Letter from the Antipodes: the Kiwis carry out their SailGP recovery. John Lidgard remembers
by Richard Gladwell/Sail-World.com/nz Aug 26 15:02 PDT
August 27, 2022
The New Zealand SailGP team skippered by Peter Burling celebrates after winning the Danish Sailing Grand Prix in Copenhagen, Denmark. August 20 © Ricardo Pinto/SailGP
While New Zealand sailing is on its way back to a full international sailing programme, with some good successes there have been a few ruts along the way.
The most difficult race came from the performance of the Kiwi SailGP team, which achieved a very indifferent race record since its launch at the start of season 2, returning to Bermuda at the end of April 2021.
As many commentators have noted, the Live Ocean team, made up mainly of sailors from Emirates Team New Zealand, did not make a three-boat final in any of the seven regattas in Season 2. Their duck continued in the first two regattas of the season. 3 in Bermuda and Chicago.
However, the picture painted by these statistics is not accurate.
Many forget that due to COVID-related complications, Live Ocean’s new F50 was shipped incomplete to Bermuda, the first venue for SailGP Season 2.
The new team participated in its first SailGP regatta with control problems related to its hydraulics.
For the next three SailGP regattas, Olympic duties took Peter Burling, Blair Tuke and two other members of the New Zealand Olympic Sailing Team away from the SailGP regatta circuit. Top Swiss sailor Arnaud Psarofaghis (now Alinghi Red Bull Racing helmsman) took over from Burling and gave the Kiwi team their first race victory, but not a SailGP final.
Burling and Tuke retired on board for the final three events of Season 2 in St Tropez, Cadiz and San Francisco. They won a race in Cadiz.
Looking at the big picture, their Season 2 performance was unspectacular but excusable after winning an Olympic silver medal and the America’s Cup – in the span of just five months.
The 12-month postponement of Tokyo2020 has had a huge impact on Burling and Tuke’s heavily booked dance card – pushing back the Olympics, America’s Cup and SailGP in the same year. Most of their competitors were focused on a single event.
Fast forward to the start of Season 3, and surprisingly with SailGP now their only competitive focus, the results for the NZSailGP team were no better than the latter part of Season 2.
In Bermuda, in the first race, they finished 6th overall in a fleet of nine boats, with a race victory, a third place and a series of placings closer to the back of the fleet than the before.
In Season 3 Round 2 in Chicago, the Kiwis appeared to be on course to qualify for their first SailGP Finals after winning the first race of the qualifying round.
The Live Ocean team found themselves in 4th and 5th place in the next three races before giving themselves a self-administered knockout by finishing in eighth place in Race 5 and putting their fate in the hands of others. .
A controversial incident at the finish line in Race 5 between Great Britain and Australia allowed Tom Slingsby (AUS) to eliminate the Brits and take the only remaining place in the final.
The body language aboard the Kiwi boat was palpable, followed by some full and candid post-race comments from their coach Ray Davies, who fills a similar role with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Another Kiwi team showed up at the starting line for round three in Plymouth. The notable change was the addition of Olympic gold and silver medalist Jo Aleh to the back of the boat as a tactician and strategist.
Burling and his friends won three of the six races contested and finished in the top three in all but one race.
Their performance last weekend in Copenhagen improved even further compared to Plymouth’s performance two weeks earlier. Liv Mackay was back in the critical role of tactician/strategist.
Due to light winds accompanied by drizzle, there was no race on opening day and the series was changed to three races and a final on Saturday.
The Kiwis have won all four races and their second of four finals have come in Season 3 so far.
What changes have been made?
The obvious improvement was their performance on the starting line. The Kiwi team had all three elements – time over distance, speed and position – perfectly calculated and executed.
You could say they won all their starts. In all three qualifying races, they settled close to the limit, were the first to foil and sailed straight into a gap that always seemed open. When replaying in slow motion, their timing was honed to perfection.
At the start of the Final in Copenhagen, Burling put his match racing skills against Nicolai Sehested (DEN) – a very accomplished match racer.
The most impressive aspect of the day was the repeatability of New Zealand’s performance. On the practice day, contested in similar conditions to the final day, the Kiwis struggled with speed and missed the first race, won the second and placed fourth in the third and final race of the daytime.
The fast and precise starts prepare the Kiwis for a good race result by launching them into the clear air, sheltered from the turbulence of the peloton.
New Zealand has also wiped the slate clean of mark rounding statistics.
Impressively, when pushed back into the fleet after being penalized in the second leg of Race 3, the Kiwis were able to climb back into the fleet and lead by Mark 5.
Recovering from a tactical error or a penalty has already been difficult for Burling’s team.
Another advantage for the Kiwis was the elimination of errors – which, according to Peter Burling, could only be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Of course, the Kiwis could have found their sweet spot in Copenhagen. The race was limited to a single day, and it may well be that the Kiwis tuned their F50 just for the 12 knot breeze.
Their performances at the next regattas will be followed with great interest.
The SailGP series moves to St Tropez on the Côte d’Azur in a fortnight, followed by Cadiz towards the end of September.
With no announced race program between the America’s Cup teams for the next year or more, SailGP takes a new advantage with the Challenger of Record for the 2024 America’s Cup flying race against the Defender. Other notables from the America’s Cup are scattered throughout the fleet.
It is reasonable to assume that there is only minimal crossover between the F50 and the AC75 used in the America’s Cup. That being the case, and provided the Kiwis can replicate their performances from Plymouth and Copenhagen, and provided they can stay fit, the Kiwi America’s Cup defense looks to be on a much more stable platform than we didn’t think so before.
New Zealand lost another sailing icon in early July with the death of John Ligarddied just over a year after his wife and longtime crew member, Heather.
As a designer, John was notable for the variety of his designs, from yachts designed to operate under the constraints of a scoring rule, to large cruisers and racing cruisers in between.
John’s passing marked the end of an era in New Zealand sailing, as he was one of the last, if not the very last, of a very select group of Kiwis who designed, built and raced their own boats to achieve the best performance in major regattas around the Pacific.
Perhaps the most memorable of these was the victory at Southern Cross in 1971, when three New Zealand yachts, Waianiwa, Pathfinder and Runaway, took the top three places in the offshore classic. This result gave the New Zealand team an exceptional series victory against an elite British team and others from the Australian states.
The record of three boats from the same country (excluding Australia) taking the first three places in the Sydney Hobart has stood for over 50 years and will never be equaled.
On the last page of his memoir “It’s in the Blood”, published in 2006, John Lidgard looks back on his life as a sailor and his exploits:
“As I write this on my 74th birthday, I hope to have the chance to compete in another great race. In the meantime, I am designing a 16 meter cruising yacht for a former racing enthusiast. I hope I see him sailing: maybe it will inspire someone else to commission a drawing.
“After almost 50 years of offshore racing, I look back and consider the huge changes that have taken place. Very few competitors would be as committed to their performance as I am.
“The fact that I designed, built and financed, in partnership with Heather, all of our boats must be almost unique in the sailing world. Many of the top racing yachts are now raced by non-owners, often professionals.
“The big races are won by sponsored boats, sailed by professional skippers, who of course want to win, first because they are competitive, and then because it is their job to win. Yet many are in able to recommend or demand new sails, modified rigs, keels, even hulls and hopefully all will be done. In the bad old days we had to work a lot of overtime to make any of these and did it ourselves.
“Like most old coots, I’m reasonably sure we had more fun. I’m absolutely sure we had as much and I’m determined to keep having fun until the end.
“Bravo and happy browsing.”