San Fran Calling

It was John Steinbeck who said it best: “San Francisco is a golden handcuff with the key thrown away.” And this week we’re back to the dramatic, picturesque, natural amphitheatre for the very, very best in our sport to strut their stuff. The crucible stadium course in the shadow of the Golden Gate filtering down to Alcatraz, set within a hair’s breath from the glare of the stunning St Francis and Golden Gate Yacht Clubs is perhaps the greatest venue in the world for short-course racing. The faster the boats have got in the last twenty years, the more relevant this jewel on the west coast has become and as as sailing venue it’s one of the toughest in our sport. No surprise then that San Francisco produces some of the world’s greatest sailors. Win here and you can win anywhere.


USA SailGP Team helmed by Jimmy Spithill in action during a practice session ahead of San Francisco SailGP, Season 2 in San Francisco, USA. 20th March 2022. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

Ranged against you consistently and relentlessly however are the deep water, fast currents and funnel-breezes as cold air high pressure meets the warm air of the cityscape and it’s a graveyard of many a decent campaign. Tune up in Europe, win in the Antipodes and then find it all goes to pot in the Bay – it’s the lament of many a decent one-design sailor who’s come to these parts with hopes of glory on their mind.

What catches you is the sheer scale of the weather patterns in their variance and at times, the rip tide feels like a private one, completely anti-uniform and determined to ruin your race and your race only. The underwater topography has been studied in depth for decades, fascinating 3D models have been created and all manner of geographical surveys have been conducted and yet for those arriving here hoping for a break, many find the place to be as uncompromising and tricky as any coastal water anywhere on the planet.


USA SailGP Team helmed by Jimmy Spithill sail toward the Oakland Bay Bridge during a practice session ahead of San Francisco SailGP, Season 2 in San Francisco, USA. 20th March 2022. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

Into this whirlpool of mind-trickery comes the F50 fleet of SailGP amidst a changeable weather forecast for the end of the week when the business-end happens. The training all week will be largely a joyous affair in Spring breezes and rising temperatures until an ominous band building to the north filters down bringing cooler cloud cover that will upturn the established rig tune and boat set-up. The winner will be the team that, as ever, can adapt the best and extract the maximum performance from their platform but it’s going to be possibly the most challenging stop on the SailGP circuit.


USA SailGP Team helmed by Jimmy Spithill sail past the San Francisco skyline during a practice session ahead of San Francisco SailGP, Season 2 in San Francisco, USA. 20th March 2022. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

I’m on text and calls with people constantly and it’s a standard question: who’s going to win? I’m on record as being in Team Jimmy for this weekend but I can make an equally compelling case for Team Slingers or Team Nate. These three are unquestionably the superstars of our sport as well as being the finest ambassadors for competition at the highest level. It’s a fitting three-way duel that you would just love to script. On a given day, any of them could win and if we trans-play fast forward to that winner-take-all race on Sunday what’s going to be the difference that will separate them?

For sure, the start is crucial and this is where my analysis, for what it’s worth, leads me to Jimmy. His form in the pre-start is electric and I would be surprised if he isn’t all elbows out and positioned in pole position but it’s the acceleration off the line where Slingsby seems to have the jump and that could be crucial. But Nathan is the outside bet, if that’s even possible to say, the wind whisperer who could be in phase better, and adapt faster than the others and furthermore, having seen into Ben Ainslie’s highly tricked-up F50 after that crash in Sydney, could well have found new and dynamic secrets to F50 speed.


Australia SailGP Team helmed by Tom Slingsby in action during a practice session ahead of San Francisco SailGP, Season 2 in San Francisco, USA. 20th March 2022. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

But the fast bear-away on the shore at the first mark and the decision to either go down the shoreline or gybe out, will be crucial to the set up to the first gate. You could be dumped out of contention here on one mis-call. The second beat though is where the million bucks will be decided and we could easily see position changes.

Anyone who’s done that hard, hard work up the Bay in any vessel knows how variable and tricky it can be. Jimmy’s done it more than anyone. He’s bought more than enough T-shirts on that course, won against the odds, and knows that it’s a case of hanging tough in the rough stuff immediately around the gate and willing the smooth water up towards the grandstands to come soon enough. More than likely we’ll see a headache inducing split amongst the two trailing boats and the big question here for whoever is the leader is: can you play the middle and cover? Unlikely in the gambler’s cauldron.


Great Britain SailGP Team helmed by Ben Ainslie sail onboard the France SailGP Team F50 catamaran during a practice session ahead of San Francisco SailGP, Season 2 in San Francisco, USA. 20th March 2022. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

By the top gate, the order will be established and the Bay play-book may well be a little better understood but it’s here where there’ll discover if their name was truly on that golden prize. San Francisco has a habit of biting the cocky so it’s all on to keep the hammer down, play it consistently and maintain a delta. The worst job of the weekend is tactician – every other position is formulaic – but for those calling the shots it’s a minefield. What looks right can be unravelled in a nano-second. It’s the kind of stuff that haunts your dreams at 2am, twenty-years later, as you wake in a cold-sweat when a million dollars was there, right there, for the taking. Tough gig. Pity the tacticians…


USA SailGP Team helmed by Jimmy Spithill sail alongside the Oakland Bay Bridge during a practice session ahead of San Francisco SailGP, Season 2 in San Francisco, USA. 20th March 2022. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

I would love to be able to call the final with certainty. I just can’t. And that’s what makes next weekend’s racing so good. It’s a brilliantly cruel format that puts everything else in the shade at the top of our sport. It’s understandable, relatable and draws in new, uninitiated punters at this sell-out showpiece of grand prix sailing. Bravo to Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison. Now it’s down to the finest athletes in sailing to put on a show worthy of the billing.

The eyes of the world will be on the Bay this weekend and as the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright said: “What I like about San Francisco is San Francisco.”

Quite.


6 thoughts on “San Fran Calling

  1. It seems to me that if we keep having these events in San Francisco Bay without any sailors being attacked by sharks, it may help kill the myth that Great White Sharks ate prisoners trying to escape from Alcatraz and falling in the Bay means instant shark attack. This is something I read in several books growing up and absolutely believed myself until I visited San Francisco and the Aquarium of the Bay in 2016.

    From radio tracking, the Great Whites prefer to hunt in the Farallon Islands offshore, and while they do sometimes *swim* into the Bay, they rarely *feed* there— they seem to find it too shallow for their usual hunting behavior. There are many hazards to sailing in San Francisco Bay, but sharks are pretty low down on the list.

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      1. I can understand that when Alcatraz was still a prison, we didn’t know as much about sharks as we do now and there was an motivation to spread such stories to try and scare prisoners out of escaping, but our modern understanding of oceanography suggests it just isn’t true. Thankfully for SailGP and other SF Bay sailors!

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