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SailGP poised to usher-in a new era of international Grand Prix sailing

by David Schmidt 8 Oct 09:00 PDT 8 October 2018
The F50 is claimed to be significantly faster than the AC50 © SailGP

If you share my love of incredibly fast sailboats that leverage the latest technology and forward-leaning thinking, then you'll probably share my interest in the AC50 class of fully foiling, wingsail-powered catamarans. These boats, which have been described by some of the world's best yacht designers and naval architects as the fastest inshore sailboats to have ever been built, were used to contest the 35th America's Cup, which unfurled in June of 2017 on the waters off of the island nation of Bermuda. And while the America's Cup has moved on to 75-foot "monohulls" for "AC36", the sailing world learned last week that the six AC50s that were built for the last Defense will see a second life as a One Design class that will be used to contest the newly announced and fully professional SailGP sailing league.

Some backstory. The sailing world's rumor mill has long been churning out whispered reports that Sir Russell Coutts (NZL), the three-time America's Cup-winning skipper (1995, 2000 and 2003), and Larry Ellison, the billionaire technology mogul who won two Cups (2010 and 2013) with the Kiwi-accented "RC" leading the charge as CEO of his Oracle Team USA, were considering launching a Grand Prix sailing league. In fact, the origins of SailGP harken back to 2007 when Coutts teamed-up with fellow Cup skipper Paul Cayard (USA) to create the World Sailing League, an idea that never took flight thanks to looming financial problems.

Still, the idea of a fully global, fully professional sailing league somehow kept its head above water during the years of litigation between Oracle Team USA and Alinghi, the former Swiss-flagged Cup custodian, as well as the three Cups that were sailed in high-performance multihulls (2010, 2013 and 2017) on two continents and off of one island nation.

Now, after a long and quiet 16 months since loosing the Auld Mug to the significantly faster Emirates Team New Zealand squad and suffering the humbling loss of the world's most (in)famous sports trophy, RC and Ellison are back with a new vision of Grand Prix level sailing that has "recycled" the AC50s at Core Builders in New Zealand (which Ellison owns) into a One Design class, dubbed "F50s", that will be used to contest a new, World Sailing-sanctioned Special Event series.

The 2019 SailGP series will be comprised of five events, starting in Sydney, Australia (February 15-16) and continuing on to San Francisco (May 4-5), New York (June 21-22), Cowes, UK (August 10-11) and finishing in Marseille, France (September 20-22). According to a World Sailing announcement, each event will feature two days of competition that will involve five fleet races and a final match race to determine the overall event winner. As a sweetener-cum-crowd-pleaser, the final 2019 SailGP event in Marsaille will feature a $1 million dollar, winner-takes-all championship race between the top two teams.

"SailGP distills all of the most successful, exciting and relevant elements of high-performance, professional racing, while adding the extra edge that comes with nation-versus-nation competition," said Coutts, SailGP CEO, in the official World Sailing press release. "We are aiming to be pioneers of new technologies, boat design, commercial partnerships and global audience engagement. But with every crew on the same groundbreaking F50 catamaran, this isn't a tech arms race, rather the ultimate test to establish the best sailing team in advanced foiling catamarans."

While there are far more question marks than answers remaining about the long-term vitality and sustainability of SailGP, World Sailing's press release describes an "11-year partnership". Furthermore, Coutts has suggested that a reasonable operating budget for a year of SailGP campaigning could fetch $5 million U.S. dollars, which is a tiny fraction of the cost of a competitive America's Cup campaign.

There are currently teams from Australia, China, France, Japan, the UK, and the USA listed on SailGP's official website, but only one team has publicly announced (Great Britain SailGP Team), so it will be interesting to see if this new series hits the starting line at pace and on its foils, or if unexpected headwinds present themselves.

That said, the combination of a relatively low barrier to entry, the fan-centric nature of the racing, and the amphitheater-like settings of the selected venues, coupled with the blistering speeds of the F50s and the national nature of the teams, could prove to be serious competition for the America's Cup, which of course is exactly SailGP's intended vision.

Still, Cup history reminds us that while the World Sailing League also started with the best of intentions and under the sunny skies of a pre-Great Recession economy, the combination of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, followed by Oracle Team USA's success against Alinghi both in court and on the waters off of Valencia, Spain in 2010, spelled doom for RC's original vision for a Grand Prix sailing league. It will certainly be interesting to see if SailGP is able to find its foils in 2019, and - if so - what sort of impact this new professional series has on the sport of sailing as a whole.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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