Australia has pulled off one of the greatest escapes seen in top flight sailing, winning SailGP’s Dubai event after a “shocker” on day one.
Speaking after the first three races on Saturday, a downcast Tom Slingsby confessed he was hoping for a salvage mission on Sunday but “wasn’t even thinking about” the three-boat final.
Just 24 hours later and he admitted “I still don’t know what happened” after Australia scraped into an extraordinary final, then won it despite trailing Great Britain into the final mark on the course.
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“Two hours ago we were saying, ‘OK, we’ve just got to salvage this event, don’t lose too many points on the Kiwis, make sure GBR and France don’t overtake us in the overall points, let’s just salvage a decent result’ and then we’ve gone from eighth position to first in a couple of hours. I still don’t know how it happened,” an elated Slingsby said after lifting the trophy.
“This was unbelievable, we just kept on fighting. It’s such an amazing team I’m part of, from the shore team to the sailors, and we’re so lucky to have this group of people together.
“And we got rewarded with world team of the year a month ago, and I’m glad we could prove that maybe we deserved it.”
Australia’s improbable win was the culmination of arguably the craziest day of SailGP’s brief history, with the two-time defending champions starting the day in eighth place out of the nine boat fleet. They made inroads in Sunday’s first two fleet races, but even after a win in race five they sat in sixth position before the last fleet race of the day.
At that point they were “a mathematical chance” of jumping to third and qualifying for the podium race, but only if a scarcely believable sequence of events went their way.
That tiny speck of hope was all they needed, with Australia taking full advantage after New Zealand was hit with a four-point penalty for colliding with Switzerland as the two boats jostled for position heading towards the start line before race five got underway.
That left them vulnerable, and Slingsby and his team pounced, finishing two places in front of their trans-Tasman rivals in race six to join them on points and leap them into the third and final spot of the podium final on countback.
A gobsmacked Dubai crowd, stationed right on top of the finish line, sensed a miracle was in the offing and then witnessed a sizzling three-boat decider.
While Australia undoubtedly had lady luck on its side, Great Britain was the most consistently excellent boat across the weekend and France, who won SailGP’s previous stop in Spain, had carried on its form and had outperformed Australia for much of the Dubai event.
Both were worthy adversaries and they played their part in the most absorbing final in SailGP history.
With two marks left to round, the race was France’s to lose, which it duly did by virtue of a shocking tack that ensured all three boats got to the top mark together, Great Britain putting down an incredible leg to take the inside line into the mark and force Australia wide.
That move reversed the order, changing the race in an instant from what looked a likely France-Australia-Great Britain finishing order, to a Great Britain-Australia-France finishing order.
But a final twist remained, with Australia enjoying superior boat speed to put extreme heat on the leaders as both prepared to round the final mark.
Great Britain blinked, with legendary sailor Sir Ben Ainslie making a rare mistake on the gybe to cede the lead to a disbelieving Australia who grabbed the advantage and charged across the finish line.
So bad was Ainslie’s error, Great Britain wound up limping across the finish line in third, with France grabbing second amid the mayhem.
Sportingly, Ainslie embraced Slingsby as the two attempted to explain what had just unfolded to the media in one of the greatest sailing races you’d hope to see.
Slingsby described the topsy turvy final as “a blur”.
“I actually cannot remember what happened,” Slingsby said.
”That’s the best final we’ve been a part of. It was cool. I was thinking Ben taking the opposite gate in the last bottom mark, it hadn’t worked all day and I thought ‘there’s no way it’s going to work here’ but somehow he gained probably 50 or 60 metres on us and was right on our hammer, and then I saw France do a bad tack when they were in the lead and I thought, ‘this is going to tighten up a bit’.
“I didn’t think we were all going to hit the mark at the same time but yeah. And then it was just about trying to avoid a penalty at the top mark, so we didn’t get luffed and got a penalty, so we went around the outside and turned in second and I thought ‘we’ve got a chance’ but I didn’t think we were going to get there.”
Even in devastating defeat, Ainslie described day two in Dubai as “one of the best days of sailing I’ve ever been involved with”.
“We ripped around these marks, what, 20 or 30 metres away from the shoreline, I think that’s really a great showcase for sailing,” Ainslie said.
Then, of the final: “Right up there with one of the top races in SailGP probably. We had loads of interaction and then the final mistake, what more could we ask for?”
If you’re Great Britain, perhaps hanging on for victory, but this time around it was Slingsby’s Australia enjoying the spoils.
Even as Australia crossed the finish line it felt too good to be true.
“I was actually in disbelief,” Slingsby said.
“When I saw them (Great Britain) continue on I thought, ‘we’ve got another lap’, that’s my first thought, ‘they’re going to the other mark, we’ve got it wrong here, I thought we were going to the finish’.
“That was my first thought, then I saw them go in the water and I realised they probably couldn’t get the board on the lock, yeah, I mean we were behind the whole race and then with 10 seconds, 15 seconds to go we overtook and got the win. So unbelievable.”
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