Taking their place among this week’s Sydney Harbour dress rehearsal racing in preparation for next Friday and Saturday’s first ever SailGP, the Great Britain Sail GP team are only too aware that, when compared to the teams which have more prolonged and in depth experience of the foiling AC50s, they are very much ranked among the underdogs rather than favourites.
But it is early days for a British team which really has Olympic sailing at its core. Only CEO and wing trimmer Chris Draper and Nick Hutton and Neill Hunter were on AC35 programmes, Draper as Sailing Team Manager and tactician for Softbank Team Japan, the 2017 event being his third America’s Cup tour of duty after spells with Luna Rossa and Team Korea. Hunter and Hutton were with BAR and are now with INEOS Team UK.
Team boss Draper won an Olympic 49er bronze in 2004 and since leaving the skiff won the Extreme Sailing Series which was the stepping stone into Cup multihulls, winning the America’s Cup World Series with Luna Rossa. On the last Cup cycle he sailed alongside Dean Barker as wing trimmer and tactician on Softbank Team Japan. As something of a diversion from the ex Cup, GC32, sailors at the core of may teams helm Dylan Fletcher and tactician/pilot Stuart Bithell are among those on the Sail GP rosters who are actively campaigning towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The past 49er World Champions pair may seem a slightly unlikely pick considering their lack of foiling mulitihull experience, but they are fast learners.
Their partnership with Stu Bithell in the 49er is highly regarded, not just for their successes but for their technical prowess and ability in the skiff class. Bithell went from winning 2012 Olympic silver in London to a new challenge in the 49er, pairing up with helm Fletcher to win the 2017 World Championships in Porto. They have just finished runners up at the Miami Sailing World Cup last week. Fletcher is getting to grips, literally, with steering and flying the F50 but this week told Tip & Shaft the Brits are on a steep learning curve on the long days.
“Today was day 6 on the boat which not much when we compare ourselves to Nathan (Outteridge) and Tommy (Tom Slingsby) who sailed these boats a lot in the past but have also been doing a lot of the commissioning sailing, testing the boats which of course draws on their experience.” Says Scott, “We have had a fairly similar number of days on the water to the American teams, the French and the Chinese. Everyone has varying degrees of experience. There are definitely four teams which are further behind but we will be pushing hard to close the gap on the other teams.”
He confirms, “Our learning curve right now is unbelievably steep. Every hour that we spend on the water we are learning more than they are and so we are already closing that gap. It is tricky and it will take time but this is a multiple year project. We are looking to be fighting it out for the top spot by the end of the year.”
Fletcher steers and flies the boat on the twist grips. Through manoeuvres he takes the wing sheet from Draper. He has the final say on the tactics too in what sounds like a collaborative approach to tactics and strategy. Bithell – who is one of the best in the world at reading the breeze and a great natural sailor – and Draper discuss the tactics, three of them talking between them. Bithell has the ‘eyes out of the boat up the course’ role, and discussing what is happening more as a strategist, Draper’s huge experience is the filter and making it happen comes down to Fletcher.
Position 2, Richard Mason is grinding and trimming the jib. Position 1 is the lead guy who goes to leeward through the manoeuvres and does the big grind when the boat comes out of the tacks and gybes. Typically this is Matt Gotrell, who was a 49er sailor who moved to rowing and won an Olympic gold medal in the GBR Men’s Eight in Rio. They have Joe Glanfield as coach.
“We have so much talent in the team I think we are good at knowing where we want to get to, but right now the days are so long it is hard to get time to make a full debrief.” Explains Fletcher. “I am spending all my time in the evenings studying all the videos, looking and data and trying to take it all in so we can close that gap.”
“Right now we lack time sailing the boat. There is no getting away from that. But our strength is our experience, there is a lot trust within the team. And we have Nick Hutton and Neil Hunter. Stu and I come from the Olympic class where it is all about how you can use the settings you have rather than the technical development of the America’s Cup and that is much more applicable here, so we bring a different style and outlook. That really has helped us out.”
In training it has been evident Tom Slingsby’s Austrlalians and Nathan Outteridge’s Japan have been best. Fletcher says the Chinese are looking good but have a few not so good manoeuvres over the day. “We are much the same. The Americans and France are relatively similar.” Around the short, super fast courses as ever the starts and the first gybes can dictate the outcome of each fleet race and one bad manoeuvre is expensive.
“In reality these are early days and it is all about the manoeuvres, this is like the first days when we saw boats racing around in Bermuda.” The Great Britain Sail GP team helm reckons, “ The manoeuvres are the big thing, even for the good guys. We are quite comfortable with our speed in a straight line but the reality is we are not happy with the way we are manoeuvring. We can foil gybe all the time and being able to do that after only four or five days sailing the boat is not too bad. But this will be Sydney Harbour it is shifty, you need to maximise the local topography, the points and know where to go in and manoeuvre.”
Scott sees the Sail GP programme as complementary to their Olympic 49er campaign, an opinion doubtless shared by Nacra Olympic campaigners Billy Besson and Marie Riou on the French team, Riley Gibbs (USA) and Jason Waterhouse (AUS) 49er Olympic gold and silver medallists Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen (Japan)
“We have seen it done before in the Cup, Pete, Blair, Nathan and Iain Jensen, Giles Scott and the Cup was more demanding and intense from that point of view but I am sure we will see the benefit from it, we are racing against the best guys in the world in the fastest boats in the world, that really focuses your game, sharpens up the speed of your decision making. And just working with a new and talented group of sailors allows us to apply that back to our Olympic world.”
It has been a long, intense build up into the first two day Grand Prix which will culminate in a sudden death head to head match race final.