weekend did just that.
Even at our own level, the odd capsize around a gybe mark through distinct lack of talent – guilty as charged m’lud – makes the Sunday sail more than just a blast around the cans. You’ve got something to talk about afterwards, you feel exhilarated, damp and alive to the sport and the world around you. As that great cowboy actor John Wayne once said: “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”
And at the very top level, who can forget in recent times the Team New Zealand capsize of Te Rehutai on that blast reach whilst training against Ineos Britannia in the last pre-Cup. Or the TNZ pitch pole against BAR in Bermuda. How about that near capsize in San Francisco in 2013 when Dean Barker almost lost it against Oracle in Race 8? And of course, we will never forget the American Magic catapult crash-size whilst a country mile ahead of Luna Rossa in the Challenger series.
Capsizing is a fact of life for the pros as much as it is for us amateurs. At the Olympics it was almost embarrassing to see how many of the world’s finest dinghy sailors stacked it with alarming regularity. But the simple fact is that they capsize, and we capsize, because they and we are pushing it.
If you’ve ever sailed a single-hander in big conditions, it’s all very well trundling along upwind with everything hunkered down, a ton of cunningham wound on, the kicker bending the boom like a banana and the sail flatter than your mother’s ironing board but bear away onto a run and everything changes. Suddenly the waves are no longer predictable friends, minute body positions make a significant difference and woe betide letting that mainsheet out too far and pretending you’re Giles Scott.
And as we all know, stuff (to be polite) happens. In my Laser, I can still rely on the mainsheet getting caught on the transom right at the moment when it shouldn’t. I can guarantee a birds nest in the mainsheet on the bear-away. When I release the kicker it’s like I’ve put money into the greasy palms of a gypsy for a gamble on a rickety rollercoaster. And shorn of kinetic and athletic ability, in waves the boat seems to enjoy, almost delight, in folding in on top of me. You know the score.
So when I see Ben Ainslie stacking it at warp speed in the SailGP it’s a kind of affirmation that all is okay. You can see just how hard they were pushing it and can only imagine how marginal the tiniest of errors cascade into a drama.
I’ve pored over that footage, read the race reports, listened to the analysis and Ben’s own words and I’m left in awe at how a simple mis-timing of an easing of a sheet and a slight angle on the rudder produces such a devastating result. This is sailing on another level and it’s how it should be at the pinnacle. It’s Formula 1 on the water where the most minuscule of differences produces catastrophe. The ragged edge of possibility is just fantastic to watch and witness. It’s everything.
And I very much enjoyed Hannah Mills’s assessment afterwards where she took all the positives from the weekend, learned a lot and brushed the capsize off as “we just buried the bow” – nothing to see here.
As racing incident’s go, it’s just another day in the office, all part of the sport and the spectacle and that’s just how it should be. The chase boats were in quicker than a Tyson Fury uppercut and the mast was pointing skywards in about four minutes – pretty impressive from the shore crew.
And will Ben back off in Sydney? Well you can bet a barn-door to a banjo that backing off won’t be in his lexicon if it’s blowing in the harbour, his favourite place to sail on planet earth. He’ll be pushing harder than possible and taking the fight squarely to secure that golden shot in San Francisco and the $1m prize pot.
Riveting, enthralling, exciting. What a sport we’ve got…