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San Francisco set to be a make or break for SailGP

by Richard Gladwell/ 23 Apr 2019 07:04 PDT 24 April 2019
The United States SailGP Team training on their F50 catamaran during their first planned practice session. Race 2 Season 1 SailGP event in San Francisco, California, United States. 22 April . © Jed Jacobsohn for SailGP

After an opening round in Sydney, which was remarkable for the fact that it happened at all, and went off largely without a hitch, expectations will rise for the second round of SailGP in San Francisco in early May.

The Sydney event was sailed in winds at the light end of the scale, and flat water - which made for a rather tame event for the international, online audience. But it was a first for the new class and new event. Plenty could have gone wrong - and it didn't.

In many ways, SailGP was similar to a Volvo Ocean Race stopover - pulling quite an intense fan response, and certainly with impressive audience numbers at the venue itself. To some extent, in Sydney, SailGP started where last America's Cup left off - with the one-design Foiling 50's turning in a slick display, but without the tension of a looming catastrophe which is essential to keep the international viewing audience enthralled to the end.

In many ways, San Francisco is a make or break for SailGP - even though a rational assessment says the event is still in its infancy and needs to be given a year or two before judgment is passed by the fans, and SailGP has marked out its place in the sport. One of the questions to be answered in San Francisco is whether each round of the SailGP has the legs to pull the fans in big numbers internationally, or if it will be mainly a high impact local event, pulling spectators going into six figures.

Also to be answered is whether the F50 has the ability to draw international audience intrigue across multiple venues, or if it will be like the Louis Vuitton Trophy Series as staged in the America's Cup hiatus from 2008-2010. The key indicator on this is whether the commentators feel the need to "talk up the market" at every event, or if the boat just speaks for itself.

San Francisco as a venue comes with form. Regardless of the colours of your flag, the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco will be remembered as one of the most thrilling ever - perhaps it was the best yet in many regards. It scored ten out of ten for the boat, the venue, the racing and the TV coverage. Will SailGP be able to hit those ratings again? Kiwi fans might rate the out at something less than a then, but six years later can still talk about it as though the the regatta finished just yesterday.

In just its second regatta SailGP is stepping into a very big pair of shoes in San Francisco.

The build-up to the 2013 America's Cup Match certainly was not without its moments - starting with Russell Coutts spectacular nosedive in the AC45, early in the cycle - and on a media day - followed a few seconds later by a dive into the wingsail. He came within an ace of serious injury. That hit headlines in the mainstream media perhaps even more so than the sailing media.

Then there was Oracle Team USA's nosedive of their first AC72 during a bear-away in a 30kt plus squall in October 2012, before the whole kit and caboodle was swept out of the Golden Gate and into the Potato Patch. Then came the tragedy of Artemis Racing - suffering catastrophic structural failure resulting in the death of a crew member.

With the learnings from those incidents applied, the 2013 Cup turned out to be a donnybrook - the likes of which has never been sailing before or since. Who will ever forget the sight of two foiling AC72's foiling hard in whitewater as they passed Alcatraz hitting speeds of just under 50kts, and just a few seconds apart?

In the 34th America's Cup Regatta San Francisco proved its reputation for turning on a reliable breeze - often to excess - but creating the expectation by fans that they were seeing the AC72's operating at close to their physical limit. Or, was it the crews who were at their physical limit, and the wingsailed foiling catamaran was capable of a lot more? We might find out the answer to that one come May 4-5.

There was a lot of disappointment in the final media conference for the 2013 America's Cup, in that the Defenders did not immediately announce that they would be sailing the same wingsailed foiling multihull type for their Defence, and that it would be sailed in the same magical San Francisco and in 2017. The silence from the top table missed the opportunity to stake their claims with a euphoric world audience. The protracted announcements, which followed naming the boat and venue for AC35 proved to be a very expensive price for the future of the Cup.

In many ways, the second round of the SailGP in San Francisco, will be that missing event, for which fans have had to wait six years to see.

While the two protagonists of the 2013 Cup will be missing, that will be offset by having six teams competing rather than just two - plus there will be the novel sight of six wingsailed multihulls in a fleet race, rather than the one on one match race event of 2013.

Essentially fans are back in the same situation as they were in September 2013 - not knowing what is going to happen, and with growing expectations and anticipation.

The pity of the SailGP is that it doesn't run for more than two days, and the Bermuda America's Cup formula of staging the Match over two weekends - with five days in between to repair boats and bodies would have been a much better event.

Over the coming few days the SailGP fleet will begin their practice sailing, which as in 2013 will be keenly followed.

First to launch is the home team US SailGP, which is currently training on San Francisco Bay, with two weeks until SailGP’s inaugural US event.

Hopefully we will see plenty of video and images as the teams go through the buildup and kick-over the still glowing embers from what was one of the greatest America's Cups of all time.

The US team boat now features the Statue of Liberty on both the wingsail and on either side of the hull, adding to the patriotic flair of the boat sailed by an all-American crew.

SailGP racing begins on May 4 and 5, with teams from USA, Australia, France, Great Britain, Japan and China.

The first four are required to have an all national crew, Japan and China have mixed nationality crews with Australian Nathan Outteridge, the only skipper from the 2017 America's Cup skippering the Japanese entry. Phil Robertson (NZL) a former world match racing champion will helm the Chinese entry.

Following the San Francisco, SailGP heads to New York (June 21-22) and Cowes, England (August 10-11), before the Marseille, France, final (September 20-22). The season will conclude with a $1 million winner-takes-all match race to determine the overall champion.

Currently, the Australia SailGP Team is helmed by former Oracle Team USA crew member for the 2013 and 2017 America's Cups, Tom Slingsby. The team sits on top of the SailGP rankings, with Japan nipping at the Aussies’ heels. The U.S. SailGP Team sits in sixth place but is a mere two points behind the fourth and fifth place teams.

There is plenty to sail for.

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