SAN DIEGO (AP) — Jimmy Spithill barely made it into the podium race and then brilliantly skippered Team USA to victory in the Spain Sail Grand Prix Cádiz on Sunday, three weeks after crewman Hans Henken was seriously injured.
Spithill dedicated Team USA's first victory of SailGP's fourth season to Henken, the flight controller who was knocked unconscious when the team's 50-foot catamaran crashed hard off its foils on the first day of the regatta at Taranto, Italy. Henken was hospitalized for two nights with unspecified injuries and now is back in the United States recovering.
Spithill overcame a pre-start penalty, sailed into a huge lead on the second leg and finished a full leg ahead of Nicolai Sehested of ROCKWOOL Denmark and three-time defending SailGP champion Tom Slingsby of Team Australia. The victory boosted Team USA into third place in the season standings in tech titan Larry Ellison's global league, 11 points behind Australia and four behind Denmark.
“It was such a massive blow for the team in Italy and a tough moment for us all to go through,” said Spithill, who's best known for twice winning the America's Cup with Ellison's Oracle Team USA. “But it also inspired us and gave us a real amount of purpose for this event. We dedicate this win to Hans.”
Henken, a Stanford grad who is campaigning for the Paris Olympics as well as competing in SailGP, said he was touched by the tribute. “The entire team has put in a ton of effort and it’s awesome to see all the hard work paying off,” Henken said through the team. “Each team is bigger than the individuals; I’m grateful for all the support and honored to be a part of this team and this win.”
Match racing ace Taylor Canfield filled in as flight controller for this regatta, although he wasn't on the boat Sunday as the crews were reduced to four due to light wind.
Spithill both steered and flew the boat Sunday. He took a boundary penalty in the podium race prestart and had to fall in behind the Aussies and Danes. But he saw those teams lock into a duel and sail into light wind, which allowed him to sail clear and spring to a huge lead.
“Nothing pretty about that start — it was 100% my fault,” said Spithill, an Australian who lives full-time in San Diego with his American wife and their two sons. “I didn’t see the boundary, but as it turns out, that worked in our favor. For the teams in front at mark 1, the wind had started to go light, so we were able to jibe and lead them out of there. And that was really the race.
“Things like that don’t faze this team," Spithill said. "It’s something we’ve built up; it doesn’t matter where we are, we’re going to fight all the way to the end.”
Strategist Erika Reineke moved to grinder in the four-person configuration, working the handles to produce power to adjust the wingsail.
“This weekend means a lot,” Reineke said. "It marks my one-year anniversary with the team and this year it’s full circle that we take the win together. I love racing with the guys and look forward to what’s next.”
It was also the second anniversary of the Women's Pathway Program, and Spithill handed Reineke the steering wheel trophy before the sailors sprayed each other with sparkling wine.
In the fifth and final fleet race, with the third spot in the podium race up for grabs, an error by Spithill allowed New Zealand's Peter Burling to get ahead at a mark rounding. But Burling, the two-time reigning America's Cup champion helmsman, got caught in traffic in the 10-boat fleet and copped a penalty for not keeping clear of Emirates Great Britain. That let Spithill sail clear for a fourth-place finish that locked up a spot in the final.
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