Glenn Ashby makes his sailing return at the Christchurch SailGP. Photo / Photosport
Glenn Ashby is set for a baptism of fire on the water of Lyttelton Harbour.
The Australian sailor famously skippered Team New Zealand to America’s Cup glory on the AC50 foiling catamarans in Bermuda in
2017 — an event he says is the last time he sailed on a vessel with a wing sail.
In recent years, Ashby has been enamoured with and involved in the innovation and technology side of the sport while working with Team New Zealand, but the opportunity to return to the water for SailGP’s debut event in New Zealand lured him back on board.
Ashby will be sailing as the wing trimmer for the Switzerland SailGP team this weekend, after joining the team in an off-board advisory role in Sydney last month.
During a sailing week on the global foiling league, teams are usually afforded a day of practice racing, with race weeks being the only time teams are able to get out on their F50 catamarans.
However, due to an unruly forecast, practice racing set for Friday in Lyttelton was cancelled, so when Ashby returns to the boat it will be in races that count.
While it’s not an ideal scenario, the F50s sailed by the league are based on the AC50s sailed in Bermuda, and Ashby — who led Team New Zealand’s successful attempt to break the land speed record late last year — was hopeful he would be able to pick up where he left off.
“I hope it’s like riding a bike, where you can just jump on and it’ll all come back to you in a blinding flash,” Ashby told the Herald.
“It would’ve been great to get a day at least of sailing in, but the way it’s panned out with the weather not playing ball, both myself and Guy Endean — who I sailed with previously in the America’s Cup — we’re both jumping on cold tomorrow, straight into racing. It’s really been six years now since the last race of the America’s Cup in Bermuda where I hopped off the AC50 — that’s the last time I sailed with a wing, so it’ll be a bit of a baptism of fire that’s for sure.”
Only two teams have had the opportunity to get their hulls wet in the lead up to the weekend’s racing in Lyttelton, with New Zealand getting a chance to put their vessel, Amokura, through its paces in a 15-minute session on Thursday, following its repair from a lightning strike in Singapore which impacted the boat’s electronic and hydraulic systems.
Spain were also on the water on Thursday for a short sail in order to get new driver Diego Bontin some more time at the helm after he took over the role in Sydney last month.
It has been a decision that has drawn the ire of some of the league’s drivers, with several teams having crew changes coming into the event and the venue being largely unfamiliar around the fleet.
Tom Slingsby, who drives for the league-leading Australian team, said that while he understood why those two teams were allowed to sail on Thursday, it gave them a leg up heading into the opening fleet races on Saturday and, with New Zealand in second place it could give the hosts even more of an advantage as they look to consolidate their position in the top three ahead of next month’s season finale in San Francisco.
“I do think it’s a little unfair that New Zealand got to sail. I see the reason why — they had to recommission the boat after the lightning strike and check things were working — but at the same time, Canada put a new boat on the water [in Sydney] and they never got time to commission a brand new boat that’s never been tested,” Slingsby said.
“I felt that it wasn’t really fair to the other teams. But it’s all above our pay grade, those decisions, and we’ve just got to roll with it.”
With their sights firmly set on the grand final in San Francisco next month, where one of the teams will walk away with the US$1 million prize, Slingsby indicated his team could be looking to be strategic, hinting at the potential of alliances with other teams.
Australia is sitting pretty, 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals New Zealand, and it would take a string of collisions to rule them out of the grand final race. However, the other two positions in the US$1m shootout remain up for grabs as New Zealand, France, Denmark, Great Britain and the USA all have a mathematical chance of qualifying.
Of the three event wins the New Zealanders have enjoyed this season, they beat Australia in two of those three podium races, so it could be in the best interests of the Australian team to try and keep the Kiwis out of the grand final.
“It’s something that has been mentioned and we’re going to have a talk about it, about who we might want to help into the final and who we might want to take out of the final,” Slingsby said.
“It’s all part of the game. The Kiwis are probably our biggest rival. They’ve won three events this year, they’ve beaten us in those final races multiple times. I think if Pete [Burling] was in the same position as we are, he’d be going after us probably, so we’ll have to see what we decide.”
It simply adds to the Kiwis having everything to sail for, as they only hold a one-point lead over France and a two-point lead over Great Britain. USA, sixth, are 12 points behind them, but a bad weekend for the Kiwis could see their hopes of making the grand final take a hit.
However, getting to sail on home waters for the first time in the series, Burling said it was more a case of excitement than pressure heading into the weekend.
“It’s been a while since most of us raced in front of home fans and it’s going to be amazing to show them this format.”