Sailing is undergoing a revolution. Bold new initiatives and racing series are helping to shape its future, slowly disassociating it from its elitist reputation, which in turn is helping to engage new audiences and transform what is fundamentally an incredibly traditional sport. Sailing harnesses the power of the wind, making technological advancements and innovations hugely important factors in the battle to be the best. Over recent years, sailing has evolved immensely; from monohulls and catamarans to foiling yachts, both in larger yacht series, such as the America’s Cup and SailGP, as well as in much smaller dinghy classes, now led by ultra-lightweight foiling Moths.
Sir Ben Ainslie and Tom Slingsby – arguably two of the world’s most well-known and successful modern era sailors – are names that spring to mind when thinking of competitive sailing. Ainslie and Slingsby have dominated the sailing headlines for over two decades, participating in countless different classes and competitions. Both sailors have spent a large portion of their distinguished careers competing in the Laser class, a single-handed racing dinghy, in which Ainslie won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, a feat Slingsby emulated eight years later at the Beijing Games.
The two athletes then went on to compete on the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT), a series that has long been regarded as a pathway to the America’s Cup, giving some of the world’s best sailors the opportunity to hone their match racing skills and teamwork at the highest level. In 2010, Ainslie and his four TeamOrigin crewmates were crowned WMRT champions, with Slingsby making his debut on the Tour in 2014. The WMRT has been invaluable to many top sailors, allowing them to compete against some of the world’s best, while simultaneously preparing them in their quest to win the world’s oldest international sporting trophy: the America’s Cup.
After competing in a plethora of regattas, winning just about every class they turned their hand to, Ainslie and Slingsby ended up competing side by side, as part of Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013. With the US team on the back foot, Ainslie was brought into the Oracle crew midway through the final series, a move which ultimately led the team to victory in the iconic setting beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Slingsby, as the team’s strategist, was also instrumental in the victory; however, following the culmination of the 2013 edition of the America’s Cup, an Oracle team comprising of Slingsby and co. failed to retain the trophy.
In 2018, Ainslie announced INEOS TEAM UK would challenge for the America’s Cup, with four-time America’s Cup champion Grant Simmer as team CEO. The Portsmouth-based team is currently building two new 75-foot foiling monohull yachts to compete in Auckland, New Zealand from 6-21 March 2021 in the 36th edition of the race, as they stake their claim to the Auld Mug, as the trophy is affectionately known. It’s unlikely that Slingsby and Australia will compete due to a lack of funding; however, there is little doubt that Slingsby will compete in the world-renowned competition at some point in the future.
Then SailGP came along, a new series that somewhat bucks the trend of traditional sailing races, with its foiling F50 catamarans faster and more innovative than anything seen before. Seven of these F50s compete in SailGP, which race at speeds of up to 52 knots (approx. 60mph), battling it out in some of the most picturesque cities around the world, such as Sydney, San Francisco and Copenhagen. SailGP Season 1 saw Team Australia, led by Slingsby, storm to victory, beating fellow Aussie, Nathan Outteridge, skipper of Team Japan, in the Finale, despite having to start behind the Japanese boat in Marseille to claim the US$1 million series prize.
The F50s and SailGP represent a new age of catamaran foiling, with teams no longer needing to manually generate the hydraulic pressure required to operate the flight control systems, such as in the America’s Cup, with the systems now running on battery power. This is an exciting addition to foiling catamaran racing, as in theory, this should keep the racing close, as teams won’t have to wait for sufficient oil pressure to tack or gybe, making for some scintillating action. SailGP also boasts the sport’s largest monetary prize of US$1 million, attracting some of the world’s biggest and most talented crews sailing has ever seen. The fascinating battle between Outteridge and Slingsby in SailGP Season One was watched by thousands, but many felt that the sport was missing something, or someone.
Sir Ben Ainslie’s announcement that he would join the Great Britain Team in 2020 generated massive excitement from everyone involved in SailGP, as it meant Ainslie and Slingsby would duel once again, resuming their titanic battle to prove who is the outright best sailor. The press conference prior to the first race in Sydney involved some fiery exchanges between the two, giving fans a taste for what was to come for the rest of the season. The most decorated Olympic sailor of all-time hit the ground running on board the F50, with four race wins followed by his victory over Slingsby in the Match Race. This pulsating first race weekend in New South Wales’s capital city confirmed that Ainslie really could race in any class and succeed. When SailGP Season Two does resume, Slingsby and the rest of Team Australia will be hoping to bounce back from Sydney’s disappointment, where it’s safe to say, Ainslie and Team Great Britain dominated.
Analysis of these two sailing heavyweights’ careers side by side demonstrates a common pathway to the top: they both kicked off their illustrious careers sailing single-handed dinghies; went on to compete in multiple Olympic Games; and then progressed into team boats on the World Match Racing Tour. Their careers then turned towards foiling yachts competing in the prestigious America’s Cup, before going head to head once again in the new, invigorating SailGP.
It’s safe to say that Sir Ben Ainslie and Tom Slingsby have dominated sailing for many years, and they show no sign of slowing down, especially given their unwavering commitment to SailGP and the America’s Cup. The remainder of this season’s SailGP promises to be thrilling and will keep fans excited and engaged, with Slingsby hoping to defend his crown, while Ainslie will have his sights firmly set on bringing the trophy back to Great Britain.