Elated Kiwis pull off first event victory in style in Plymouth
The Kiwi crew finally found top gear on their F50 to dominate the racing at Great Britain Sail Grand Prix in Plymouth to claim their first regatta win since joining the international circuit.
There was an audible sigh of relief from fans of the New Zealand SailGP Team around the world yesterday as Peter Burling and Blair Tukes men and women finally found top gear on their F50 to dominate the racing at Great Britain Sail Grand Prix in Plymouth to claim their first regatta win since joining the international league back in 2020.
With Kiwi triple Olympian Jo Aleh in the strategist's role at the back of the boat for the first time – only her third outing on an F50 – the New Zealand squad barely put a foot wrong on the opening day in Plymouth.
Sailing with noticeable new confidence and aplomb considering the unpredictable wind conditions the team finished second in the first two races before winning the last race in style to top the leaderboard by six points from event favourites Tom Slingsby’s Australia SailGP Team overnight.
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New Zealand nerves were set jangling in the prestart manoeuvring of Sunday’s first race when the NZ boat copped a penalty for an incident with the Swiss team. It was a body blow but the Kiwi sailors kept their cool and were able to avoid turning a crisis into a disaster as they clawed their way back from the back of the pack to fifth at the finish.
Taking a now four point lead into the final fleet race made qualification for their first ever event final with a masterclass performance that saw them pick their way slickly around a complex racecourse pitted with wind holes and massive wind shifts.
As recalcitrant as the breezes on Plymouth Sound for race five had been, conditions were even more flukey for the three-way final winner-takes-all heat between New Zealand, Australia, and Nicolai Sehested’s Denmark (also in their first ever final).
The increasingly fickle winds meant all three boats were on and off the foils throughout the race and all three teams held the lead at some point.
After the course shortened as the teams rounded the leeward gate the Kiwis made a storming approach to the windward gate to surge past Sehested’s Danish crew and into what turned out to be an unassailable lead.
Despite the final short reach leg to the finish turning into a light air beat, the Kiwis held their nerve through the resulting two tacks required to then slip across the finish line to claim their first ever event win.
Speaking after racing a smiling Burling said he was pleased to have been able to live up to the expectations people had for his team after underperforming by their high standards up until now.
“I think a lot of people have expected this of us and it’s great to be able to put together a whole weekend. We have been in this league for a little while now and we felt like we were on the back foot all the way through that first season but now this is Season 3 and to put a win on the board in the third event is pretty pleasing for us going into the later half of the season.”
Asked what was behind the team’s excellent form this weekend Burling said it was simply the culmination of incremental gains made at the Bermuda and Chicago events this season.
“In Chicago we showed we were pretty close in some conditions but we still had bits that were letting us down,” he said. “This week I think we have just been able to tidy up a fre more things, get off the startline pretty well and get on some shifts.
“Everyone on our team has been putting in so much hard work to improve and I think that really showed out there today. We were so much more comfortable in the boat than we had been.”
Commenting on the conditions which had prevailed for the second day of racing Burling agreed it had been challenging but said he had been able to anticipate some of the bigger wind shifts.
“It was pretty tricky out there today and I am happy to have been on the right side of it more than not,” he said. “Josh [Junior] and I were having plenty of convos. I felt like it was pretty easy to see when it was going to go big one way or the other and a couple of times we were able to put the boat in pretty nice spots – which obviously paid big dividends.”
The Kiwis confidence-building victory sees them move up into third place in the overall season standings, sitting on 22 points – two points adrift of Ben Ainslie’s Great Britain SailGP Team with a further five point delta to Slingsby’s Australians.
Despite huge local support and a visit from the Duchess of Cambridge – who helped the Brits to a win over the Kiwis in an exhibition Commonwealth Race prior to Sunday’s racing – Ainslie’s squad could only manage fourth overall.
After a lacklustre day on Saturday that saw Ainslie unable to pull off a front row start in all three races, the star-studded crew fought back fiercely on Sunday. Ainslie banished his startline issues to the past in the first race of the day and the GB crew scorched to a much needed victory which put them in third overall, two points ahead of the fourth placed Danish.
With three other teams mathematically capable of making the final, race five was a thrilling on-the-edge-of-your-seat extravaganza.
After the Danes turned on the afterburners to put themselves comfortably in second behind New Zealand rounding the final windward gate, the third placed Brits knew they had to keep the fourth placed Australians behind them.
The fierce match race looked to be going Ainslie’s way before he gybed away from Slingsby at the top of the final run to avoid what had previously been the unfavoured right hand (looking upwind) side.
That move also meant the Brits needed two gybes to Slingsby’s one and when the boat’s converged for a tight cross Ainslie on port was adjudged by the umpires to have fouled Slingsby.
Ainslie admitted later that he was frustrated with the call made by chief umpire Craig Mitchell which had cost the British team a place in the final.
He said there had been no other option than to try to cross ahead of the fast approaching Australians.
“If we had gone behind them then they would have beaten us across the line – so we had to make it work,” he said.
“From what I have seen of the replay and understanding how the umpires make their call, we were still accelerating out of our gybe so from a long way out it probably didn’t look that good – but as we accelerated and turned the boat down you can see that when we came together we are a long way across.
“Ultimately you could say we should have done a better job and had more points to get into that final race, but it’s tight in SailGP and it comes down to those narrow margins. But that’s sport and you have got to take it on the chin and come back fighting another day.”
Meanwhile, despite his team’s prolonged winning streak finally coming to an end, Australian skipper Tom Slingsby said he and his crew were elated to have finished second in Plymouth after having to scramble to replace a broken rudder before the fifth race on Sunday.
“We are not disappointed at all,” he said. “In fact we are ecstatic about finishing second. It was a really tough day for us. It looked like we weren’t going to make the final with gear breakage and it took a huge effort by our team and the [SailGP] tech team to get us racing again.
Asked about the British penalty situation Slingsby said it had been a close call but he didn’t know for sure whether it was a penalty or not.
“We got the pressure just at the wrong time for Ben,” he said. “We were slowly bearing away all the time and making it hard for him to cross. I don’t know if it should have been a penalty or not. I knew it was close, but it was touch and go whether it was a penalty. Luck went our way I guess.”
Commenting on the Kiwi’s first ever victory Slingsby graciously said the win been well deserved and a long time coming. “They were by far the stand-out team and I am really pleased for them,” he said.
Despite less than optimal breezes on Plymouth Sound this weekend the third leg of SailGP’s saw perhaps the most exciting racing of the season so far. For sure the level has ratcheted up another couple of clicks and the margin between the top teams and the chasing pack has narrowed even further.
All eyes now turn to next month’s Danish Sail Grand Prix event in Copenhagen when Nicolai Sehested will no doubt be looking for his team to springboard off their performance in the UK to find their way into a second consecutive final – this time in front of their home fans.
Cheekily, Sehested said he was secretly hoping for light and shifty conditions in Copenhagen.
“The last thing we want to do is give the Australians a 25-knot steady breeze,” he said, with a smile. “Let’s get some light and shifty conditions and hopefully that will help us.”