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SailGP to take flight for the first time on Sydney Harbor

by David Schmidt 12 Feb 08:00 PST February 15 and 16, 2019
SailGP trials of the supercharged F50 boats © Sam Greenfield / AUS SailGP Team

If you love high-octane fleet and match racing played out aboard high-performance, wingsail-powered foiling multihulls and have been thinking that it's been a rather long time since your last satisfying fix (read: the 35th America's Cup, June 2017), you're in luck. This weekend (February 15 and 16) will see the first regatta on the new SailGP circuit - which will be contested aboard one design versions of the AC50s that were used to contest "AC36" - on the waters off of Sydney, Australia. This first regatta will see six teams Australia SailGP Team, China SailGP Team, France SailGP Team, Great Britain SailGP Team, Japan SailGP Team, and United States SailGP Team that will be crewed by (mostly) national sailors, and there are already four other events on the 2019 calendar.

Some backstory. Astute Cup students will remember that in 2007, three-time America's Cup-winning skipper Sir Russell Coutts (NZL) teamed up with fellow Cup skipper Paul Cayard (USA) to create the blueprints for World Sailing League. Unlike the Cup, which is notorious for its on-again, off-again development and competition cycles, the World Sailing League was pitched as a global, year-round, fully professional sailing league; however, fate intervened with a giant dark cloud that arrived in the form of the Great Recession.

Then, on Valentine's Day 2010, Oracle team USA beat Alinghi (the Swiss-flagged Defenders of the 33rd America's Cup) 2-0 in a Deed of Gift America's Cup series that was contested on the waters off of Valencia, Spain. Suddenly, Coutts had the Cup and Ellison's deep financial backing, and while the world's economy was still in tatters, thoughts of defending the 34th America's Cup on the waters of San Francisco Bay (September and October 2013) usurped the World Sailing League in Coutts' mind and the idea quietly faded.

Or so most of the sailing world thought, until, of course, Emirates Team New Zealand's squad of "cyclors" (read: bicycling sailors) arrived in Bermuda with an utterly stunning AC50 that used leg muscles (read: in-situ bikes) rather than arm muscles (read: grinding pedestals) to power the AC50s compression tanks. Moreover, the Kiwis clearly had better control over their AC50's wing, foil and systems than their rivals, not to mention the sailing world's fastest duo (Peter Burling and Blair Tuke).

Not surprisingly, the Kiwi's won AC35, leaving Ellison, Coutts and the rest of the Oracle Team USA brain trust out in the cold.

Until last year in early October, when word broke that Coutts and Ellison were back with a different vision, namely the SailGP circuit, which would use "recycled" AC50s that have been fully one-designed into F50s (read: possibly faster than their original AC50 configurations), and which would be crewed by (mostly) national teams. Moreover, word also broke that the final 2019 event (Marseilles, France; September 20-22) would feature a $1,000,000 winner-takes-all purse: a prize that's sure to help focus each crew's training regime while also giving the crowds something interesting to discuss.

Now, in just a few days' time, the world will see Coutts and Ellison's vision for SailGP unfurl on one of the world's most iconic racecourses.

American interests will be represented by helmsman Rome Kirby, himself a winner of the 34th America's Cup with Oracle Team USA and a veteran of the team's unsuccessful defense in 2017, who will be joined by Riley Gibbs (wing trimmer), Hans Henken (flight controls and tactics), Mac Agnese (grinder) and Dan Morris (grinder) for the 2019 season.

Interestingly, word recently broke that Taylor Canfield (USVI), match-racing phenom and the skipper of the Stars & Stripes Team USA campaign for the 36th America's Cup (Auckland, New Zealand, March 6-21, 2021), has also joined the team. According to an official SailGP press release, Canfield will be working the boat's flight controls and calling tactics and gaining more experience on foils in a win-win situation that should help both the United States SailGP Team and the fledgling Stars & Stripes Team USA effort.

"Taylor is a great addition to the team, not only for his world-class experience, but for his competitive intensity on the water and laid-back style on land. He is a great fit for our team," said Kirby in an official team press release.

For his part, Canfield is also pleased with this development. "This team is a great group of extremely talented sailors, whom I've raced with or against many times," said Canfield. "The SailGP concept is incredible and what this sport has needed for a long time. To be racing at the top level of the sport, at extreme speeds against the best in the world. I can't wait."

Fortunately for Canfield and the rest of the sailing world, this wait will not be a long one, as the SailGP's first guns are set to begin firing on Friday, February 15. If all goes according to plan, the Sydney event will feature five fleet races and a final match race to determine the regatta's winner.

It will be extremely interesting to watch SailGP take flight and to see how Coutts and company's long-term vision for a fully professional, non-Cup-related sailing circuit fares in the sometimes-glaring light of prime time. Moreover, it will also be interesting to see what if any impact SailGP has on the Auld Mug and the sailors who compete for sailing's grandest prize.

But most importantly, for everyone out there who could use a serious shot of high-performance sailing in the midst of a long and seemingly endless winter, the wait is almost up.

Sail-World.com wishes all SailGP sailors and the event organizers the best of luck as they make racecourse debut.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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