Tom Slingsby, driver of three-time SailGP champions Australia, debriefs the highly anticipated winner-takes-all Season 3 showdown in San Francisco and reveals the biggest challenge facing the team in Season 4.
Heading into San Francisco, we were the only team already qualified for the Grand Final, which meant it didn’t matter how we performed in the five fleet races. But I’m huge on confidence and it’s the same for the whole team. We have this belief. If we do what we know we can do, there’s nothing our opposition can do to stop us. It’s very important for us to have this confidence. So I wanted to win the San Francisco event and have that confidence heading into the Grand Final.
I wanted to have already shown why we’re the top team and prove it again when it mattered. Of course, there’s a balance and making sure you protect the asset as much as you can. But if you start being super protective and reserved, you’re not going to get good results and you’ll get pushed around the racecourse. For us, it was about sailing as well as we could but taking our foot off the accelerator if there was a risk of damage.
The Grand Final start
In the starting box of the Grand Final, we managed to hook Emirates GBR and control the start. We had a really similar situation on Friday in practice racing but decided to turn up inside them and ended up being early to the line. When we debriefed, we said that next time in that situation we’d go under them and maybe they’d think we’d do the same as last time.
As we entered the start box, we realized that New Zealand was trying to play games with us, so I said let’s defend New Zealand first, which involved accelerating a bit towards the line. It was just as the British team tacked and they were vulnerable. If they had tacked a little bit earlier, the option wouldn’t have been there. There’s not too much thought process in the start box. We make a rough game plan but we’re not like a lot of teams who have a playbook - we freestyle and it worked out for us.
The Grand Final
My tactic on that racecourse was that if we got ahead, we’d just go after whoever was in second place and tack on them, stay with them and never give them an opportunity. That worked really well for the first lap - we were really hard on the British and put them back into third place. Then New Zealand split and made a big gain. We were hard on the Kiwis all the way up that final upwind and it was working. But then it got very patchy and there were some big light spots. I don’t think I adapted well enough to that change in conditions. We continued to tack on New Zealand but what we should have done was tack in more wind. I was choosing positioning over extra wind and it almost unstuck us. We ended up having to do a tack in a light spot and there wasn’t enough wind in the exit of that maneuver to keep foiling. We fell off the foils.
In a moment like that, it’s just a matter of keeping your head. I’ve looked back at the on board videos and I’m just rocking back and forth - I was so nervous, I was just trying to rock the boat and get it back on the foils because I could see how quickly the Kiwis were coming. Internally, I was going crazy. But then I thought, on the next tack we just have to defend the inside. The tack wasn’t anything special but for the amount of boat speed we had going into the tack to the amount we had coming out, we actually did a really good job. In the end, it was just enough to get us there.
When I look back, I wouldn’t change what I did. If I had to lose the race, I’d prefer to lose sticking with the Kiwis the whole way and for them to find a way through than splitting, going for more wind and somehow they found a way past. I’d do it all again, but I’d change the timing of the tacks by a couple of seconds.
Looking ahead to Season 4
Season 4 begins in Chicago on June 16-17. We won in Chicago last season and we’re excited to go back. Our game plan heading into Season 3 is the same - get off to a good start, stay consistent, stay out of trouble, no collisions and find a way to that final. The biggest challenge is probably keeping the team together. We’re in-between seasons and it’s like our transfer season.
The vultures are circling and a few of our team members have received multiple offers. Putting my CEO hat on, I just want to keep this squad together and I’ve got a real job ahead of me. I won’t change anyone in our team if I don’t have to and that’s a big focus for me.
Season 4 gets underway with the Rolex United States Sail Grand Prix | Chicago at Navy Pier on June 16-17.