Britain’s Ben Ainslie beats Slingsby’s Aussies in SailGP

British star Sir Ben Ainslie pulled ahead of Australia’s Tom Slingsby early on the second leg of the podium race and held on to win the opening regatta of SailGP’s second season Sunday on a wild day in strong wind on Bermuda’s Great Sound.

With the 50-foot foiling catamarans at times approaching freeway speeds in wind of 18-24 knots, Ainslie beat the defending champion Aussies by four seconds in the winner-take-all final race, with Billy Besson skippering France to a distant third.

This time the victory counts for Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and former America’s Cup winner. Ainslie joined SailGP following its inaugural season of 2019 and dominated what had been the Season 2 opener in Sydney in February 2020. But that result was voided when the global league was shut down a few weeks later due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Better late than never,” said Ainslie, who enjoyed a Champagne shower with his crew shortly after the finish and then swigged from a bottle on the ride back to port.

“Cracking race. That was awesome,” Ainslie added. “It’s what we want to do, going up against these guys in conditions like this. It was just perfect.”

It was a stunning reversal for Slingsby and his Aussie mates, who had won four of the five fleet races, including a sweep of Friday’s three races in the eight-boat field. They also dominated the global league’s first season, including beating Japan in the $1 million, winner-take-all finale.

“It was a great race,” said Slingsby, a former America’s Cup winner and an Olympic gold medalist. “We feel a little hard done by, as we sailed so well all week. But those are the rules — you’ve got to win that last race. We knew it when we signed up, and we were close but not quite there.”

In the first of the Sunday’s two fleet races, Team Japan skipper Nathan Outteridge tried to cross in front of Jimmy Spithill’s Team USA, which had right-of-way, but misjudged his maneuver and slammed into the blue-hulled boat. The leeward shroud of the American boat cut into the starboard hull of the Japanese boat.

Shortly after the F50 catamarans were separated, the damaged American boat lost control and capsized. Both the U.S. and Japanese teams, which had been within range of reaching the podium race, were forced to retire.

“It was obviously pretty unfortunate,” said Spithill, a month removed from serving as co-helmsman of the Italian crew that lost the America’s Cup match in New Zealand. “Awesome conditions out there. We were having a great race. … They just took us out, unfortunately. When we got to the dock, Nathan Outteridge came up and apologized.”

Spithill and Outteridge are both Australians.

Spithill said his crew tried to finish the race but lost control of the wingsail and then the port rudder snapped and locked. The boat rolled over on its side, with the wingsail resting in the water.

“It’s just tough. In some ways it reminds me a little bit of motor racing, where at times, tight tracks, going fast like that, sometimes someone’s going to take you out and there’s not a lot you can do to control it,” said Spithill, a two-time America’s Cup winner who makes his permanent home in San Diego with his American wife and their two sons.

Ainslie praised his crew for rebounding nicely from Friday, when it had a hard time controlling the catamaran and had finishes of 7-7-2. The Brits won Sunday’s first race with the Aussies second, and the teams flipped positions in the final fleet race.

“I’ve got to give huge credit to the team because we really struggled” on the first day, Ainslie said. “We worked hard trying to analyze what was going wrong. It was a big team effort.”

Ainslie, eliminated from the America’s Cup challenger finals by Spithill in February, expects a tough, competitive chase for this season’s $1 million, winnter-take-all prize. The second of eight regattas is June 5-6 in Taranto, Italy.

Besides the collision and capsize, there were wild high-speed mark roundings and plenty of nosedives in the top-end conditions.

“Today, some of the capsizes and the collisions and the high-impact racing, that’s what sailing really needs to showcase itself as a really high-caliber sport,” Ainslie said. “As much as you want to make sure everybody’s safe, I’m really excited for the league and the sport that we can showcase sailing in such a way.

“You need the action. That’s what spectators want to see. There was plenty of action out there today, which was good.”

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

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