Set the platform. Clear the path. Don’t listen to the idiotic naysayers. Get the backing. And then deliver. The Tao of SailGP thundered to the very top of the sporting world with a thrilling, all-action, tactically tricky, boat-handling rewarding day out on San Francisco Bay where the cream rose to the occasion and put on one of the great spectacles of our time. Three races that had it all kicked off the showpiece final weekend of Season 2 and it was mighty in its execution, bang on cue and with more position changes than a donkey derby that left us all wanting more. There’s not many sports you can say that about.
What’s on display are the finest athletes of this sailing generation, making it mostly look easy – but believe me, it’s anything but. The starts were mesmerising, the speeds hit were apocalyptic, and the boat-handling was sharper than a butcher’s knife. Some of the moves pulled bordered on the insane but an ever-present air of preservation ahead of the big bang tomorrow hung in the air. I still can’t call this one but we have a better idea of who’s on and who’s not.
In the all-out Aussie battle masked as a three-way between the USA, Japan and Australia, it was Nathan Outteridge who came to every start with Men at Work in his ears. Yes we can hear, we can hear the thunderrrr, and everyone else had better run, they’d better take cover.
Nathan was on rails winning every first leg to the wing mark and starting on the ‘B’ of every bang. Considering the America’s Cup talent around him, it’s a miracle he got away with it but Ben Ainslie and Pete Burling were at sixes and sevens in the start-box all day and Jimmy Spithill had one to forget.
The only real challenge for supremacy came from Tom Slingsby, fresh from a night of boat preparation to get the wing re-built after that capsize in training, and by race three, the GunSlinger was oh so very close to stopping the Outteridge train. It didn’t happen but on today’s form, you’re looking at an almost match-race between these two for the money shot.
So what did we learn? Well the crucial first gybe after the wing mark on the shore pretty much dictated proceedings thereafter. Splash down off the foils for even a brief moment and you’re very much toast in this fleet. 100% flight time is the golden formula and Ben Ainslie showed everyone the importance of staying airborne and smooth in race one.
Also the crucial decision to go to the left gate at the bottom mark and out into stronger breeze and rougher water or take the right and head back to the safety and calm of the shore, was crucial. It always is in San Francisco. Ainslie hung tough and called on his Flight Controller to perform a miracle as he attempted to bridge what looked like a dead loss first rubber and translated it into a 200 metre lead. It was impressive, it rolled back the years, but he wasn’t going to be the story of the day.
That belonged squarely to Outteridge who just kept on coming and never said die. When they crossed the line after winning the final race and taking the gun, the words: “we should have had three of them today,” were audible. And that’s probably true but in this fleet, it’s about consistency and they’re tied at the top with Slingsby, separated by dint of the race win but with their tails up. Momentum will play its part in the outcome for sure and Outteridge has got it. He’s been looking sharp in training. His demeanour has been all business all week and he knows that the eyes of Team New Zealand are on him. They’ll be very pleased with what they’re seeing.
Not so, for Pete Burling and Blair Tuke, the pin-up boys of the Kiwi syndicate whose star is waning under the pressure. Not even a live link to Ray ‘Razor’ Davies can drag the All Blacks up there. Pete’s been so far off on his starts to be almost something of the amateur dramatic, lured in by a mis-firing Ainslie, they look like two old pantomime Dames having a private dance. The Kiwis are a click slower everywhere and in this fleet, they’re getting punished.
Away from the glamour names however, you cannot fail to have been impressed by the flashes of brilliance shown by both the Spanish and Danish teams. Jordi Xammar was putting the hammer down in a nothing-to-lose fashion and was poking the front of the fleet on occasion with great speed and tactical awareness whilst Nicolai Sehested scored Denmark’s first win in race two. Both teams will come off the water invigorated to go again – this is such a steep learning curve but you can see massive potential in both. Great for Season 3 with these teams providing the intrigue as they find that elixir of consistency.
But what of Jimmy? I’d like to suggest an almighty sand-bag ahead of the million dollar shoot-out but boat positioning tells me otherwise. They were off like a rotting two week old kipper today after a performance littered with boat-handling errors and an inherent speed issue.
The data almost look like they were carrying the wrong wing and they trailed around the course dicing with those that had had an issue, trying to save face. The bleachers were bemused. I’d like to smell a rat but it was an odour of a different kind emanating from the patriotic blue. Oh how I’ll eat my words when he smokes to a million dollars and gives the old rooster and feather duster analogy.
Well, the scene is now set for the grandest of grand finals. The San Fran Grand Prix is on the line first and then we have the winner-takes-all showdown with the eyes of the sailing world firmly on who really is the big time sailor of our generation out there. It’s too close to call and with the wind changing direction to a southerly, meaning that the cold air will be bouncing off the skyscrapers and funnelling down the mean streets of this fabulous city, it could well be San Francisco itself that decides the winner. I’ll stick with Team Jimmy to do the impossible, the improbable, the impressive but it’s a gambler’s bet. Outteridge is looking mighty and Slingers is the coming man. Impossible to call.
But I tell you one thing, and this is far from the intense glare of the cameras but of huge significance, and that’s the story going on in the Waszp Grand Final. Hattie Rogers has had one of those weeks where when you get home, you wonder if it was all a dream. After two days of F50 master-blasting with the GBR gang whilst she filled in for an under-the-weather Hannah Diamond, Hattie was thrust back into the Waszp and over two days has recorded six bullets from a white hot foiling fleet. Another day to go but this is an outstanding performance from the nailed-on next generation and it gives me so much hope for both SailGP and the AC40 circuit. Remarkable performance by a serious and coming-fast, female talent of our sport.
With more back stories than a Kardashian series finale, SailGP is delivering all round. After tomorrow, we’ll know the full story and our appetites will be whetted for a fabulous, truly global series ahead that promises much.
SailGP is where it’s at right now.