US SailGP team capsizes 6 days ahead of $1 million race

The U.S. SailGP team capsized its foiling 50-foot catamaran just off Alcatraz Island on San Francisco Bay on Monday, six days before it will race for the global league’s $1 million, winner-take-all season championship.

Helmsman Jimmy Spithill said there were no injuries and the boat was quickly righted and the crew sailed back to base. There was minimal damage and the team should be back on the water Tuesday, said Spithill, a two-time America’s Cup winner who is in his first season in SailGP.

Spithill said the team was attempting a foiling tack at more than 40 mph when a button stuck and the wingsail didn’t pop over. The boat rolled over, with the starboard hull and the tip of the wingsail in the water and the port hull suspended in the air. The crew was in the starboard hull, along with guest racer Kai Lenny, a big wave surfer who like Spithill is sponsored by Red Bull.

“In a lot of ways we were actually really, really lucky this happened in training, this malfunction,” Spithill said by phone. “Clearly if it had been a race day, that would been the race.”

The American team has been involved in a number of mishaps during races this season but has still sailed well enough to qualify for the podium race, along with defending champion Team Australia, skippered by Tom Slingsby. Team Japan, skippered by Australian Nathan Outteridge, has the best chance of clinching the third spot. Slingsby beat Outerridge for the inaugural season championship in 2019 and the $1 million prize.

There will be three fleet races Saturday in the Mubadala United States Grand Prix and two more Sunday before the $1 million race. Spithill said the American and Aussie crews have to sail carefully in the fleet races to keep their catamarans in one piece for the podium race. With the boats capable of going 60 mph, danger is always lurking. Team Japan slammed into Team USA in the season’s opening regatta in Bermuda, knocking the American boat out of the competition. Spithill was leading the podium race in Italy when the boat hit a submerged object and had to retire.

Racing for $1 million is “an awesome opportunity,” Spithill said. “I’ve never had it in my career, to have a three-boat final race, 12-14-minute race, winner takes all, a million bucks. It’s just unreal. No doubt clearly the Aussies are the favorite and we’re the underdogs. The Aussies have been sailing well but as we’ve seen, sometimes it’s good to be the underdog in San Francisco.”

Spithill was referring to the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, when he steered Oracle Team USA out of an 8-1 hole against Emirates Team New Zealand by winning the final eight races for one of the biggest comebacks in sports. Slingsby was one of Spithill’s crewmates in that regatta.

Lenny said he was standing behind Spithill when the boat rolled over. The big wave surfer and kite surfer said he was impressed with how calm Spithill and his crew were.

“These things are just rockets,” Lenny said. “It definitely felt really alive. I felt like I was on my toes the whole time. It felt very physical. I wasn’t actually doing anything to make the boat work, but I was like basically having to hang on.”

Before the 2013 America’s Cup, Lenny raced his kite board against Spithill’s 72-foot catamaran. Lenny got off to a great start before Spithill put down the hammer to pull ahead of his friend.

SailGP was founded by tech tycoon Larry Ellison and five-time America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts of New Zealand.

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

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