We’re bound for England’s south-west coast for the third SailGP event in Season 2, the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix. On 17 and 18 July, Plymouth - Britain’s Ocean City - will play host to 8 international teams and their supersonic F50s. It’s a summery stopover that promises to be full-on given how honed the crews are and how closely matched they are in the overall ranking. The French team is very much in the mix. In the land of Shakespeare, their best theatrical monologues are at the ready as they attempt to step up and play the lead in this third act of the season.
As was the case in 2019, SailGP is stopping off on England’s shores. This time though, it won’t be in Cowes but rather in Plymouth, 260 km further west. Plymouth, a city steeped in maritime culture and an important Royal Navy base, was also the birthplace of the Ostar, the first-ever singlehanded transatlantic race, which often goes by the name of the “Transat Anglaise” in France and, following French legend Eric Tabarly’s victory in 1964, acted as a catalyst for France’s genuine passion for singlehanded offshore racing…
Of course, SailGP is a far cry from the notion of a long upwind passage to Newport. However, the event is no less emblematic of its age: that of foils and very high speeds.
A great stretch of water to put on a show
This coming weekend, Plymouth’s protected sound will take centre stage in what promises to be an eventful act. For Leigh McMillan, the British wing trimmer on the French boat, it will be like sailing on home waters… almost. “I’ve only actually sailed in Plymouth once before and I think that was 20 years ago! The race area is very close to shore so to my mind we can expect a very shifty wind both in terms of direction and strength. Such conditions are conducive to action-packed racing, opening up opportunities out on the water and chances to overtake… it’s going to be great for the racing and the show!”
In fact, the weather and strategy are a key focus for the French team after its disappointment in Taranto (7th). “In Italy, we were still concentrating on the boat handling and making good speed”, explains McMillan. “However, in such light wind conditions, we may not have paid enough attention to the racing itself. As such, we missed a number of opportunities out on the water.”.
Billy Besson, driver of the French F50 said: “We really need to pull our finger out! This is especially true in the drawing up of strategies according to the different wind scenarios after the start. We need a plan A, B and C. The whole crew is called on. Everyone on-board has to be on the same wavelength when apprehending the field of play, be on the alert according to how things develop and have an eye on what’s happening outside the boat. On a technical level, we’re beginning to feel liberated and have the sense that we can do what we want with the boat. However, hunting down pressure in the light airs is fundamental. These boats are wind machines! If you have two knots more breeze, you really go a lot faster.”
The points differential is peanuts
The great thing about the SailGP ranking after two events is that no hierarchy has formed as yet. There are only 5 points between the Danish in last place and the Spanish, who have been surprisingly consistent, in the top spot. “The standard is incredibly high”, agrees Leigh. “The championship so far has generated a great deal of interest over the past two years. All the top sailors have been keen to be a part of it. There aren’t many of the big names in sailing missing from the scoresheet! The upshot of that is a massive challenge and a stunning level of competition. Every mistake you make out on the water is systematically penalised.”.
Besson echoes this sentiment: “What’s very interesting is the fact that not one of the three boats that made the final in Bermuda managed to repeat the performance in Taranto: there’s a massive crossover and you really have to battle hard to make the top 3. It’s virtually a fresh start after two events.”.
The English on home waters, the French “going all out”
Second on the leaderboard, one point shy of the Spanish leaders, the British, who were unlucky out on the football field on Sunday, will likely be spurred on by the desire for a little revenge match in their nautical arena, in front of a home crowd, even in the absence of their iconic skipper Ben Ainslie (Paul Goodison stepping up as replacement).
Astern of them, there is still just one point separating the Japan team (3rd), the New Zealanders (4th) and the French in 5th position.
Besson, François Morvan, McMillan, Matthieu Vandame, Olivier Herledant, Timothé Lapauw, Amélie Riou and Hélène Noesmoen are hitting the road to England today. After getting a feel for their boat again during the early part of the week, Thursday and Friday will be devoted to training races.
The team will naturally be going all out to bring their A game and a podium place. “We’re going to have to push the envelope and revise down our safety margin, especially during the start phases. We’re so eager to get out sailing on these boats though that we’ll be going all out on this one!” concludes Billy.