There was good news for skippers, organisers and spectators on the opening day of the inaugural SailGP. The wind, which had proved elusive during the practice races, finally appeared on Sydney Harbour.
The sun was shining as the six national teams made their way out on to the race course, creating a colourful spectacle. And, when three races had been sailed, there was just one point separating the two local skippers.
Nathan Outteridge, sailing for the Japanese team, won the first race and placed second in the next two to finish with 28 points. Tom Slingsby, skippering Team Australia, recovered from a bad start in race one to win the next two comfortably and record 27 points. The Aussies will carry plenty of confidence into the second day.
Lack of race practice was evident right from the start of the first race, when both USA and GBR were OCS and had to slow and let the fleet pass them. Slingsby had a reasonable start but missed the second gybe over by Shark Island and stopped dead.
“We lost our rudders through the turn” explained flight controller Jason Waterhouse. “Once we were in trouble, we just couldn't get back into it.”
Meanwhile, Outteridge had his 50 footer flying and swept away to an incredible lead, finishing nearly two minutes ahead of second-placed China, skippered by Kiwi World Match Racing Champion, Phil Robertson.
Slingsby eventually recovered from his error, but could only make it up to fourth place, helped by a DNF for Billy Besson's French team, which missed a mark.
It was a credit to the Australian crew that they didn't let their bad showing affect their day. Racing off the start line at speed in race two, Slingsby and his star-studded crew finally had the boat foiling through tacks and gybes.
It was Outteridge's turn to have a shocker off the line, but his many years of foiling experience shone through as he systematically ticked off boat after boat and was closing on the Aussies until he ran out of time to peg them back. The margin was just 19.7 seconds at the finish.
Race three was a masterclass from Slingsby, who flew away from the fleet to win by half a lap from Outteridge.
“In the first race we just couldn't get it right,” Slingsby explained. We had bad boat handling, weren't on the right side of the course – we didn't deserve to do well.
“I don't know if the TV cameras were on me (after the race) but I was fairly angry. We went through our check list between races and determined to be better.
“Out of the pack we were fast – 30 to 35 knots (of boat speed) in less than 10 knots of wind isn't bad.”
Asked about the massive spectator fleet on the water and the crowd on Shark Island, Slingsby said it was a huge boost to his team. “I couldn't believe how many people were out there on a work day – although I suppose we should expect that in Australia,” he added with a grin. “It was unbelievable to see so many Aussie flags and hear 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie' as we sailed past.”
Asked if the crew could carry their form from the last two races into tomorrow's vital three races, he was emphatic in his reply. “If we sail well, we'll win. If we don't, we won't.”
Slingsby had already given the shore crew a list of things he wanted them to check, and reiterated that every team has access to every other team's data. “We didn't ever sail very close to Japan today, but we'll be looking at what they did well, and they'll be studying us. It's going to be exciting.”
Tomorrow's races start at 3pm and while all ticketed areas have sold out, there are good vantage points around the harbour where people can view the action. The races will also be broadcast live on Fox Sports.
The consensus, even among the more cynical of the media, was that the series has already delivered what it promised. SailGP CEO, Sir Russell Coutts promised us exciting races in the fastest around-the-cans catamarans in the world. Today, we got exactly that.
– Roger McMillan
Leaderboard after three races:
Japan 28 points (10,9,9)
Australia 27 points (7,10,10)
Great Britain 22 points (8,7,7)
USA 20 points (6,8,6)
France 19 points (5,6,8)
China 19 points (9,5,5)