Sailing heavyweights Ainslie, Slingsby square off in SailGP

BERNIE WILSON

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The second season of the SailGP global circuit is shaping up as a heavyweight fight between two of the world's best sailors, Britain's Sir Ben Ainslie and defending champion Tom Slingsby of Australia.

When the two helmsmen headed onto Sydney Harbor for practice aboard their high-performance, foiling 50-foot catamarans a few days ago, they naturally gravitated toward each other and hooked up into full match-race tactics.

“We had some of the best racing we've ever done,” Slingsby said by phone. “We came off the water going, ‘How amazing was that?’ When you go head-to-head with Ben, nobody gives an inch.

“When we stopped, it was pretty even,” said Slingsby, whose wingsail is emblazoned with a graphic of a sleek, yellow kangaroo. “It was really tight racing. It was really cool to be part of. Always for sure, it gets the hair raised a bit more knowing it's Ben.”

Season 2 begins with racing Friday and Saturday in Sydney.

Slingsby is coming off a dominating performance in SailGP's inaugural season, including taking the $1 million, winner-take-all match-race finale against fellow Aussie Nathan Outteridge, who skippers Team Japan.

Ainslie, the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, is joining SailGP while also leading INEOS Team UK in the America's Cup. His SailGP crew is made up of sailors from his America's Cup crew, which will be competing in three preliminary regattas leading up to the 36th America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, early next year.

“Look, Ben's regarded as probably the greatest sailor of all time,” Slingsby said. “It brings a lot of clout to this event. With the fleet we've got here, and the helmsmen, including Nathan Outteridge and Ben Ainslie, we have some of the best guys in the world all on the same starting line, and the best teams on the line. If the Australian team can beat these guys, it will cement our legacy as a real solid team.”

Ainslie, 43, was knighted several months after winning his fourth straight Olympic gold medal and record fifth medal overall in the London Games in 2012. Slingsby, 35, also won a gold medal at those Olympics. The next year, they were crewmates on Oracle Team USA, which staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports to win the America's Cup on San Francisco Bay.

Ainslie knows how formidable the Australians will be.

"They're the guys to beat, aren't they, winning last season and sticking with the same crew,” he said.

Slingsby and Ainslie will be the favorites in a fleet that also includes crews from Japan, the United States, France and new teams from Spain and Denmark.

SailGP co-founder Russell Coutts, who was CEO of Oracle Team USA and is a five-time America's Cup winner and also an Olympic gold medalist, said "there's no doubt" that Ainslie vs. Slingsby will be a heavyweight fight.

"We know that Slingsby, especially being a redhead, he doesn't like losing, and Ben doesn't like losing,” Coutts said. “They're both trying to play it down, but I don't thínk there's any question, especially with Tom in front of his home crowd, he's going to want to make a statement.”

Slingsby kept the same crew from last season. It includes wing trimmer Kyle Langford and grinder Sam Newton, who also were part of the winning crew in the 2013 America's Cup.

"We've sailed together for a long time, this group of guys," Slingsby said. "If I thought this team didn't have the ability to improve a lot, and felt like we'd reached our peak, I'd be looking to mix it up. Having the same team, we're still driven and hungry to improve."

Slingsby said the crew divided up the $1 million it won in September. "Hopefully everyone spent a little bit and bought something stupid and put the rest on their home loan," said Slingsby, who bought a powerboat.

Ainslie said he hasn't sailed in the 50-foot cats since the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda, when his British team was eliminated by eventual champion Emirates Team New Zealand.

He said the crossover will help both his SailGP and America's Cup campaigns.

After Sydney, SailGP has stops in San Francisco, New York, Cowes, England — not far from Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK base in Portsmouth — and Copenhagen.

The first America’s Cup World Series, which will mark the debut of foiling 75-foot monohulls, will be in late April in Cagliari, Sardinia, followed by Portsmouth in early June and Auckland in December.

The Prada Cup for challengers is in January and February, and the America’s Cup match will be in March.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson