Peter Burling steered his Kiwi catamaran to finishes of second, first and second in home waters to take the lead in the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix Christchurch on Saturday.
Burling had a strong day in gusty conditions in front of thousands of Kiwi fans. He’s looking to solidify Team New Zealand’s spot in the Season 3 standings in tech tycoon Larry Ellison’s global league and earn a spot in the season-ending $1 million, winner-take-all, three-boat Grand Final in early May.
The Kiwis scored 28 points, four ahead of Canada and its New Zealand-born skipper, Phil Robertson. Sir Ben Ainslie has Emirates Great Britain in third with 23 points while Quentin Delapierre’s French team is fourth with 21. Tom Slingsby and two-time defending champion Australia was fifth with 18 points and Jimmy Spithill of Team USA sixth with 16 points in the fleet of nine foiling 50-foot catamarans.
Racing was delayed 40 minutes after a dolphin was spotted on the course. That gave the Kiwis time to fix some issues with their boat.
“We’re really sailing on their home turf so we’ve got to be patient at times,” Burling said of the dolphin sighting. “We’re fortunate today that they decided to shift off and let us get three amazing races in.”
There will be three more fleet races Sunday, with the top three teams advancing to the podium race.
The Kiwis weren’t able to do any practice sailing due to the technical problems but still sailed well in SailGP’s first regatta in New Zealand.
“It’s been amazing seeing how many people are coming down to cheer us on from every vantage point around Lyttelton Harbor,” said Burling, the reigning two-time America’s Cup champion helmsman and a three-time Olympic medalist. “It’s been great to see the support from home fans and it means the world to be able to put on a good show for them today.”
Australia sits atop the season leaderboard with 76 points, 12 ahead of the Kiwis. There’s only three points separating New Zealand, France and Britain. The Aussies have all but clinched a spot in the Grand Final at the end of the San Francisco regatta May 6-7 and the rival Kiwis hope to join them.
Slingsby said Friday that he would love to upstage the Kiwis in their home event. But Burling bested his rival in every race.
Slingsby, an Olympic gold medalist and former America’s Cup champion, was fourth in the first race, which was won by France, and had an early lead in Race 2 but finished a distant second to Burling. The Aussies hit a patch of seaweed in the third race and finished last.
“If I’m honest, we’re still not sailing that great,” Slingsby said. “Usually in those conditions, 15 knots, we’re just sort of charging through the fleet and sailing well. No excuses, we’re just not sailing as well as we could. The Kiwis just sailed past us from behind us, so they’re just sailing better. Simple as that.”
Burling committed a boundary penalty in the pre-start of Race 3 and had to start last but sped through the fleet and finished second, just behind Canada.
Spithill needs a strong regatta to have any chance of reaching the Grand Final but went 8-5-5 on Saturday.
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