Not many people at the start of the year would have put money on the China SailGP Team making the podium in the inaugural season of SailGP. But at the Grand Final in Marseille the team were elated to take the third spot.
Helmed by Phil Robertson (NZL), the team has been created by SailGP to help the development of performance sailing talent in China able to compete in the high-octane racing on state-of-the art and highly technical foiling boats. With a nation-versus-nation format, the strict rules stipulate that at least two of the five sailors must come from the country they are racing for.
The team have had a mixed year of racing: impressing at the inaugural event in Sydney where they finished fourth, they followed up with a disastrous crash in San Francisco where they broke their wing, struggled to recover and finished in last place. At the third event in New York, a fourth position put the team back in podium contention and their future potential was clear in Cowes where they finished third, just one point behind second placed Japan.
Heading into the Marseille SailGP Grand Final, the team were jostling with Great Britain for the final spot on the podium, going in to the final day of racing tied on points with the Brits. With two races scheduled, it was all to play for, but due to a fluky, dying breeze, just one race, which was shortened at the penultimate mark, saw the Chinese team finish in second guaranteeing them the third place spot on the podium.
Helmsman Phil Robertson, surrounded by his team, was quietly jubilant: “We are pretty stoked. We came in to the week with a goal of finishing third overall because we knew the Aussies and Japanese were untouchable and we have accomplished our goal. We have always known that we could perform at the level we did at this event here in Marseille, but we still have a long way to go. I don’t think we are even close to scraping the surface on what we could pull off and what we could achieve. Finishing in third with plenty of potential is a great place to be.”
The third position at the Grand Final in Marseille was particularly sweet for Team Manager Bruno Dubois (BEL/CAN). “We have had a really mixed year following a great start to the season and then after the third event in New York, I thought if we could finish fifth or fourth it would have been fantastic. So to be third, it is really good for the team. It’s a relief for me and I’m proud for the team. Our focus for 2020 is now to keep the momentum going, to keep developing the Chinese sailors and their skills and ultimately grow the Chinese presence onboard.”
Robertson, who helms the boat, has had a squad of seven sailors to draw from this season: Paul Campbell-James (GBR) and Ed Powys (GBR), both wing trimmers, Thomas Le Breton (FRA) and James Wierzbowski (AUS) the flight controllers, and the crew is completed with two grinders drawn from a pool of three: Liu Ming (CHN), Horace Chen Jinhao (CHN) and Black Liu Xue
Robertson was full of praise for the whole China SailGP Team, but in particular for his Chinese crew members. “We’ve had a really strong team this year both the sailors on the water and the shore crew who have prepared our boat so well and this result is testament to how hard the whole team - the sailors, the shore crew, the performance team and the coaches - have worked.
“The biggest challenge we have had has been to upskill our Chinese sailors. They have come off the Volvo Ocean Race [the round the world yacht race with stops], which is a very different mentality. Big long legs for months on end and not many manoeuvres. And in the SailGP, we are doing four or five manoeuvres in the space of two minutes on an upwind leg and they have never been foiling before so a massive learning experience for them.
“Horace, Black and Leo have done a fantastic job to come from quite small guys to putting on a lot of muscle through the year to be powerful enough, and their timing, their skillset and techniques are all getting a lot better. They are fantastic guys with awesome attitudes and it has been great to be working with them,” Robertson concluded.