Britain’s Sir Ben Ainslie mastered the light conditions to win two of the three fleet races Saturday in the inaugural Dubai Sail Grand Prix and take a commanding five-point lead over rival skippers Jimmy Spithill of the United States and Peter Burling of New Zealand.
It was a rough day for season points leader Tom Slingsby of Australia, who was eighth in the nine-boat fleet in tech tycoon Larry Ellison’s global league.
Ainslie finished sixth in the first race before winning the next two aboard his 50-foot foiling catamaran to put his British crew in great position to reach Sunday’s podium race, which will follow the final two fleet races.
“We had a tough start but we regrouped so well we managed to tame the light, tight conditions which is really pleasing,” Ainslie said. “That’s the area where we have probably struggled most in SailGP, so it’s just great to see the team pull through and come together like that.”
Ainslie leads the regatta with 25 points, with Spithill and Burling next at 20 points each.
“It was so difficult out there, not only super tight but the boats feel like they’re just stuck together on a piece of shock cord,” said Spithill, who had finishes of 7-4-2 to continue his surge in the season’s second half. “It’s so close and so challenging to negotiate but we got better as the races went on.”
The wind is supposed to be stronger on Sunday.
“Tomorrow is a reset; our goal is to make the podium,” said Spithill, a two-time America’s Cup champion who had a great start in the third race to finish second behind Ainslie. “It will be a completely different game. With more wind, the mid-size wing and a tight racetrack, tomorrow is going to be pretty full on.”
Spithill and Ainslie, the most-decorated sailor in Olympic history, were crewmates aboard Oracle Team USA when it staged a thrilling comeback against Emirates Team New Zealand to defend the America’s Cup in 2013.
Burling, a two-time America’s Cup champion and three-time Olympic medalist, had finishes of 4-2-7. The Kiwis are second in the overall standings behind the two-time defending champion Aussies, and Burling would like to close the four-point gap.
“We’re a little disappointed we didn’t get three or four other points today,” Burling said. “We were leading the second race and let it slip. It’s one of those events where every single point is so important and we are happy to be at the right end of the leaderboard, but we are under no illusions as to how tight it’s going to be for that final tomorrow.”
France and Canada, which won the first race, are tied with 19 points, followed by Switzerland and Denmark at 18 points. Australia has 13 and Spain 10.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson