Tom Slingsby is obviously one of the best sailors in the world. He is one of only nine men to have won an Olympic gold medal and the America's Cup and he has seven world championship golds in Laser and one in Etchells.
But he emphasised just how good he is last weekend when he jumped into the Extreme 40s on Sydney Harbour and beat Ben Ainslie, Roman Hagara, Franck Cammas and other top sailors who have much more experience in this difficult class.
A common element among the very best sailors in the world is their strength of character. Perhaps bobbing around in a tiny dinghy for hours on end while waiting for the wind creates character, or just weeds out those that don't have it. Whatever the reason, Slingsby has character in spades.
Furious with himself after the first day of Extreme sailing, when his team Oman Air sat at the very bottom of the 10 boat fleet, he didn't sulk. Instead he worked out what he was doing wrong – and went out and won the next two days, finally finishing fourth overall and winning the Land Rover “Above and Beyond” award for his efforts.
But it was a comment he made about the team's first race win that showed why Slingsby is considered a class act at the top level of racing around the world.
“Ali (the Omani crewmember on Oman Air) was over the moon when we won,” Slingsby said. “He was bouncing up and down and pumping his fist and I think that made the rest of us realise how much it means. Sometimes you can take winning for granted, but that really brought home to me how lucky I am to be doing what I do.”
For the Kids
Slingsby's attention now turns to the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, where he is principal helmsman on Anthony Bell's Perpetual Loyal, and again he has shown great character. Entitled to a sizeable fee for his immense talents, he has told Bell to “give it to the kids” - the Loyal Foundation for which Bell has raised more than $5 million. The money supplies essential hospital equipment for new-born babies and infants.
Slingsby has also been the instrument in raising other sums for the Foundation, including being auctioned as a lunch date for Sydney's socialites. He describes it as “the most embarrassing experience of my life” but the auction raised $30,000, which was matched by a second wealthy patron.
Loyal has always sailed with celebrities in the Sydney-Hobart as part of their fund-raising. This year the boat will have surfer Sally Fitzgibbons, boxer Danny Green, rugby player Phil Waugh and celebrity chef Guillaime Brahimi on board.
I asked Slingsby if this was a handicap when racing against the likes of Wild Oats XI and the brand-new USA challenger Comanche which are crewed exclusively by the world's best offshore sailors.
“Not at all,” he responded. “These big boats are people-eaters, you need lots of muscle to move the sails and grind. They definitely pull their weight and they're champions in their own right. They're inspiring to the rest of us.”
As one of the key steerers on board, Slingsby will be on the helm at night for hours on end, something he has never done in his small boat campaigns. But he says it's no problem.
“I've done a few offshores at night now. You can feel the boat even when you're not looking at the instruments, so it's no problem.”
Slingsby says Loyal is a bit outgunned this year. “Wild Oats is always modified and they've stepped up again this year,” he said. “And Comanche is all bells and whistles. What would suit us is if we get really windy conditions where people struggle to hold on. I think we can push harder than the others and not break things. That could be our strength.”
Be careful what you ask for, Tom. Meteorologist Roger “Clouds” Badham is predicting “extreme winds” in the Bass Strait for the big race.
Once the Hobart is over, there is no time for rest. As Sailing Team Manager for Oracle Team USA, Slingsby has been pushing his America's Cup team members to compete at the Moth Worlds in Sorrento in January. He says he hasn't had much time to spend on the Moth himself but hopes to get some serious training in at Lake Macquarie before the Worlds.
“I reckon it's the most competitive line-up at a Worlds ever,” he says of the Moths. “There's Olympic and America's Cup sailors and all the Moth champions who have been sailing them for years.”
He predicts that Nathan Outteridge and Peter Burling will be the ones to watch, continuing their long-standing battles in 49ers. “I think they're a step above the others,” Slingsby says.
He sailed against Moth “newby” Glenn Ashby, the 14 times multihull world champion, recently and says Ashby has improved a lot and is looking at a top 10 finish.
Slingsby was realistic about his own chances. “I've been using (experienced Moth sailors) Scott Babbage and Josh McKnight as my yardstick and they're still a bit better than I am. I'm hoping for top ten, I'd love top five but it's pretty much out of the question to get top three.”
Judging by his performance in the Extreme Series, though, you wouldn't bet against him.
- Roger McMillan, Editor