Helen Fretter talks to the supremely talented Tom Slingsby about his life a pro sailor and how he became an Olympic, America's Cup and offshore racing winner
What is the mark of a truly great sailor? Is it an Olympic gold medal, an America’s Cup win, offshore racing victories – or something else? Because Australian Tom Slingsby has all of those, but it is the sailing he does for fun, his downtime dinghy racing on his own boat, which is perhaps his most impressive.
In September 2021, Tom Slingsby won his second International Moth World Championship. In the foiling dinghy class that’s a considerable achievement. But the manner in which he did it – 13 race wins from 14 starts – and the ridiculous talent trailing behind him, was truly remarkable.
The results table reads like a who’s who of sailing, of America’s Cup crews, Olympic Gold Medallists and World Champions. Paul Goodison in 3rd, Francesco Bruni 5th, Nathan Outteridge 7th… It’s a fleet made up of his great friends, and greater rivals. But Slingsby dominated them all.
From Garda he travelled to France, then Spain, to compete in SailGP, where his Team Australia leads the series, winning the Cadiz event. To fill a gap in his diary caused by travel complications getting back to Australia, he joined Comanche in the RORC Middle Sea Race, where the 100ft Maxi demolished the course record and won overall.
Next was Palma for the TP52 World Championships. He carried the momentum that a slightly magical unbeaten run gives onto Phoenix, where he gave a masterclass in light winds tactics to take 1st in the first two races – ahead of another stellar fleet, many of whom have been racing 52s for decades.
In just a few weeks he delivered top flight wins inshore and offshore. Dinghy, multihull and big boat. Foiling and conventional. It was, by any standards, a very good end to an exceptional year.
The Moth is a bit different to Slingsby’s many professional sailing gigs. “I do the Moths just out of passion for sailing. It’s really the only sailing I do that isn’t for my livelihood. I do it because I just love it. I spend all my own personal money on the boats and development. So it is really nice to be successful in that part of my sailing.
“I did the 2017 Worlds in Lake Garda, and I finished 4th. But it was the most enjoyable regatta I’d ever done in my life, and I said if ever there’s another Moth Worlds in Garda, I’d do anything to be there. So even with everything happening with Covid, when all Italy was shut down, I still packed up my boat and sent it to Europe on the off chance it might happen.”
Like many sailors, Slingsby was able to devote time to tinkering with and sailing his Moth from his home in Sydney when lockdown curtailed the professional racing circuit last year. Once events resumed, he blocked out weeks between regattas to go back to Garda.
“I just love the development side. I love always improving the boat. And I was sitting out the last America’s Cup, and so I guess I had a bit more time. I love the sailing, and I love the spirit of the class.
“The development never stops. I’ve changed designs again, for the third year in a row. I really enjoy trying different boats and trying to see how to make them fast.”
That drive to extract the fastest possible speed from every single boat is what has built Slingsby probably the most complete sailing CV of his generation. But it hasn’t been an entirely straightforward progression.
Now 37, he grew up in Brisbane, Australia. Although he sailed as a child, he didn’t pursue youth racing. Instead, tennis stole his attention, and he competed at a high level into his teens, to the cusp of turning professional.
In 2000, the Olympic Games arrived in Sydney. A 16-year-old Tom took his place on the shores of Bradleys Head in Sydney Harbour and, along with thousands of others, watched one of the most phenomenal Olympic regattas of all time. He decided, then and there, that he was going to win an Olympic gold sailing medal.
Two years later he was winning Laser Nationals and Olympic classes events, but needed a top 10 finish at the World Championship to earn his place on the Australian team. By 2004 he was working two jobs to support his campaign, training in the few hours left in between, and any Olympic dreams were hanging in the balance.
At the Worlds in Turkey he finished the penultimate day lying 22nd. The prospect of hanging up his sailing boots for university studies loomed large. Instead, Slingsby won two races back to back, jumping to 7th overall. His place on the Australian team was secured, though he didn’t make selection for Athens 2004.
In 2007 he won his first Laser World title and by 2008 was ranked No. 1 in the world. He went to Qingdao as favourite for Olympic Gold but, as he described it, “choked”. It was a hard setback.
However, it inspired Slingsby to change his approach to sailing. “I’d just been really concentrating on Lasers – as all Olympians do, they just concentrate on their own class. But Nathan Outteridge and myself were team mates in Beijing and we both came away a bit unhappy with our result. So we said, ‘Look, let’s start sailing as many types of classes as we can.’ We both bought A-class catamarans after the Games and said, let’s learn about catamarans and faster sailing.
“Then we both got Moths. Nathan was coming from the 49er, a pretty fast boat background – but my background was Lasers, slow moving tactical boats. And I realised I was just learning so much more about sailing. I learned about apparent winds. I learned about the capabilities of catamarans versus monohulls, standard monohulls versus foiling boats.
“I’d sail any type of boat. If someone said: ‘I’ve got an 18ft Skiff you can use on the weekend, do you want to?’ If I was free, I said yes. I would just take any opportunity that was given and it’s really helped me.”
Slingsby and Outteridge’s post-Qingdao project had built skillsets that would take them beyond the Olympics to the future of foiling multihulls. But first, Slingsby had unfinished business in the Laser.
He won three back-to-back World titles, before taking gold at Weymouth in 2012. The following year he joined Oracle Team USA as strategist, winning the America’s Cup in 2013. He stayed with Ellison’s team for the Bermuda defence, where they lost to Emirates Team New Zealand. Slingsby then signed up to lead the Australian team in Ellison’s SailGP, winning the million-dollar final of the first series.
“I’m in a nice position now where I feel like I can jump on any type of boat and know how to get it going fast and know the keys to winning in that class. It’s a really nice feeling to have, and it definitely takes a lot of work and training and dedication. But I’m just so lucky to be in the position that I’m in, and to get the opportunity to sail these types of boats and travel the world.”
His Australia team may be currently leading the second series of SailGP, but there’s no let-up in pressure, thanks to the talent pool that makes up Slingsby’s peer group.
“It’s on another level to anything I’ve ever experienced. We had all these legends of the sport who were considered the best in the world: Ben Ainslie in the Finns, I guess, me in the Lasers, Nathan Outteridge in the 49ers, Peter Burling in the 49ers and the America’s Cup. But they,” he corrects himself, modest about his own talent, “we never really got a chance to get on the same type of boat. Now we all get to jump on the same race track in equal boats, and we really get to see who the best sailor is.
“On the race track, the competitiveness is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When you’re on the start line and you’ve got Jimmy Spithill above you and Ben Ainslie below you, two of the most aggressive sailors in history, you’re just the meat in the sandwich sometimes! It’s pretty daunting.”
Was it hard to watch many of them racing each other in Auckland? “It was tough sitting out the last Cup,” he concedes. “I did get some offers, but they just didn’t work for me at that time. It wasn’t hard for the first three years, but then when all the boats lined up in Auckland on the same race track, I was pretty jealous.”
With the latest America’s Cup Protocol specifying a 100% nationality rule, opportunities for sailors like Slingsby will continue to be limited (although he is a US passport holder due to his American mother, so the Cup door may not be entirely closed). “If they’ve only got four entries in the America’s Cup, that means if you’re not part of one of those four countries, you can’t compete. And I just think that’s not fair,” he says.
“If you’re from anywhere in the world – Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, anywhere – and you’re an unbelievable sailor, you should have the opportunity to compete in the America’s Cup. If you’re from France or Austria and you’re one of the top sailors in the world you should get that chance.”
SailGP, by contrast, has relaxed its nationality rules slightly. “I do like that there is some flexibility in the rule. It means that Francesco Bruni, who’s Italian but there’s no Italian team, can still compete. The best sailors in the world will actually be on the racetrack, I think that’s the way to do it.
“But New Zealand kicked our arse in the 2017 Cup and took away all my rights to say anything, so it’s their call!
“I do miss working with a team at that scale and trying to design and build the quickest boat you can, and then learn how to sail it as fast as you can. It’s a very enjoyable part of our sport. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be back there. Maybe not. But I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I have amazing options.”
What else is on Slingsby’s wish-list? “I want to create a pathway and a programme in Australia to develop future champions. I’d love to have some sort of foundation or a team that really funnels people in and nurtures the next generation.
“It’s something I’m passionate about. I would love in the future to be helping the next generation of sailors and showing them how to get to the top and how to achieve their goals.” The first lesson is likely to be: sail everything.
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