Supremely consistent New Zealand crew dominate in unpredictable conditions on Plymouth Sound
Peter Burling’s New Zealand crew – sailing for the first time with Kiwi Olympic medallist Jo Aleh in the strategist role – were the very personification of consistency
It was a decidedly tricky day of snakes and ladders for the nine-strong SailGP fleet racing out on Plymouth Sound on the first day of the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix today.
The breeze was flukey all day with big changes in direction and velocity making life difficult for the flight controllers trying to keep the precariously foiling F50 catamarans in the air.
Stepping on a snake by way of a crash off the foil was especially costly – as several of the expected front runners found to the cost. On the flip side of the coin however, there were significantly more opportunities to stage comebacks from deep positions today than we have seen at the previous two events of the season.
The Holy Grail for the SailGP teams is consistency out on the racecourse. There’s no point in winning a race and then finishing at the back in the next two. Like in all professional sports, consistency in SailGP is easy to understand but achingly difficult to achieve.
Nevertheless, Peter Burling’s New Zealand crew – sailing for the first time with Kiwi Olympic medallist Jo Aleh in the strategist role – were the very personification of consistency today. A 2,2,1 scoreline sees the Kiwi crew sitting atop the leaderboard tonight with a six point margin over event favourites, Tom Slingsby’s Australia SailGP Team whose battling performance delivered them a 6,1,4 score for the day.
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Sitting in third tonight, one point back from the Aussies is Quentin Delapierre’s French squad who sailed composedly all day for a 3,3,5 scorecard.
The local contingent among the thousands of fans that carpeted the grassy slopes of Plymouth Hoe to cheer on Ben Ainslie’s British hometown heroes were left disappointed by Ainslie’s lacklustre starting that saw him round the first turning mark with the backmarkers in all three races.
That said it wasn’t all bad news for the Brits who managed to fight back impressively to fourth in the first two races but could only manage a sixth place after the teams worst start of the day in the final race.
The Great Britain SailGP Team sits in fifth tonight – one point adrift of Phil Robertson’s Canada SailGP Team who stormed of the windward end of the line in race one to take the win, before crashing off their foils in spectacular fashion in the second race while battling for third and dropping to last.
A well deserved third in the final race of the day leaves the Canucks two points out of the podium places going into tomorrow’s final two full fleet races.
Understandably New Zealand skipper Burling said he was pleased with his team’s boat-of-the day performance.
“To walk away with a couple of seconds and a first is really pleasing for us as a group,” he told me. “The group did an amazing job keeping the boat steady and making sure we didn’t have any major ones and just feeding lots of information in to make my life nice and easy.”
This is the first time the New Zealand crew have lived up to their potential, and the first time they have topped the leaderboard on the first day of a SailGP regatta. Burling said the team had been focusing on evolution rather than revolution so far this season.
“We obviously work on a whole bunch of stuff at every event,” he said. “We have been making little changes to get better and today I felt like we were in a really good spot in the build up to this event. So it has been great to have been able to put together a good day today.”
Aleh said she had been counting down the days before it was her turn to race aboard the New Zealand F50. Today’s opening day of racing at the UK event was only her third time aboard.
“It is pretty epic just to get the chance to be on the boat,” she said after racing.
“Today was my first day racing in anger and it has been pretty cool to see how it all works. It definitely gets pretty hectic at times. “I am still getting used to it and I have a long time to go to be real comfy. But it is good to start the journey.”
Meanwhile, Quentin Delapierre said the team’s excellent consistency had come from sticking to their predetermined game plan.
“We are really happy,” he said. “I am just focused on our plan and our mindset at this stage and I think that is a good strategy. The level in the league is really high and the competition is very strong. In this fleet you really need to have confidence in your plan and stick with it. But you also have to always be looking for any gaps and taking the right opportunities.”
For his part, British skipper Ben Ainslie held up his hand to take responsibility for the team’s poor performance on the startline today. He admitted that he had apologised to his crew for letting them down.
He was full of praise though for the way the British sailors had rallied in all three races to stage fight backs that leaves them within striking distance of a place in tomorrow’s three way final race to decide the winner of the British event.
“I was really pleased with the way the team got back together after the poor starts. It’s easy to let that rattle you and then it all falls apart.
“We didn’t really panic and we stuck to our game plan as much as we could and picked off the places. So I'm generally very happy with the way we are sailing the boat and if we can get off the startline we will be in good shape.”
Kiwi Phil Robertson, skipper of the Canadian team said that despite a poor result in the second race after the splashdown the Canada team had come away feeling it had been a good day.
“We have seen all the teams do that at some point, so we knew we would at some point,” he said. “So it was about time it happened and now it did. It was unfortunate but it is what it is and we are still in the hunt.”
“We are within two points of the podium race so it is all for tomorrow. I think there are six teams that can get there, so it is a new day with just two races so you have to go and perform.”
More wind is expected tomorrow but Robertson said he expected the same snakes and ladders scenario as today.
“This is a great racecourse here in Plymouth, but it is puffy and shifty and you have got to have your head out of the boat. You can definitely make some big losses pretty easily but that means you can also make some big gains.”