Front Rudder – by Mark Reid
I am sure when SailGP’s CEO, Russell Coutts set up 2021’s opening round in Bermuda, it was perfectly timed a month out from the America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, with a lineup of most of the rock stars from the oldest continuing sporting event that the proverbial coast was clear.
Here we are 15 months or more after the start of the global COVID pandemic. Undoubtably, Coutts, a Cup legend in his own right, thought that all was in order for a triumphant return to the florescent pink coral beaches and luminesce turquoise waters of this remote island paradise which would serve as a welcome respite from a sailing world weary of being locked down and isolated in quarantine.
Even I felt that after being denied the opportunity to be in New Zealand for the America’s Cup due to a COVID-19 related jam up of available rooms in quarantine “hotels”, largely due to a priority given to returning Kiwi nationals (rightfully so) and not subscribing to a subservient for an essential worker job for one of the visiting billionaires in need of a golf caddy or pool boy (actually true!) that Bermuda’s doors would be open and I would be able to put my other disappointment behind me.
After all, I had finally received both of my vaccine shots and was ready, willing and able to make the trip, making and taking advantage of all my lost interview opportunities with Jimmy Spithill, Peter Burling and Nathan Outteridge. But it was not to be. Bermuda went into a complete lockdown, which left Coutts and all the SailGP team scrambling to cover the necessary bases to properly hold the event. It was not just a matter of getting all eight teams and their support crews into Bermuda, but the boats, wings and base compounds as well. Not to mention, broadcast, race officials, safety and umpire crews.
Even so, commentators had to announce the races from Great Britain. Umpires were based there too. Regatta Director Iain Murray called the shots from his home in Australia! All that was left was for sailors to put on a good show for the global audience. Which they did in dividends!
In fact, SailGP did the unthinkable by moving the first three races forward a day in large part due to an unfavorable weather forecast, which left the teams barely any time to practice before getting out on the water with a bloody thirsty set of sailors into ripping their radical foiling Formula 50s out on the racecourse at insane closing speeds of more than 160 kilometers an hour! (More on the European math later.)
The F50 catamarans had been collecting dust for more than a year, and SailGP had envisioned and implemented new ways of making them even faster this time around with enhanced foil and wing technology. Not to mention the radical new 18-meter “baby” wings for heavy weather days. Down from the normally aspirated 24-meter wings in a thermodynamic scientific case that less is more since the teams had about a day or two on the water to shake off the cobwebs and go to war.
Remember, this new “foiling” generation of sailors thrives on speed, and most all of them are fearless. You have to be! Have you seen these boats in action? It is riveting, tightly fought and intense. We are not talking match racing on a confined course with just two boats. This is eight foiling catamarans in the same tight confines, fleet racing against each other in a simultaneous mish mash of zig zagging spider webs at a potential carnage infused 80 kilometers an hour (50 mph/44 knots) with a limited vision of your competitors.
It is a full-time job for the skippers and flight controllers on board to keep an eye on your competition one on one, let alone looking for seven other F50’s in close proximity!
To say the guys were a little apprehensive is an understatement. Having the “balls” is not the issue at hand. Time on the water is not the same as Allan Iverson’s “practice!” They need to be out there training. Remember, these cats travel at the same speeds as the radical new America’s Cup Class 75’s, and the equivalent of a 360 kph (230 mph) Indy car on a racetrack.
But those drivers and teams have months, if not years to practice. Not minutes or hours. It is a dangerous game! These guys want to go fast, and they are fearless, but…
As for the subject of km/h vs knots, this is Sir Russell’s take on it.
“With kilometers per hour, we want this to be understandable to a wider audience, and I believe that will then bring more young sailors into our sport,” said Coutts. “We did some research, and most people are not familiar with knots. Trying to make our sport more understandable to a wider audience… not just sailors and pilots.”
To circle back on all this for Coutts and Company was a massive undertaking, and as you will soon discover, they pulled it off in spectacular fashion! Though it was not without its hiccups.
To pull off this event, SailGP had to jump through many hoops and clear numerous hurdles. Along with the Bermuda Tourism Authority and the Bermuda government’s tightening of COVID-19 protocols in recent weeks, much work had to be done to ensure that the forthcoming Bermuda Sail Grand Prix presented by Hamilton Princess, the essential operations and on-water safety trials were able to take place safely for teams and support officials alike.
As an island territory, Bermuda’s sailing legacy is integral to its 400-year-old history. The seafaring nation invented the iconic Bermuda Rig which is still used in sailing yachts today. Bermuda played host to the 35th America’s Cup in 2017.
SailGP applied for exemptions to continue its operations at Cross Island and the on-water safety trials during the government’s seven-day stay at home order, and today these exemptions have been granted for SailGP to continue to operate.
This included the exemptions for the teams to have sufficient time to familiarize themselves with all the new systems that have been recently implemented on their F50 boats. These essential on-water safety trials and trainings were vital to ensure the safety of all competitors in the event.
Working with the government, SailGP has drastically pared down its operational requirements over the stay-at-home order period.
In addition, SailGP has further revised aspects of its event programming to include changes to its hospitality program to comply with the latest government protocols and the cancellation of the ticketed tour boat spectator experiences.
SailGP also worked closely with the Ministry of Health, alongside other leading experts, medical professions and other major elite sports events on creating and implementing a robust COVID safe plan. This includes creating protocols for all staff to operate in a strict designated bubble environment, which ensures absolutely no external contact, daily health reports and regular testing, among other measures.
“We are extremely sympathetic to the current situation in Bermuda and our thoughts are with everyone that has been affected by this terrible global pandemic,” said Coutts. “We are really pleased that we can return to our operations to ensure the safety of the event and thank the government for their assistance and the people of Bermuda for their understanding.”
Ahead of the action, the SailGP Media Hub created a virtual media center to facilitate coverage of the opening round for the global championship. In a surprise, virtually unheard of in our inter-connected world and all of its social medias, the opening event in Bermuda took place a day early on April 23, in lieu that the weather on Saturday which was forecasted to be extremely light. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that racing could have taken place.
All the racing on Friday was pre-recorded and broadcast at SailGP’s allotted broadcast time the next day with a virtual, somewhat ironclad news blackout in place. In many ways, it was pulled off with few exceptions, which again is somewhat insane in this day and age, but for the most part it worked!
SailGP returned after a 14-month layoff with one of sailing’s strongest line-ups to date dotted with America’s Cup, World and Olympic champions who are battling it out in identical, foiling catamarans over eight global events for the ultimate bragging rights and the sport’s biggest monetary prize.
The star-studded line up included Season 1 champion Tom Slingsby at the helm of the Australia. The SailGP Team will have to defend his title against Great Britain’s most successful Olympic sailor of all time, Sir Ben Ainslie. America’s Cup winner Spithill is at the helm of the new-look U.S. team and Burling and Blair Tuke, who are making their debut for New Zealand in SailGP this season. Not to mention, double Olympic medalist and Season 1 runner-up Outteridge piloting the Japan team with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli’s Francesco Bruni on board as well.
“If we stay as good as we were last season it’s simple, we won’t win,” said Slingsby, who was part of OTUSA’s afterguard in 2013. “We need to improve to win this season. We’ve got to start better than we did in Season 1, and we’ve got to start better than we did in practice. We think we’re a strong team and we can keep improving, but it’s a new season so we have to step up.”
He will also have to fend off teams from Spain, Denmark and France with equally impressive pedigree, with Denmark’s ocean racer Nicolai Sehested, four-time world champion Billy Besson of France and world match racing champion Phil Robertson at the helm of the Spanish F50.
“This is an exceptional line up of talent, and it’s quite possibly the best we’ve seen in sailing,” said Ainslie. “Whoever comes out on top is going to really have to sail incredibly well. As competitive sailors and sportspeople, that’s what you want. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“I’ve never ever seen a line-up of just the best in the world, from different backgrounds too. Not just from one area, but we really do have representation from all the different disciplines in the sport and the best of the best, so it’s going to provide us with some pretty compelling racing. I can’t wait,” added Spithill, who recently wrapped up his co-helming duties for Luna Rossa in Auckland.
For Season 2, SailGP has increased its focus on gender equity and diversity, starting with each of the teams being joined by at least one female athlete in Bermuda throughout the season. The overarching aim is to fast-track the development of top female sailors into the league.
For the USA squad, the addition of Spithill to the lineup and leadership of the team should go a long way to improving its performance and results on the water.
“We couldn’t be more excited to have not only an amazing sailor, but also one of the greatest competitors join SailGP. Jimmy brings a massive amount of experience and skill to the U.S. team, and even further cements our position as the sport’s pinnacle league,” said Coutts. “Season 1 produced some great racing, and Season 2 will take this to a whole new level. It’s shaping up to be some of the most thrilling racing the sport has ever seen.”
“It’s obvious that SailGP is one of the pinnacle events in our sport that combines cutting-edge technology with exciting, dynamic racing in iconic venues spread around the world,” said Spithill, fresh from a thrilling, but disappointing result in the America’s Cup Match in Auckland, NZ. “Red Bull has given me wings for many years now, and as a competitor, an annual championship that draws in the world’s best professional sailors is where you want to be. I am extremely honored to have the opportunity to represent the United States once again.”
Joining the USA team will be Daniela Moroz, a four-time Formula Kite World Champion and two-time U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year.
“We were overwhelmed by the quality of athletes who applied, and our entire sailing team took part in the selection process,” said Spithill. “Daniela brings to our team an impressive amount of foiling ability, which is paramount to racing at this level. We’re excited to welcome her to the roster and develop her talent further.”
The boat used in the competition is the F50, derived from the America’s Cup Class AC50 used in Bermuda for the 2017 event. The catamaran boasts cutting-edge technology with foils that are constructed with high modulus carbon fiber, while the lower section of the rudders is manufactured using high-strength stainless steel to reduce drag. It was the first boat to hit 50 knots in competition!
As well as new teams, new technology and new partners, SailGP will also enter the new season with a sense of purpose that goes beyond entertainment. The league and its eight national teams will “Race for the Future,” championing a world powered by nature with the goal of accelerating the transition to clean energy.
New technology includes a modular wingsail which enables the teams to change from 18 meters to 24 meters depending on the wind strength. Broadcasting of the event will feature the most immersive multi-platform experience the sport has seen, with new innovative and data-driven enhancements significantly expanding on the exciting content being shared with its international audience. The broadcast will be coordinated through SailGP’s innovative and award-winning remote production hub in Ealing, London.
Each SailGP event will include two days of racing, and culminate at the end of the weekend with a three-boat podium race to decide the winner. Points will be accumulated throughout the season, with the Grand Final taking place in San Francisco in March 2022 where $1 million will be up for grabs in a winner-takes-all final.
The light air foils and elevators have increased surface area, which results in increased lift to make the most of weaker winds. The light air wing also boasts a larger surface area, standing at 24m to catch more wind to power the boat.
Opting for the 18m wing in high winds means less surface area and less drag. So, although the profile is smaller than the 24m wing, you don’t need as much wind to power the F50. The 18m wing is smaller and also lighter, which provides extra benefits when it comes to hitting top speed.
Great Britain’s SailGP Team has unveiled its squad that will race, which includes four Olympic Gold medalists in the opening event in Bermuda, has the core of the same team that put on a series of impressive performances to win the last SailGP event with a clean sweep in Sydney in 2020 before the remainder of the season was postponed due to COVID-19.
It is a team who knows each other very well, featuring six sailors who were recently together with the British Challenger for the 36th America’s Cup.
The team’s F50 catamaran will once again be helmed and skippered by the world’s most successful Olympic sailor, Ainslie (GBR). Joining him is fellow Olympic gold medalist Iain Jensen (AUS) who returns as Wing Trimmer, and Flight Controller Luke Parkinson.
In Bermuda, the British team will be joined by a fourth Olympic gold medalist, Hannah Mills (GBR) who will be the first trialist in the squad’s female development program, a new initiative which aims to fast-track the inclusion of female athletes into SailGP. Mills brings a significant amount of experience to the team, having won Olympic gold in the Women’s 470 in Rio in 2016, and a silver medal at London 2012 where she was a teammate of Ainslie in her first and his last Olympics.
“Alongside the racing, it is also exciting to begin our female development program,” said Ainslie. “We share SailGP’s commitment to accelerate change in our sport, and look forward to integrating the six triallists over the next three events.”
“This is a big opportunity, and I’m looking forward to working alongside the team to learn as much as I can during my time in Bermuda,” said Mills. “SailGP is setting the standard for female inclusion in sailing. It will be particularly inspiring for young female sailors to know that these types of opportunities are available at the very top level of our sport.”
Race Day One
Slingsby’s Australia Team started its defense in perfect fashion by ending the first day of the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix presented by Hamilton Princess at the top of the leaderboard with a clean sweep of three wins from three. Having been soundly beaten pre-pandemic by Great Britain’s Ainslie in Sydney in front of his home fans in SailGP’s prior event last year, Slingsby got his revenge in commanding fashion.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Slingsby. “For me it wasn’t about the results, it was about how well we sailed together. Everyone did an amazing job. We have always felt we have an edge in windier conditions and showed that. It’s nice to not have the pressure of performing in those opening races now, and we can look forward to tomorrow.” For the Kiwis it was a bit of a struggle on the opening day. Fresh from their dominating America’s Cup victorious defense in Auckland and back on the waters of the Great Sound where they pulled off their victory over OTUSA three years ago, many thought that New Zealand would start off where they left off. But it was not to be as they barely got their boat in time for the regatta and had mere “moments” to train.
This was also not the radical “cycler” AC50 creation they had at their disposal the last time. The F50 is the same for all teams. So again, it was a bit of a learning curve for them.
“Today was a real baptism of fire for us. We struggled to keep the boat under control,” said Helmsman Burling. “It felt like we had some really good points in all of the races, but we couldn’t quite pull one race together. It’s only the second time sailing our boat, and the first time in that breeze. There is something always hard about learning while racing at an event, but that’s what we are going to have to do.” Also disappointed with his opening day performance was Ainslie, who finished the day in fifth place and is fighting to make the final podium race tomorrow.
“It was a tough day, the first two races in particular,” said Ainslie. “The final race we had the lead after a good start, but couldn’t handle the boat well enough and the Aussie’s got past us and we ended up second, so I am pretty frustrated with that. But we have got to learn from it and come back better. It’s going to be tough to make the podium race tomorrow from here. So, we are going to have to fight for some good finishes and probably need to win at least one race if we are going to have a sniff at getting into the top three, but that will be our goal.”
“We are one position back from qualifying for the podium race tomorrow,” said Spithill over USA’s fourth place finish. “I think the Aussie’s are pretty much gone, so it will be a real fight for the last two positions. But we are looking forward to it. It will be a lot of fun.”
Race Day Two And Podium Final
Ainslie’s Great Britain SailGP Team was crowned winners of the opening event of SailGP Season 2. In a dramatic day that saw overtakes, crashes and a capsize, the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix presented by Hamilton Princess was decided in a winner-takes-all final podium race that saw Ainslie come out on top from Slingsby’s Australia team and Billy Besson of France. Up until that point, reigning champion Australia had been the dominant team, winning four of the five races and entered the final race as strong favorites. However, it was Ainslie that again caused the upset and put in the perfect performance when it mattered. With his team, he sailed past the Aussies in the final podium race to win by just four seconds and with it, the first event of the season, claiming his place at the top of the leaderboard.
“It was a cracking race. It was awesome. It’s what we want to do it for; go against the top sailors in the world in conditions like this. It was perfect,” said Ainslie. “It was a huge credit to the team. We really struggled yesterday, but we analyzed what went wrong. And today was a much better day and I am delighted with the result. It’s a great way to start the season.”
The pivotal moment was a well-timed boundary gybe by Ainslie as Australia got caught up in GBR’s trailing wing wash, and it was just enough for them to take control of the race as the French had pretty much disappeared to allow the “Empire” to battle it out on the final legs.
The tack for tack and gybe for gybe action continued throughout the race, with both teams splitting at several points to seek better pressure to extend the lead or to find an overtaking lane. The British team managed to keep their noses in front and came out on top to win the podium race, and with it take the title by just seconds.
“It was an amazing weekend, but I can’t help feeling a little frustrated and disappointed in the final results. But that is the way it is with this racing, you have to win the last race,” said Slingsby, skipper of the Australian Team. “We sailed amazingly, but we did have a few boat malfunctions in the last (podium) race. But that was when Ben Ainslie was ahead of us when they happened.
“We were right on his tail and then we had a few issues with our board going down. It was raked in the wrong position, and it forced us into a big ‘bow’ stuff when we went into a terrible tack.”
The collision and capsize made it an eventful SailGP debut for Team USA.
“It was pretty unfortunate,” said Spithill. “It was awesome conditions out there and we were having a great race. Maybe third or fourth going round that bottom gate, and suddenly upwind on starboard tack we saw the Japanese. There was a lot of space and they were on port tack, and initially we thought maybe they were going to duck us. But then they just took us out, unfortunately.
“When we got to the dock, Nathan Outteridge came up and apologized, but unfortunately the damage was sustained just trying to separate the boats.
“Once we did get the boats untangled, we were discussing that maybe we could finish the race. So, we attempted to do that,” said Spithill. “But as we started, the boat lost all its power and we lost control of the wing. And not long after that the port rudder snapped and it locked, so it started to bear the boat away. And we just went over.
“It was super quick getting the boat back up on its feet, and the capsize actually didn’t do any damage. It was just the broken rudder and loss of power on the boat after the collision that led to that,” continued Spithill. “So, it was obviously very disappointing because we thought we had a good shot. It’s just tough. In some ways, it reminds me a little bit of motor racing, where at times, tight tracks and going fast like that sometimes someone’s going to take you out and there’s not a lot you can do to control it.”
Outteridge added his own thoughts on the incident, saying, “I had a good chat with Jimmy, and we exchanged some words. And I think we both think that we’ll do whatever we can to let that not happen again.
“We are obviously in the wrong being on port tack, but with these boats it’s very difficult to see the boats when they are coming together, and he said he couldn’t see us at all, hence the massive impact.
“It was really hard to see what’s happening to leeward on these boats,” continued Outteridge, whose sailing and foiling expertise is unmatched. “You try to see them through the window on your jib or the window on your wing, but basically if you can see them they’re not going to hit you. We were seeing them for a while, and we couldn’t tell if they were on port or starboard. And then it appeared as though they tacked.
“We had a quick look through the wing and it looked like we were probably going to cross, and then it became apparent that we weren’t. And so, we set up to try and tack to avoid them because it looked like it was too hard to get behind them,” said Outteridge.
“It was obviously pretty unfortunate, we had awesome conditions out there and we’re having a great race going around the bottom gate sailing upwind on starboard tack,” recounted Spithill.
“We had given the Japanese a lot of space. They were on port tack, the Kiwis had just crossed ahead actually and initially I thought they were going to duck us and attack, but they just took us out unfortunately.
“It came as a complete surprise,” said Spithill. “We knew Japan was coming across, and thankfully the crew was all right because we were on the windward side.”
“Part of the reason the collision happened is there is a certain blindness to these boats, and we’re still trying to develop our communication processes,” said Outteridge who took complete responsibility for the accident and is one of the best technical sailors in the world. “The hard thing is that you can’t work on these things unless you’re on the boat sailing.
“We had 14 months off from racing. No training and I wouldn’t say we felt comfortable or at home,” said Outteridge. “It is going to take time for us to jell, and that is the challenge over the next four weeks because we just can’t get back on these boats and practice. There are no simulators.
“That is the challenge of SailGP. You basically come, race and you go home. You don’t get to train,” said Outteridge. “It’s completely different from any other sailing competition I’ve ever been a part of.”
America’s Cup winners and Olympic champions Burling and Blair Tuke had a better day on their SailGP debut for New Zealand. Moving up from the bottom of the leaderboard after day one, to finish a respectable fifth place just behind the Spanish team. Nicolai Sehested’s Denmark SailGP Team presented by Rockwool took sixth place. Japan and the United States sit at the bottom of the leaderboard after the day’s drama.
The global league will now cross to Europe for the next five Sail Grand Prix events. Racing will continue in Taranto, Italy (June 5-6), Plymouth, UK (July 17-18), Aarhus, Denmark (August 20-21), Saint-Tropez, France (September 11-12) and Cádiz – Andalusia, Spain (October 9-10) before moving to 2022 with races in Christchurch, New Zealand (January 29-30) ahead of the Grand Final in San Francisco, U.S. (March 26-27.)
Credit to the SailGP Media team for their contribution to this report. Something to share, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org