SAN DIEGO (AP) — The fledgling SailGP global league makes its U.S. debut this weekend on San Francisco Bay, where the young American team, which includes two aspiring Olympians from Southern California, hopes to move up in the standings while the veteran Australian crew looks to stay atop the leaderboard.
Racing in fast, foiling 50-foot catamarans known as F50s will be Saturday and Sunday on a course between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. If racing is anything like practice sessions, it could be a wild weekend.
A few days after the Australians almost became the first of the six SailGP crews to hit 50 knots (57.5 mph), they almost capsized. The same day, the Chinese boat nose-dived into the waves and its wingsail buckled.
“That was a close call,” Aussie skipper and helmsman Tom Slingsby said about going into a “death angle” before recovering. “We were very fortunate we didn’t capsize. Otherwise the boat would be in the shed and we’d be racing to have it ready in time. Fortunately now we’re in final preparation mode. The worklist is a lot less than it could have been.”
Slingsby, an Olympic gold medalist who helped Oracle Team USA win the America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay in 2013, said he thinks one of the teams will break 50 knots, if there’s the right combination of wind and flat water.
“We sort of had a crack at it that one day. We got very close, and now we’ve shifted our focus away from that and basically want to do well in overall results.”
Slingsby led the Aussies to victory over Japan in the final of the inaugural regatta in Sydney in mid-February. Great Britain, China, France and the United States rounded out the standings.
“I love being in San Francisco,” said Riley Gibbs, who controls the wingsail for the U.S. team. “It’s one of the most challenging places in the world to sail with sort of a natural arena and currents that are so strong and intense. Obviously it’s pretty cold up here and the breeze can pipe up and be pretty brutal at times.”
Gibbs, 22, of Long Beach, is the youngest sailor in SailGP, and the U.S. is the youngest team with an average age of 26. While competing in SailGP, Gibbs is also campaigning with Anna Weis of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team in the Nacra 17, a foiling catamaran.
Hans Henken, 26, of Coronado, is a grinder for the U.S. team who is campaigning with Judge Ryan of San Diego in the 49er, a high-performance skiff.
“The balancing act is quite tough,” said Henken, whose sister, Paris, sailed in the 2016 Olympics. “Luckily, a lot of the regattas for the Olympics and SailGP are scheduled in a way I can do both, but it is a lot of travel.” He was recently in Palma, Spain, for a regatta, and then drove to Genoa, Italy, for another one before flying to San Francisco. He’ll then head to England for the 49er European championships.
“We both spend a lot of time traveling, flying and living out of suitcases,” Henken said. “Everyone asks where I live right now, and I tell them, I don’t particularly live anywhere. The money I’d spend on rent, I spend on travel and hotels.”
Gibbs said he considers home to be “currently Airbnbs throughout the world.”
He said the dual circuits can be exhausting but exhilarating.
“All of the knowledge and know-how obtained with all the brilliant minds and best sailors in the world with SailGP definitely brings a lot to the table with the Nacra campaign,” he said. “Being a foiling cat as well, there are a lot of similarities.”
Henken, who is familiar with San Francisco Bay from his days at Stanford, said things he’s learned while sailing the 49er translate to sailing the F50.
“Sailing is still sailing regardless of what the boat is,” he said. He also noted that Team Japan skipper Nathan Outteridge and his crewmate Iain Jensen, both of Australia, were skiff sailors, winning Olympic gold and silver medals in the 49er class, and that Slingsby won a gold medal in the Laser class.
Henken literally is a rocket scientist, having earned a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford.
“It sure doesn’t hurt to be a rocket scientist and have that physics background to help the process along,” he said. “It gives me a good foundation to understand a lot of the reasons why certain things are fast or slow.”