Spithill steers US into SailGP lead on Plymouth Sound

PLYMOUTH, England (AP) — U.S. skipper Jimmy Spithill avoided a collision at the start of the third fleet race Saturday and sailed to victory to take the overall lead at the Plymouth SailGP regatta.

Spithill also steered the American 50-foot foiling catamaran to finishes of second and fifth place on Plymouth Sound to take a narrow lead over France and Australia at the top of the eight-team fleet.

The American boat was in the right-of-way in leeward position moments before the start of the third race when Spanish helmsman Phil Robertson made a diving maneuver toward the line, a move that has caused concern among league officials at previous regattas.

Spithill quickly bore away to avoid contact while crewman Rome Kirby protested the infringement to race umpires, who disqualified the Spanish team. It was the first “black flag” decision in SailGP’s two seasons.

“How many times do we have to see it?” Spithill said. “It’s obvious Phil has done this more than once. It’s not his first offense, it’s well past three strikes. I’m not at all surprised to see him black flagged.

“He either was going to crash into the mark and hurt someone on his boat or crash into us and hurt someone on our boat,” Spithill said. “When you see it happen at MotoGP or at Formula One they start fining and penalizing the driver for the very reason that you can hurt other people. The fact that this isn’t his first time doing something like that, I think it’s justified.”

The black flag disqualification was instituted to deter contact between boats following a wild season-opening regatta in Bermuda. The Americans were knocked out of that regatta after their boat was hit by Team Japan.

“Our start tactics were to come in fast and find a gap,” Robertson said. “From my side, I felt we nailed the timing on the start and then we heard that we had an infringement. It was close but we didn’t infringe. Perhaps it was marginal but I don’t think it should have been a disqualification. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Australian skipper Tom Slingsby supported Spithill, his former America’s Cup crewmate.

“The penalty in my mind should have been harsher as he keeps doing it,” Slingsby said of Robertson. “He is relying on the other boat to react and if Jimmy hadn’t reacted there would have been a huge crash and someone could have been injured.”

Once clear, Spithill accelerated and extended his lead for a convincing win. The Americans are in strong contention to qualify for the podium finals Sunday. The top three teams after Sunday’s two fleet races will advance to the final race.

Spithill reached the three-boat final race at the previous regatta at Taranto, Italy, but his catamaran hit a submerged object and finished third.

“To have a shot at the trophy and the $1 million at the end, you need to try and qualify for as many final races as you can to put yourself in the ultimate final in San Francisco and that’s certainly our goal,” Spithill said. “We’ve yet to get through a weekend and finish all the races without something happening to us so we’ll take it day-by-day. We’re always learning.”

Slingsby steered Australia to wins in the first two races and took seventh in the third race. Billy Besson’s French team had three third places.

“We’ve started well but there’s a long way to go,” said Slingsby, who had to plug in three new crewmen this regatta due to the Olympics and family commitments. “We are sailing well, getting good starts, sailing with confidence, and showing if we get out in front we are hard to pull back.”

The Australians, who won the $1 million, winner-take-all inaugural championship in 2019, are looking to bounce back from an eight-place finish in the last regatta. It was the first time they didn’t finish first or second.

The United States has 19 points, followed by France and Australia with 18 apiece, Denmark 12, New Zealand 11, Spain 10, Japan 9 and Great Britain 8.

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