Ainslie, Slingsby look forward to competitive SailGP season

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BERNIE WILSON
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British sailing star Sir Ben Ainslie gave a tantalizing look at what the second season of SailGP would offer when he dominated the opening regatta on Sydney Harbor in February 2020, including a victory over Tom Slingsby and defending champion Australia in the match-race final.

A few weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down world sports, including SailGP, and the results of that opening regatta were declared void.

More than a year later, Season 2 begins this weekend on Bermuda’s Great Sound, where teams from eight countries will begin the chase for the $1 million, winner-take-all prize that will be awarded at the season finale in San Francisco next March.

Racing in foiling 50-foot catamarans was originally scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. But due to forecast light wind on Saturday, the regatta will begin Friday and conclude Sunday, with no racing Saturday.

While Ainslie was already aboard for the second season, the pandemic delay allowed other stars to join the league for Season 2. Peter Burling and Blair Tuke will head the New Zealand crew just a month after leading Emirates Team New Zealand to a successful defense of the America’s Cup. Also new is Jimmy Spithill, who will skipper the U.S. team after serving as co-helmsman of the losing team in the America’s Cup, Italy’s Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team. Spithill, an Australian, makes his permanent home in San Diego.

Ainslie is a former America’s Cup winner and the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, with four gold medals and a silver. He said he’s never seen such a talented lineup of sailors as in SailGP.

“This is a first for sailing, really, to have a league like this, that’s year in, year out, global, in incredibly fast one-design boats,” Ainslie said from Bermuda. “I don’t think anyone can argue you don’t have the best inshore sailors in the world. That’s a first.”

Slingsby, who split the $1 million prize from the inaugural championship with his crew, welcomes the additional competition.

“If we could have the top 50 sailors in the world, that’s the dream,” he said. “You want to know everyone’s there when you’re racing to know truly who is the best team.

Slingsby already put some spice into SailGP’s return when he capsized the American catamaran last week during practice. Not all the boats had been commissioned yet so a number of teams were sharing the American boat.

While Slingsby was stuck at home in Australia for more than a year and unable to race due to the pandemic, Ainslie, Spithill, Burling and Tuke are coming in fresh from the America’s Cup.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines.

Spithill’s Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team eliminated Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK in the Prada Cup for challengers before losing to Burling and Tuke’s Kiwi team 7-3 in the America’s Cup match.

In 2017, Burling skippered Emirates Team New Zealand to a dominating America’s Cup win on the Great Sound against Spithill and two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA.

In the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, Slingsby and Ainslie were on Spithill’s Oracle Team USA crew that staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports by winning eight straight races to beat Team New Zealand, then skippered by Dean Barker, 9-8.

Slingsby said he’s not concerned about the way Ainslie dominated that 2020 regatta in Sydney.

“I expected him to perform at that level,” said Slingsby, who also has won an Olympic gold medal. “I didn’t expect us not to perform as well as we could have. That was the frustrating part. My starts were terrible and we were never really racing them in the races. But once we’re up and going we’re just as fast or faster."

Ainslie would love to dominate again but is realistic.

“It’s going to be hard because the competition’s tougher than ever,” he said.

SailGP co-founder Russell Coutts thinks Ainslie, Burling, Spithill, Slingsby and Team Japan skipper Nathan Outteridge are the five top helmsmen in the world.

“That lineup is incredible,” said Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup champion from New Zealand who co-founded SailGP with American tech tycoon Larry Ellison. “You’ve got all the top sailors in the world here in high-performance boats, all duking it out against each other. It’s going to be fascinating.”

Rounding out the fleet are Spain, Denmark and France.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson