Two months have gone by since the epic win for the Australia SailGP Team in its home country, and for most of them, hometown of Sydney. The athletes have all gone on to sail and train amongst other top Australian talents and international teams, yet all looked forward to the day they could set sail on the iconic San Francisco Bay.
"I've never sailed here before, and it is epic. I wish we could sail in these conditions all the time," notes grinder Ky Hurst, and now a San Francisco sailing fan.
Apart from Ky, all members of the team have competed in various notable events on these waters, most famously the 2013 America's Cup. Having a bank of experience, they know the sea state on the Bay can get a bit wild, or “loose” as they say. The consistent sea breeze mixes with big currents creating a recipe for perfect carnage conditions.
Leading up to the official race days of San Francisco SailGP on May 4-5, the team has been seriously pushing the F50 to test its capabilities, exercising her legs since Sydney SailGP. This push-to-play mentality was also in part to chase down an illustrious speed barrier all the SailGP teams have been chatting about. On Monday, 29 April, the team was primed and ready to take on this challenge, even having a 'code word' that indicates they're all collectively going for it.
On a beautiful straight line run, the team was able to hit a whopping 52.1 knots (96.5 kph), recorded by Coach Philippe Presti's handheld GPS, yet onboard the controls tell a different story. All smiles faded into tight lips as the team learned it could not be officially endorsed. "I never really cared too much about breaking the 50 knots, but it's frustrating to be so close," admits skipper Tom Slingsby.
The term "almost" has been tossed around quite a few times since the speed attempt. The following day, Tuesday, 30 April, winds gusting up to 25 knots against an ebb tide meant the team was going to get tested, and tested they did.
During the second race start of the day, the team went into a high speed gybe that caused a rudder wash out. Translation: Slingsby lost steering capability during a transition. The boat got a mind of its own and headed into the nail biting "Death Angle," a term the team has coined for being 90 degrees to the wind. "I was wondering what the heck Tom was doing until I realized he lost steerage. Pretty sure we were going over since I was about a foot under water at that point to leeward," laughs grinder Sam Newton.
Thankfully Slingsby was able to drive his way out of this near capsize regaining control just in time. "It was pretty scary to be honest. We gotta keep adapting to these San Francisco conditions or else it'll get the best of us, but that goes for all teams. Everyone had a bit of a day," says Slingsby.
Watching from the support boat, coach Philippe Presti saw the action unfold and was curious to see what the metrics were once back ashore. "When we got the footage, we saw the boat was going about 38 knots (70.5 kph) then shot down to 10 (18.5 kph), in 1 second you lost 20 knots. Like eating a tree with your scooter. We're thankful that the guys weren't transitioning across the boat, or else we would've had safety issues."
Going into the practice races, the team had been anticipating they would be pushing pretty hard, especially since it was the first time all six teams would be on the water. Yet after the crash, it was agreed that they definitely need to rein it in a bit.
The Australia SailGP Team will have to walk a fine line this weekend if conditions keep true to San Francisco's windy nature. Above all safety is the highest priority for all teams and the Aussies aim for nothing less. The boys will surely be staying safe, but when the first start signal goes off, there is no doubt they'll be looking to put the foot on the accelerator to show off their talents to all the spectators in San Francisco.
"We want to keep it clean if we get into any compromising situations, but when we sail within our capabilities, no one will touch us" - Ky Hurst.