SailGP, the new high-performance stadium-style series introduced by Oracle Team USA’s Larry Ellison, has not disappointed those who expected thrill and spills.
The high-powered F50 catamarans, based on the AC50s that contested the last America’s Cup in Bermuda, are performing as advertised—they accelerate like demons, reach eye-watering speeds nudging 50 knots, and reward good sailing as much as they punish the slightest of mistakes.
As this issue went to press, the six boats, crewed by five-person teams from China, Japan, Great Britain, Australia, France and the United States, had just finished the penultimate event in the five-stop series, a blustery weekend in Cowes, on England’s Isle of Wight. It was marked by what has become a refrain of dashed hopes, damaged boats and enough spectacle to keep those spectators who braved the weather on their toes. There were capsizes and near-disasters on a gale-swept weekend, and the Australian crew became first to break the 50-knot mark in competition.
Getting under way in Sydney, Australia, in February, the series moved around the world to the United States, with races in San Francisco and New York. Following Cowes, the final event was scheduled for Marseille, France in September. It was the two American events, however, that proved there was a public appetite for this kind of racing.
I watched a day’s racing on the Hudson River during the New York event in June, a dramatic weekend played out on the Hudson River under shifty winds and strong currents. In wind speeds ranging from five to 20 knots in the same races, it was obvious that the Australian and Japanese teams, helmed by Australians Tom Slingsby and Nathan Outteridge, would be hard to beat overall.
It was equally obvious that the event was a real crowd-pleaser—the largely non-sailing crowd on my spectator boat ooh’ed and aah’ed as the boats alternately jumped onto their foils and took off at breakneck speed in the gusts, only to abruptly nosedive in clouds of spray as the wind dropped. They cheered loudly for all the boats, not just the American team, whose indifferent performance was later explained by the fact they sailed that day with a member of the shore crew replacing the injured wing-trimmer. With a replacement trimmer flown in, Rome Kirby’s young team would win a race the following day.
One of the draws of the series is the nationality rule— in a nod to the developing sailing nations of Japan and China, this year at least 40 percent of the five-person crews had to be citizens of the countries whose flag they sail under, and that requirement will increase by 20 percent a year. Since the nationality rule has long been a bone of contention in America’s Cup sailing, it is good to see it being addressed at this level.
The Australian, British, French and American teams had no worries in this respect—all of their crews were home-grown.