Skippers Ainslie, Spithill look to regain sea legs in SailGP

Two of the world’s best skippers are trying to regain their sea legs before falling further behind in SailGP’s race for the $1 million Season 3 championship.

Britain’s Sir Ben Ainslie will return to the fleet this weekend in St. Tropez, France. He missed the previous regatta in Copenhagen after his foiling 50-foot catamaran was severely damaged when it hit a submerged object during practice. It was the second major accident in two seasons by Ainslie, who is the most-decorated sailor in Olympic history with four gold medals and a silver, as well as a former America’s Cup winner.

U.S. skipper Jimmy Spithill, a two-time America’s Cup champion, hasn’t finished above fifth in four regattas this year. He and his crew are still working their way back from finishing a disappointing eighth in the nine-boat fleet in home waters off Chicago three regattas ago.

Even two-time defending champion and current points leader Tom Slingsby of Australia has suddenly found himself looking over his shoulder at his rival from across the Tasman Sea, Peter Burling of New Zealand, who has won two straight regattas in tech tycoon Larry Ellison’s global league.

Racing is Saturday and Sunday. Before Friday’s final practice race, the British team was joined by teams and sailors from other Commonwealth counties for three minutes of silence for Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday.

“I want to thank those teams for joining us in that moment of remembrance,” said Ainslie, who was knighted several months after capping his Olympic career by winning his fourth straight gold medal at the 2012 London Games. “In the days and weeks to come we hope the sorrow turns to celebration of an incredible life — perhaps the most incredible life that’s ever been lived.”

Ainslie reached the podium race at the season’s first two regattas, just missed making it in his home regatta in Plymouth, England, and then missed the Copenhagen regatta after striking either a rock or chunk of concrete when his boat strayed beyond the course boundaries during practice.

The collision caused extensive damage to the starboard foil and rudder as well as the foil box, which controls the rake of the foil, making it impossible to fly the boat.

Ainslie said the crew believed the area was clear of underwater objects based on the charts it was using but later discovered there had been a reclamation project there. The boat was going about 20 kph, or 12 mph, and hadn’t yet lifted up on its foils.

“It certainly stopped the boat pretty quickly and did a lot of damage. Carbon and concrete or rock don’t go well together,” Ainslie said. “Maybe If we had been foiling, we would have gone right over it and not known it was there.”

Wing trimmer Iain Jensen was crossing the boat and took a tumble but was OK. “So, it was just damage to pride and equipment, really,” Ainslie said.

Britain had been in second place in the season standings behind Australia but tumbled to fifth, one point behind Canada. Australia holds a four-point lead over New Zealand, with Denmark another four points back in third.

“Missing the points is a big hit which we’ve got to recover from. This is life and sport, isn’t it?” Ainslie said. “It doesn’t always go your way. You’re going to get setbacks and it’s how you recover from them that counts.”

Spithill reached the $1 million, winner-take-all race at the end of Season 2, but hasn’t been on form this season after making some crew changes and is seventh overall.

“We’re definitely starting to trend the right way,” Spithill said. “We’re realists. We are disappointed. We want to be at the front, we want to be up in podium races come Sunday. But we’ve got to take the steps. There’s not going to be a shortcut. I thought Copenhagen was a step in the right direction.”

Earlier in the week, Oracle Red Bull Racing Formula One drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez joined Spithill, who also represents Red Bull, for some friendly races against Slingsby.


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