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Young and On Fire

Australian Tom Slingsby took the helm of Oracle Team USA's AC45 at the America's Cup World Series in Naples with a goal: to prove he's just as much a helmsman as a tactician.

May 3, 2013
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Sailing World

Tom Slingsby in Naples

Tom Slingsby celebrates a match-racing win in Naples. ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

Standing in for fellow Aussie Jimmy Spithill for the final America’s Cup World Series event, young Tom Slingsby set off to Naples to put one thing straight: He’s just much of a helmsman as he is a tactician. A hard worker and fiercely competitive, he proved he’s got what it takes to get an AC45 around the racetrack quickly, bringing home another match-racing title for Oracle Team USA, which also claimed the overall ACWS 2012-’13 season championship. Best buddies with Nathan Outteridge, helmsman for Artemis Racing, the two grew up racing together in Australia, and like Outteridge, he holds a slew of consecutive world championship titles (six) and an Olympic gold medal–in the Laser. He’s fast finding his feet in the big world of the America’s Cup.

What was your edge in Naples?
TS:
The thing we did best was the crew work–I had quite a young crew but really motivated guys. We had Pete Van Nieuwenhuijzen … who has won everything with Jimmy over the past couple of years. We were able to gain valuable meters all the time through various maneuvers, and that added up at the end.

**It was your first time helming the 45 in a major competition. How did it go?
TS: **I loved it. I’ve often been called a tactician over the last five years, whereas I’ve always thought of myself as a helmsman but have never had the opportunity to show it. This is the first time I’ve been able to steer a boat in the World Series, and I wanted to make a statement that I’m a helmsman and not just a tactician.

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Oracle now has three excellent helmsman–how do you feel about being the bridesmaid and not the bride when clearly you’re capable?
TS:
It’s OK–I was given an amazing opportunity. I was hired as a tactician with the strongest team in the America’s Cup, and I’m still pretty young and going to run with it. I know I wasn’t hired as a helmsman, but I’ve now had a lot of support since Naples. People now know that I’m there if Ben or Jimmy gets injured or sick, I can fill in. I think they know now I can do a good enough job, and it’s nice knowing I’m being known as a helmsman as well as a tactician.

You’ve been a successful tennis player and Laser sailor. How have you managed the transition to team and working with a crew?
TS:
Everyone knows me for the Laser sailing I’ve done, but I’ve been sailing yachts as a tactician for around 10 years: Farr 40s, Etchells, TP52s, RC44s. When I was getting into it, I’d find the boats with the best tactician and try to get a ride with him. I really studied how they communicated, and I remember writing things down when I was younger about the way they communicated: what they said and how they said it. I learned quickly all about tones, and you have to make sure you have the right tone when you’re speaking to the crew, make sure you don’t display urgency or tension when you speaking … that kind of thing. I must have been improving over the years because I was hired as a tactician at Oracle, and it’s all going pretty well!

What happened in 2009–you didn’t win the World Championship (Laser) that year?
TS:
I took a year off after the 2008 Games, I was doing a few regattas, but I wasn’t training; I was trying to have a fun year. After that result, I think I was 17th at the Worlds, I didn’t like that feeling of not winning the Worlds, so straight after that I went back into full-time training as I realized that you can’t do anything by halves in the Olympic classes.

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How do you think your success in tennis parlays into your success on the water?
TS:
The thing I learned most from tennis was the right work ethic needed in a sport. I realized how hard you have to train–I was training 6-7 times a week and often twice a day–and how much work you have to put in to succeed. After I quit tennis and started sailing a lot, I brought that same work ethic over and quickly started getting results.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being part of Oracle Team USA?
TS:
Learning about things I don’t know about–I’m sitting in all the design meetings to learn about things like aerodynamics, foil shapes, wing structures. A lot of the guys in the Cup have sat in these meetings for years, but this is my first time. I only joined the team full-time 6-8 months ago, so I’m on the fast-track trying to learn as quick as I can. I’m picking it up really quickly. So far it’s going well, but its definitely a bit of study after hours to pick up on a few things I didn’t understand.

Can you see yourself getting back into the Laser scene once this is over?
TS:
I’ll make a decision in October/November as to what I’ll do with the Olympics. It’s about 95% that I’m done with the Laser. We’ve got a really good group of Australian Laser sailors coming through, and these were the guys who were my training partners for the last Olympics. I’m proud to pass the baton on to these guys. At the moment I think we have four or five guys ranked in the top ten in the world. I’m happy that they’re going to run with it and continue Australian Laser sailing at the highest level. If I do come back, it may be in a Finn. My bodyweight would be quite good for a Finn these days. I’m 50/50 each way, and if I get a good offer from an America’s Cup team, I might stay in this world. I love it; it’s very different. I do love the personal challenges of Olympic sailing and sailing by yourself and not needing 40 men to launch your boat, but will wait to see what offers come in.

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How do you not take all this too seriously–is there ever a time for a good laugh, or not quite yet?
TS: I think I always never take it too seriously. Obviously I’m very focused on my career, but I love what I’m doing. This America’s Cup we’re sailing 72 hydrofoiling catamarans–people would do anything to be a part of it, and I’m here. I’m with the strongest team–I’m loving every minute of it. Anytime I have a tough day I realize there’s a lot of people who’d give an arm and a leg to be in the position I’m in. Plus, I have options: I can go back to Olympic sailing or I can stay here. I think I’m in a really good position going forward.

Click here to read more America’s Cup interviews from Michelle Slade.

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