SailGP: Next stop Plymouth

On July 17 and 18, Plymouth will play host to 8 international teams and their supersonic F50s for the third SailGP event of the season.

It’s a summery stopover that promises to be full-on given how honed the crews are and how closely matched they are in the overall ranking. The French team is very much in the match. They are ready in the land of Shakespeare, to step up and play the lead in this third act of the season.

As was the case in 2019, SailGP is stopping off on England’s shores. This time though, it won’t be in Cowes but rather in Plymouth, 260 km further west. Plymouth, a city steeped in maritime culture and an important Royal Navy base, was also the birthplace of the Ostar, the first-ever singlehanded transatlantic race, following French legend Eric Tabarly’s victory in 1964, acted as a catalyst for France’s genuine passion for singlehanded offshore racing…
Of course the SailGP is a far cry from the notion of a long upwind passage to Newport. However, the event is no less emblematic of its age: that of foils and very high speeds.

This coming weekend, Plymouth’s protected sound will take centre stage in what promises to be an eventful act. For Leigh McMillan, the British wing trimmer on the French boat, it will be like sailing on home waters… almost. 

McMillan said, “I’ve only actually sailed in Plymouth once before and I think that was 20 years ago! The race zone is very close to shore so to my mind we can expect a very shifty wind both in terms of direction and strength. Such conditions are conducive to action-packed racing, opening up opportunities out on the water and chances to overtake… It’s going to be great for the racing and the show!”

Team France racing while foiling
Team France hope to climb their way up the leader board at the upcoming SailGP event in Plymouth. Photo – SailGP

In fact, the weather and strategy are a key focus for the Frenchies after their disappointment in Taranto (7th). McMillan said, “In Italy, we were still concentrating on the boat handling and making good speed. However, in such light wind conditions, we may not have paid enough attention to the racing itself. As such, we missed a number of opportunities out on the water”.

Billy Besson, helm on the French F50, drives the point home, “We really need to pull our finger out! This is especially true in the drawing up of strategies according to the different wind scenarios after the start. We need a plan A, B and C. The whole crew is called on. Everyone on-board has to be on the same wavelength when apprehending the field of play, be on the alert according to how things develop and have an eye on what’s happening outside the boat. On a technical level, we’re beginning to feel liberated and have the sense that we can do what we want with the boat. However, hunting down pressure in the light airs is fundamental. These boats are wind machines! If you have two knots more breeze, you really go a lot faster…”

Right now, the 7-day weather forecast is indicating light winds for Saturday and Sunday, which could result in fairly similar conditions to those encountered in Italy, or it may even entail a configuration with three crew aboard the F50s.

The great thing about the SailGP ranking after two acts is that no hierarchy has formed as yet. There are only 5 points between the Danish in last place and the Spanish, who have been surprisingly consistent, in the top spot. “The standard is incredibly high,” agrees McMillan. “The circuit has generated a great deal of interest over the past two years. All the top sailors have been keen to be a part of it. There aren’t many of the big names in sailing missing from the scoresheet! The upshot of that is a massive challenge and a stunning level of competition. Every mistake you make out on the water is systematically penalised”.
Besson echoes this sentiment, “What’s very interesting is the fact that not one of the three boats that made the final in Bermuda managed to repeat the performance in Taranto: there’s a massive crossover and you really have to battle hard to make the top 3. It’s virtually a fresh start after two events”.

Second on the leader board, one point shy of the Spanish leaders, the British, will likely be spurred on by the desire for a little revenge match in their nautical arena, in front of a home crowd, even in the absence of their iconic skipper Ben Ainslie (Paul Goodison stepping up as replacement). Astern of them, there is still just one point separating the Japanese (3rd), the New Zealanders (4th) and the French in 5th position.

Billy Besson, François Morvan, Leigh McMillan, Matthieu Vandame, Olivier Herledant, Timothé Lapauw, Amélie Riou and Hélène Noesmoen are hitting the road to England today. After getting a feel for their boat again during the early part of the week, Thursday and Friday will be devoted to training races.

The team will naturally be going all out to bring their A game and a podium place. “We’re going to have to push the envelope and revise down our safety margin, especially during the start phases. We’re so eager to get out sailing on these boats though that we’ll be going all out on this one!”concludes Billy.

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JPK August 2023