Extreme Sailing Series: Leigh McMillan and Sarah Ayton 'want to do the simple things well'


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The Independent Online

It’s always tight at the top for Leigh McMillan and the British Olympian, defending his Extreme Sailing Series title in The Wave, Muscat in Istanbul, once again finds someone breathing down his neck at the halfway stage on a testing Bosphorus race track. This time it is a revitalised Team New Zealand, with Dean Barker on the helm, who is putting in the performances to make McMillan earn every point, one of three America’s Cup challenging teams to use the series as a sharpener for multihull techniques so important in the fast-manoeuvring style of inshore racing.

“As long as we do the simple things well, we should be alright,” says McMillan’s double Olympic gold medallist crew Sarah Ayton. “All the teams are getting better and better so every point counts. I think we’ve approached this event with more of a focus on tempo and energy on the boat.”  

Usually it is Morgan Larson in Alinghi, a team which has twice won the America’s Cup, that gives McMillan a run for his money but they were one of two boats that suffered a dismasting on the opening day and have struggled to regain their rhythm. The other was Franck Cammas’ French Team, racing the green colours of Groupama but carrying the lanterne rouge for too much of the second day.

Cammas himself is in Santander chasing 2016 accreditation in the new Olympic catamaran, the Nacra 17, alongside a strong line-up of national squads seeking the first chance to secure a slot in Rio. Britain’s Olympic manager Stephen Park is in hungry mood.

Snakes and ladders are a major part of what is described by the Extreme Series organisers as elite stadium racing and the post-race debrief for Sir Ben Ainslie was as intense as ever, having won a race and slipped to the tail. Ninth out of 12 at the halfway stage is not where Britain’s quadruple gold medallist and America’s Cup challenger feels comfortable.

Said Ainslie “It was a slightly better day for us and we started off really well. We had a few issues in the middle races with a couple of collisions, so that didn’t go our way, but I guess that’s the nature of this racing.

“We have just got to try and eliminate some of those small mistakes and if we can do that then I’m confident we can get ourselves up the leaderboard.”  

With Rob Greenhalgh’s Oman Air lying third, it was a good day for Oman Sail and GAC Pindar, which has Nathan Wilmot of the now former America’s Cup challenger Team Australia at the helm a riding on a season’s high of fourth.

At least it gave the Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) team some real racing to do instead of navigating its way through the maze which continues to be the America’s Cup. A presentation of all five challenging teams plus the American defender produced little in London earlier this week. The new commercial commissioner, Harvey Schiller, said that it needed to be restored to a tier one sports event, but did not say how.

He said that a programme of racing for 2015 would be announced by 1 November, but did not say if it would be in the 45-foot wing-powered catamarans used in 2011 and 2012 or, as some of the teams seemed to wish, in turbo-charged foiling versions.

There is still no venue chosen for the 2017 shoot-out, something which the teams need to entice sponsorship, and it could be the end of the year before that is settled. Even the boat to be used, originally stated to be a 62-footer, as opposed to the 72-footer used in San Francisco last year, is under review, including a possible switch to a 52-footer. The year-long handling of the event organisation has, through silence and secrecy, engendered little more than derision, and the teams deserve better.

Even the replacement of the original Australians from Hamilton Island Yacht Club as the lead Challenger of Record by the Prada-backed Italians of Luna Rossa, who want to see a more democratic forum including the defending team, has been handled clumsily.

Britain’s BAR, plus the Iain Percy-led Swedes of Artemis Racing, the powerful campaigners of Team New Zealand, the Italians, and the so-far cash-strapped French can all produce formidable campaigns on the water; so far they are greater than the sum of the parts being manipulated by Larry Ellison’s Oracle Racing via a Golden Gate Yacht Club which seems to have ceded all control.

A private meeting of all six teams after a press presentation, variously described as a “disaster” and a “train crash” by seasoned insiders, was meant to give further impetus to a billion dollar event which has fascinated generations for 163 years. The Extreme Sailing Series and its chief executive Mark Turner have already confirmed it has eight venues signed up for the 2015 grand prix. So far, the America’s Cup has none, except that BAR has stated clearly that it wants to stage one of them in Portsmouth.

A much-delayed 86-page report by the San Francisco Police Department into the death in May last year of British double Olympic medallist Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson while training on America’s Cup challenger Artemis on San Francisco Bay came to no conclusion about any further action. His two sons, Freddie and Hamish, helped open the Southampton Boat Show and a worldwide memorial, Bart’s Bash, aims to see the most yacht clubs ever to take part on the same day in a programme of racing and tribute on 21 September which will also raise cash for the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation.

As the seven boats start a practice race around Mallorca ahead of next month’s Volvo round the world race, the Spanish team has announced that both top French ocean racer Michel Desjoyeaux and British singlehander Sam Goodchild have joined Iker Martinez’ squad on the new 65-footer.

Extreme Sailing Series - Istanbul 

Results after 15 races:

1 - The Wave, Muscat - 95
2 - ETNZ - 92
3 - Oman Air - 87
4 - GAC Pindar - 75
5 - SAP Extreme - 74
6 - Alinghi - 70
7 - Red Bull - 68
8 - Team Russia - 66
9 - J.P. Morgan BAR - 65
10 - TeamTurx - 56
11 - Realteam - 54
12 - Groupama - 48