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British crew looks to win SailGP regatta in home waters

The notorious English weather and the home country's crew have already left their mark on SailGP's European debut even before an official race has sailed. Both of Saturday's races in the regatta on the Solent off Cowes, England, were called off because of high winds, leading to a compressed schedule Sunday.

The British crew established itself as the favorite by winning both practice races Thursday, two days after it became the first in the fledgling global league to break 50 knots aboard its foiling, 50-foot catamaran. The next day, the Australians also broke 50 knots but then broke their wingsail in strong wind. They missed both practice races.

Motivated by sailing in front of home crowds, the British are looking to bounce back from a capsize that forced them to miss the first three races of the New York regatta in June. "We have the potential to win," said helmsman Dylan Fletcher, whose crew sits a distant third overall behind Nathan Outteridge's Team Japan and Tom Slingsby's Team Australia. "Just to be racing them and taking races off them occasionally is a massive achievement."

The tightened schedule means there won't be a match-race final to determine the regatta winner. Sunday's racing will feature three fleet races, with the overall winner determined by points. Slingsby is ready to renew his rivalry with countryman Outteridge while watching out for the British.

Slingsby's crew won the first two regattas, beating Outteridge in the match-race finals in Sydney and San Francisco. Outteridge broke through in New York by winning three of the five fleet races and then speeding away from Australia to take the match-race final.

"It was a bit of a wakeup call, really," said Slingsby, an Olympic gold medalist and former America's Cup champion. "We realize that we've got a lot of work to do." Although SailGP speed records are recognized only if set during official races, it was still significant on Tuesday that the British flew their catamaran at 50.22 knots (57.79mph/93 kph).

The Aussies went out Wednesday and hit 51.24 knots (58.96 mph/94.89 kph). Their training for this regatta has been limited to two hours on the water after their wingsail broke. The previous unofficial mark had been just under 50 knots by Slingsby during training before the league launched.

While it's exhilarating sailing at those speeds, crews must be wary when going at 48 knots and faster. "The whole boat is shaking," Fletcher said. "It's very uncomfortable and unnerving. It's all just about trying to know what to do."

While shifting, patchy wind affected sailing on the New York's Hudson River, crews are looking toward better conditions this time. Sunday's forecast is for 18 knots with gusts up to 25 knots. "Compared to New York, this will be really good racing," Slingsby said. "It will be normal, traditional sailing. With that forecast, boats will be lit up and ripping along."

Japan leads Australia 140 points to 139. The British are third with 106 points, followed by the U.S. with 105 and China and France with 93 each. Having capsized just 30 minutes before the first of three races on the first day in New York, Fletcher knows anything can happen.

"We're the Brits," he said. "We like to be the plucky underdog."

Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson

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