Many have tried, but virtually all have failed and none have sustained. Now, finally, there is one circuit that might just have hit on a formula to make sailboat racing a mainstream sport. This means not just a one-hit wonder held every few years, but a series with mass appeal that can maintain and build an audience via an annual circuit of repeated events, just like motor racing’s Formula 1 or sports like golf and tennis.
Well on its way to achieving this is SailGP (sailgp.com). Unquestionably, it helps that it is bankrolled by one of America’s richest men, Larry Ellison, and masterminded and executed by one of the world’s most accomplished sailors/pioneers, Russell Coutts. But there’s no denying the thing itself has serious legs.
SailGP has been in Coutts’ mind for years. In 2007 he and Paul Cayard announced the World Sailing Series—a prize-money driven circuit for 70ft catamarans that never came to fruition. Since joining forces with Ellison, he also delivered in the 34th and 35th America’s Cups, held in AC72 catamarans on San Francisco Bay and four years later in AC50s in Bermuda. With these events, though, Coutts and Ellison were shackled by the constraints of the America’s Cup Deed of Gift and intervention by third parties such as the Challenger of Record. With SailGP, they could design a circuit all their own from the bottom up.
To get SailGP going, the majority of AC50s that had competed in Bermuda were acquired, and Core Composites in New Zealand ruthlessly set about building six new boats using parts from these same AC50s along with two from scratch using Oracle Team USA’s AC50 tooling.
The step from AC50 to F50 was significant. The new boat is sailed by five rather than six in its standard crew configuration. A battery, rather than humans, drives the hydraulics that controls everything movable on the wing and foils, save the wingsheet. Two grinders remain to operate that, complimenting the helmsman, wing trimmer and flight controller. Decks and cockpits were replaced to accommodate the new crew lineup. Foils were upgraded along with their cases and control systems, sterns, electronics and hydraulics.
Central to Coutts’ approach has been making the competition TV-friendly. This in turn has touched every aspect of SailGP. For example, days of racing lost due to too much or too little wind is the constant bane of live televised sailing events. Thus, the F50 operates through a huge wind range, with a wing that originally came in two sizes, with heights of 59 and 79ft, and is now available in a third, extra-long extension increasing height to 97ft.
“That gives us a really good range where we can race them in as little as 4 knots,” says Coutts. “The big problem with these high-performance boats is getting them downwind—they get to a point where they’re just reaching across the wind. With the new wing, the boats can sail almost 20 degrees deeper than they could.”
At the top end, F50s raced in winds up to 28 knots in a recent regatta in Bermuda. Coutts reckons crews should be able to race them in 30, depending on the all-important sea state. “It gives us a high chance of running the races to schedule, which is critical to us. The guys are getting better and better at sailing them in waves.”
To complement the different wing options are two sets of foils—a light-air set, with a 9.3ft tip and 2.8ft2 area that can be used in up to 12 knots, and regular “high-speed boards,” with a 7.3ft tip of 2.1ft2—plus accompanying sets of rudders and elevators.
The skipper of the USA boat Jimmy Spithill says the differences sailing the F50 compared to the AC50 are huge, noting: “The foils and rudders are a lot different, so they are harder to sail, you can pop a rudder out easily.” By contrast, Spithill says, the boats’ control systems are much more robust than those found the original AC50s, despite all the money the different campaigns spent on them at the time. Beyond that the biggest difference is the new boats are significantly faster. “You are bearing away at 50 knots a lot of the time,” Spithill says.
Courses are similar to those used in the 34th and 35th America’s Cups, with a reaching start to a first turning mark (like the first corner in F1), followed by a series of upwind-downwind legs culminating in a reach to the finish. The course also has an electronic boundary. If a boat errs in crossing it the crew receives an electronic penalty and is required to slow down until the penalty is absolved, as determined by the umpires.
SailGP’s race management, however, is stratospherically different, a giant step up from what was used in the Ellison-Coutts ACs. While GPS usually has an accuracy of a few meters, SailGP uses something called LiveLine, as developed by navigation legend Stan Honey, which harnesses special GPS accuracy to less than 1in. With this tech, calling starting line or boundary violations can be carried out with unprecedented accuracy, 100 percent electronically. This, in turn, means that most race management can be carried out remotely, with principal race officer (PRO) Iain Murray running the show on the water from Sydney (though a deputy attends in person) and umpiring taking place in a booth in West London, England, alongside the bulk of the television production.
Key to televising SailGP has been this same Honey tech, which, by harnessing ultra-sophisticated electronic wizardry, including military-grade inertia sensors, allows an electronic course boundary to be superimposed on a moving TV image, such as that from a helicopter. Never has made-for-TV sailing be so well-produced.
Beyond that, the event model for SailGP is directly comparable to international motor racing circuits. Those looking forward to settling down into a weeklong event providing a mix of conditions will be disappointed. Racing at SailGP events takes place over two days and includes six races—five for the entire fleet followed by a single final race for the top three. Why three? To differentiate it from the America’s Cup and fill out a podium.
Significantly SailGP teams race for prize money. The purse is currently $200,000 per event divided between the three winners. At the final event of the season, the winning team gets to take home a cool million.
“We don’t talk about our prize money much,” admits Coutts. “It doesn’t really compare with other major sports, but it will do. We are growing the prize money pretty rapidly—that’s an objective as soon as we get a title sponsor. I believe you have to reward the teams that are performing well.”
Teams are sold by SailGP using a U.S. franchise model similar to the one employed by major league baseball and the NHL. The first six teams are owned and backed by Ellison. Subsequent teams have been sold to individuals with corporate or private backing. Vital to SailGP is, of course, top-notch competition, so many of the world’s top sailors have been recruited. The series’ inaugural season, in 2019, featured teams from Australia, skippered by Laser gold medalist and America’s Cup winner Tom Slingsby; China, with two-time World Match Racing Champion Phil Robertson at the helm; France, with Nacra 17 Olympian Billy Besson; Great Britain, with then-future Tokyo 49er gold medalist, Dylan Fletcher; Japan, skippered by Olympic 49er gold medalist and America’s Cup skipper Nathan Outteridge; and the United States, with America’s Cup winner Rome Kirby), with many of the most sought-after crew bringing AC50 experience from Bermuda.
SailGP teams must adhere to crew nationality rules. Competing nations are designated as either a “Developed Sailing Country” or an “Other Country.” In the first season, Australia, France, Great Britain and the United States all fell into the former category, with Japan and China in the latter. In a “developed” country only one foreigner can be in the crew, otherwise up to three sailors from another country are allowed (unless crew numbers are reduced due to light winds). The program is progressive over subsequent seasons with the aim that eventually a Chinese team, for example, will be 100 percent Chinese.
One of the most significant steps toward SailGP becoming a truly legitimate sports entity was the arrival of global entertainment, sports and content company Endeavor, which took a minor stake in the series in early 2020. Endeavor owns a network of companies specializing in a number of areas vital to putting a sport on the map, notably content production, media rights distribution, licensing, sponsorships and consumer marketing.
“That’s been really helpful,” Coutts says. “They’ve got huge connections and huge skill. Before them, we had a sales force of four people. Now we’re over 80.”
In its first season, SailGP put together five events, kicking off in Sydney, Australia. After that came regattas in San Francisco; New York City; Cowes, England; and Marseilles, France. The 2019 circuit was dominated by the Aussie and Japanese teams, with Slingsby’s team winning all but the New York event. In Marseilles, the two teams ended up in the winner-take-all final, with the Australians eventually coming out on top.
As with most things, SailGP ground to halt during the pandemic, with just one event taking place in 2020, in Sydney, before the remainder of the season was pushed back to 2021. It resumed, however, in Bermuda, this past April. After that came regattas in Taranto in southern Italy; Plymouth, England; Aarhus, Denmark; Saint-Tropez, France; and Cadiz, Spain. Rounding out the second season will be a regatta in Sydney, Australia, in December and a final regatta in San Francisco in March 2022.
In its second season, China was out, but there were three new additions—a Danish team backed by the insulation company Rockwool with match racer and Volvo Ocean Race veteran Nicolai Sehested as skipper; a Spanish team with Phil Robertson moving over from the Chinese team to take charge; and a New Zealand squad led by America’s Cup winner Peter Burling.
Significantly, two ex-Oracle Team USA America’s Cup hands also entered the fray, with Jimmy Spithill becoming skipper of the U.S. boat and Ben Ainslie not only taking over the British team but promptly winning the regattas in Sydney and Bermuda. Since then Ainslie has acquired the franchise for the British team, with backing from Vitol Director Chris Bake, best known for campaigning Team Aqua in the RC44 monohull class.
In the wake of the Bermuda event, SailGP has reverted to being the Slingsby-versus-Outteridge show, with the Japanese claiming the Italian and French events (where the Aussies experienced race crippling technical issues), and Slingsby’s team winning all the others. Slowly rising up the leaderboard, though, has been team USA, which after coming last in Bermuda has notched a lethally consistent 3-3-4-2-2 record, and at press time had pulled up to second overall, one point astern of Australia—this despite having had to overcome a number of challenges, including foil damage after colliding with underwater objects and the team’s wing trimmer, Paul Campbell-James, breaking his leg.
Of course, chop Jimmy Spithill in half and out will leap a kangaroo. Nonetheless, the Aussie is also very much an American these days as well, having lived in San Diego for years with his American wife and two American children. He is also fully onboard with the SailGP program and all it has to offer both sailors and the general public.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the Cup, and the development, but it is really frustrating because look at the situation now. We raced the Cup a long time ago, and people ask me, ‘Where is the next one? What boats, when, format, etc?’ And we don’t know. So having a regular season, building something of value, everyone having the same gear—every other successful sporting property in the world has that and is commercial-motivated. It is a no-brainer to get involved.”
While there is skepticism about whether SailGP would survive without Ellison’s backing, Coutts says that as soon as it gets a title sponsor (something still being worked on) it will be self-sustaining. Spithill agrees, saying he could easily see SailGP becoming mainstream.
“I believe it has all the ingredients to grow from strength to strength to compete with other sports,” Spithll says, “teamwork, the risk, the technical F1/MotoGP side, the boats are constantly evolving so the boats are right at the cutting edge and everyone receives the same upgrades, so there can be no excuses or arguments.”
Moving forward, Coutts says SailGP will soon expand to 12 teams, with a Swiss team skippered by Sebastien Schneiter, a two-time 49er Olympian already signed up as the ninth. A 10th franchise has also been sold, and Coutts reckons Season Three will offer 10 or 11 events with future years seeing as many as 16. According to Coutts, if demand increases further, SailGP may even be broken down into a number of continental series, with the top teams going on to compete at an international level.
Of course, at present whether or not any of these more grandiose plans will ever become reality remains an open question. Business-wise it will eventually all come down to whether sponsors or private team owners feel they are getting value. From a public’s point of view it is also more than a little ironic that SailGP’s biggest critics are stalwarts from within sailing, many of the generation that still shed a tear for 12-Metres. Get an 18-year-old’s or a non-sailor’s view on what this kind of sailing is like, though, and you will have your answer. Put simply, the future of professional sailing has never looked better.
SailGP: Not Just Another Boy’s Club
Unlike some racing circuits, SailGP’s vision for the future of professional sailing includes the recruitment of women. “It is our responsibility as a global league to ensure we create a culture and sporting championship that has gender equity,” Coutts says. To that end, the Women’s Pathway Program was instituted for Season Two in order to get female sailors involved and introduce a new standard lightweight crew configuration for the F50.
Because fewer opportunities are generally available to female sailors, the program includes development and training. “It is no secret that there is currently an experience gap among women at the top of the sport, and so far this season we have embedded female athletes in each of our teams to gain vital experience,” Coutts says. “We recognize, though, we have to go further to close the gap and work quicker to accelerate change, which is why we are taking this next step. It is imperative to break existing boundaries and create a more inclusive environment.” The sailors from this program made their official debut on the circuit during the sixth event of the 2021 season, in Cádiz-Andalusia.
Ed note: For the latest on the SailGP circuit including details on next year’s event in San Francisco, go to sailgp.com
MHS Winter 2021-22