Poor on-boat communication and the absence of experienced flight controller Rome Kirby were key contributing factors to the disastrous performance of the U.S. team in Chicago, SailGP’s international commentators have said.
Jimmy Spithill’s team failed to perform in front of home crowds on Lake Michigan and ended the weekend with a 8-9-7-7-3 racing record and in 8th place overall. The team struggled in gusty conditions, failing to execute clean starts and consistent manoeuvres.
Commentators Stevie Morrison, Todd Harris, David ‘Freddie’ Carr and Emily Nagel offered possible explanations for the team’s below-par performance which, Carr said, was ‘tough to watch’.
Morrison shrugged off the suggestion that the team buckled under home pressure, pointing to their ‘pretty average’ performance in Bermuda last month, which saw them finish fifth on the leaderboard.
He highlighted the addition of new flight controller Hans Henken, who first raced in the role in Bermuda. Henken now shares the role with SailGP veteran Rome Kirby, who served as flight controller throughout Season 2 and previously led the U.S. team as Driver in Season 1. Kirby, who is injured, remains on the team roster for Season 3.
Morrison described the absence of Kirby as ‘a huge loss,’ adding - ‘you can’t lose someone like Rome and not expect to take a step backwards.”
The flight controller role is one of three core positions on the boat, alongside the wing trimmer and Driver. “Flight controller a very difficult job to just jump in and learn straight away,” said Nagel, “especially when you’re jumping into a home event where there’s pressure on your shoulders, with short course racing and fairly tricky conditions.”
However, the commentators also highlighted disjointed on board communication as a weakness of the U.S. team, especially between grinder and tactician Andrew Campbell and Driver Spithill.
Morrison questioned Campbell’s ability to effectively double in both roles. “They’ve tried to set up the U.S. team so that Jimmy isn’t the tactician,” he said. “Now with nine boats on the course, there’s less space and less time so I wonder if there’s enough processing time for communication between Andrew and Jimmy on those key decisions.”
Nagel also questioned the delegation of tactical decisions to a grinder, arguing that the U.S. boat is ‘not utilising the sixth sailor position at all’.
“Andrew Campbell is a great tactician with heaps of experience, but it’s virtually impossible to be grinding as much as you need to be and still have your head out of the boat,” she said. “The sixth person is in a prime spot to be able to look around and make decisions.”
Harris agreed that ‘there might be a communication problem on the boat’.
“They just don’t seem to be as in sync or the well-oiled machine that Australia are,” he said. “The communication is not as fluid. In the Australian team, they all know what the plan is and they’re all in perfect sync.”
But, Carr was optimistic of the team’s ability to bounce back from Chicago.
“They’ve got all the tools in their arsenal and they’ve got the same group of people that they had last year,” he said. However, he warned that some ‘ruthless’ decisions may lie ahead for Driver Spithill.
“I’ll be interested to see if Rome flies the boat in Plymouth for the consistency that saw them finish third last season or whether they’ll persist with Henken,” he said. “That’s a big call for Spithill but that’s what sport’s about - it’s ruthless”.
Chicago was also a tricky weekend for Peter Burling’s New Zealand team, who missed out on a place in the Final by just one point. Coming into the fifth and final fleet race, New Zealand had to finish in at least sixth place to secure their place, but a risky race start put them on the back foot. They finished in eighth, allowing Australia to scrape into the Final in their place.
Reflecting on Chicago, Carr said New Zealand are ‘becoming the ‘almost’ team’, adding that the fifth and final fleet race has become a signature pitfall for the team.
“I can recall many fifth races where they’ve had the opportunity to make the Final and they’ve had the worst race of the weekend,” he said, referencing Saint Tropez in Season 2, and Bermuda and Chicago in Season 3. In Chicago, the Kiwis ‘tried to execute a really high risk start,' he said.
This was echoed by Nagel. “The reason they didn’t get into the Final was because they had an overly ambitious start in the fifth race and ended up at the back of the fleet,” she said, adding that a ‘more conservative start’ would have seen them finish ‘mid-fleet and into the Final’.
“It’s frustrating to watch because we do see them getting better but they just make stupid mistakes,” she said.
Tom Slingsby’s Australia performed inconsistently in the fleet races, finishing with a 7-2-3-9-1 racing record. The first day of racing mirrored the first day of Bermuda, with the team finishing the each day with exactly 21 points.
While the Aussies battled back to reach the Final and swept to an eleventh hour victory, their performances in Bermuda and Chicago are at odds with the dominating consistency seen last season, Carr said.
“The two wins that Australia has this year are wildly different from their performances last year - it wasn’t an all dominating performance in Chicago.”
This was backed up by Harris. “It’s not like Australia are running away with it and blasting through,” he said. “They came from behind in Chicago.”