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Disruptive SailGP Canada team wants to inspire current and future generations

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 9 May 21:33 PDT 10 May 2022
Canada SailGP team in action during a practice session ahead of Bermuda SailGP Season 3, in Bermuda. May 2022 © Simon Bruty/SailGP

This weekend the Canada SailGP team will sail its first regatta when Season 3 of the SailGP circuit gets under way on Bermuda's Great Sound, and becomes the tenth team to join the three-year old circuit.

CanadaSailGP is the initiative of lifelong sailor and tech entrepreneur Fred Pye, who purchased the Canadian SailGP Team franchise.

Pye is known as being a disruptor in business, and this philosophy has been overlaid onto the CanadaSailGP Team.

CanadaSailGP's skipper Phil Robertson describes Pye as being like most entrepreneurs. "Slightly crazy - but in a good way," he chuckles.

The objectives of the new team are to inspire current and future Canadian sailors and lift the low profile of Canadian sailing on the world stage.

Pye's enthusiasm has launched the team on the solid platform of owning a SailGP franchise, recruiting an all Canadian crew (apart from the skipper), partnering with Ocean Wise, and with a principal sponsor signed as well. There is a strong undercard of additional sponsor support for the team with the maple-leaf logo - all before it has sailed a single race.

Most SailGP teams were given a financially assisted start for their first season. They were then expected to bring the other required parts of the SailGP equation into their mix in the following seasons.

Investment bankers IJW came on board with CanadaSailGP in the early days of the team's life. Managing Director and founder Ian Wooden has led the charge.

"Ian is a very passionate sailor and now a very passionate member of Canada SailGP. We've now got several limited partners set up, and they've all invested in the team.

"CanadaSailGP is a very interesting set-up, and one I haven't seen before," Robertson continues.

"They all come from the business world and are setting CanadaSailGP a business. It's very different," he adds.

Robertson is a double world match racing champion in both monohull and multihull classes. He skippered his team to a win in the 2016 World Match Racing Championship in Marstrand, Sweden. In a winner take all final, sailed in extreme racing conditions, for the richest prize in sailing, Robertson's team uplifted a purse of $1million.

Ironically, the Season 3 Final of SailGP, to be sailed in San Francisco in May 2023, also carries the same $1million, winner-take-all purse.

Phil Robertson has been involved as a skipper in SailGP since its launch in 2019 by technology mogul Larry Ellison and multiple America's Cup winner Russell Coutts.

Nine national teams and almost all of the world's top sailors will be on the start line on Bermuda's Great Sound, the 2017 America's Cup venue. Japan will re-join the circuit after the third regatta bringing the SailGP fleet to ten.

The wingsailed foiling AC50 catamaran used in SailGP was used as the America's Cup Class in the 2017 America's Cup. After the Cup, it was re-purposed as the foiling F50, one design now used by all teams in SailGP.

Saturday will mark the start of Robertson's third season in the SailGP league.

CanadaSailGP is Robertson's third team. He has a reputation for being the horse-whisperer of the SailGP circuit - having broken in two rookie teams that he has skippered to date, and the Canadians will be his third. As with the others, he has been to bring together a diverse group of sailors, most of whom have no foiling experience. In his first two teams, China and Spain - none of the crew had English as a first language.

"I think you know the answer to that," he chuckles in response to a question about whether it is any easier working with a new English speaking crew. "My Canadian is a lot stronger than my Chinese or Spanish," he quips.

"The CanadaSailGP team was formed in late September, early October last year. I have been in the background doing the planning since late October. Trying to get all the right blocks in place is quite a mission. We are definitely in good shape now."

Robertson says the set-up of the team was all done internally, rather than being a SailGP parented creation as was the situation with most of the start-up teams, particularly in Season 1. "We're self-sufficient. The boat-side is all handled by SailGP. Setting up the team is all done internally by us."

"Fred wanted to bring professional sailing back into Canada. He got talking to SailGP and brought the Canadian franchise," Robertson explains.

"The start-up process with a team like this is quite extensive. What the public sees is the sailing team coming together and going sailing. But the team is much more than that. We number about ten sailors at the moment and 20-25 in the team itself.

"So it's a big process that no one sees or understands too much. A lot swings around your key people in the marketing and sponsorship departments, the shore side, and the sailing team.

"It has taken a few months to get to where we are.

"One of the testaments to the team is our commercial backing. We have signed a great sponsor in Algorand, without having a boat on the water or even a team fully recruited. That has been quite impressive," he says.

CanadaSailGP will be sailing a loaned boat for the first three events while their new boat is being completed by SailGP Technologies (formerly Core Builders Composites).

Robertson says the new team has had about six days sailing the F50. "That equates to about 12 hours on the water. It's not a lot of time, which I think is something that fans don't really understand. The amount of work that goes on to get an F50 sailing is huge, and the number of hours spent sailing is relatively short. You have to utilise every second you get on the water, and currently, for us, that sits at about 12-15 hours."

Before getting on the water, Canada SailGP's sailing team travelled to Belfast in Northern Ireland to spend eight days on the F50 simulator run by Artemis Technologies. The facility grew out of the 2017 America's Cup team, Artemis Racing.

"It has been a big part of our preparation and a big part of our crew trials as well. The simulator at Artemis consists of a cockpit of the F50 - so there are three or four crew positions. It's an amazing tool on which to learn."

"It's also a cheap way of crashing the F50 multiple times and then just pressing the reset button," he chuckles.

Robertson says he is "blown away" by the ease of crossover by the Canada SailGP crew from the simulator to sailing on an F50. "Their skills are at a lot higher level than I was expecting. A lot of that has resulted from the time they have spent in the simulator and being able to get that as close as possible to the real thing.

"We jumped on a boat last week for the first couple of days with the little wing on and the breeze gusting to 20kts, and the team handled it really well. The opportunity to learn on the simulator has been a big part of our preparation, and everyone is dialled in from the outset."

"The hard thing for me is that I didn't know any Canadian sailors at all. As the skipper and driver of the team, you need to know your people well. An essential part of the trials has been about me trying to get to know the trialists and know their personalities. A huge part of forming a team is getting to know the people and personalities and getting the right mix.

"There's not a lot of sailors at this level in Canada. So we've had quite a small group from the start, and they have been fantastic. I think that everyone we have trialled has gone on to be part of the team."

"One of the team's goals is to inspire the next generation of Canadian sailors. I was fortunate enough to be at a very young age when the America's Cup was being sailed in Auckland. That inspired me to pursue this career and sport. That is what we are trying to do with Canada. There has been a significant gap in Canada's sailing history since the '80s. There has been very little sailing on the international scene, and the results haven't been that great.

"This is Fred's idea. He's not a conservative thinker. He figured that SailGP was the best way to inspire the next generation and hopefully make Canada a great sailing nation again."

Soon after it was announced, Sail Canada, the Canadian national body for sailing, very quickly issued a media release in support of the CanadaSailGP team.

Many, if not all of the NZSailGP sailors, and America's Cup champion Emirates Team New Zealand, are products of the Yachting New Zealand Olympic, Youth and Junior programs. Running an eye down their crew list, CanadaSailGP seems to be taking the same route as the Kiwis.

"Sail Canada has been fantastic right from the start. We've got a great relationship with them. We're using a lot of their athletes and will continue to do so. We appreciate their support.

"Part of the set-up process for the team has been working with Sail Canada," Robertson re-iterates. "They are very important for us. Sailing is quite small in Canada, and we've got to utilise everyone's knowledge and expertise as much as we can," he explains.

"A big part of setting up and team recruitment is finding teachable people. Sail Canada runs good programs, and their long term visions align with all of ours."

"It is a very solid partnership to have, and we are very happy with what we have achieved with them and will continue to work closely with them."

As the Kiwis have found, an issue with running conjoint Olympic programs with an America's Cup or SailGP program can result in event clashes where sailors have to be two overlapping regattas simultaneously.

Robertson expects that should be a rare occurrence, as the squad's core has moved on from Olympic sailing.

"It is key for a new team to grow and develop together," Robertson says. "It can be a juggle to fit everyone in and make all the calendars and events work together."

Part of the drive to lift the sailing's profile in Canada is negotiating a TV package. "We have a new broadcast partner in Canada, which will make a big difference in captivating the domestic audience", Robertson reveals.

"We'll be pushing hard to get in front of all the cameras we can, and the local media is starting to see something cool around this team."

A first for the sport

CanadaSailGP is breaking new ground in sailing with their backing from cryptocurrency and blockchain sponsors - a technology industry who have also permeated F1 teams and Grand Prix event sponsorship this year.

Their naming sponsor Algorand was the first CanadaSailGP backer to be announced. "It is a new relationship for sailing," Robertson explains.

"Algorand's vision and ours are closely aligned with both involved in high performance and technology. Their product is the leading sustainable blockchain technology. They are keen to partner with a series like SailGP.

"Fred Pye is in the cryptocurrency world and digital investment fund management. The relationship with SailGP has excited quite a few companies in those domains, and we expect to have a few more partners soon."

"It's a testament to how the team has been set up and having a company like Algorand partnering with us so early. It says a lot for Fred and his vision for this team," Robertson adds.

Since its inception, Canadian investment bank IJW & Co. has been involved in the Canada SailGP Team. The firm's strategic advice has been integral in shaping the commercial strategy and building the unique partnership structure of the team.

The CanadaSailGP model appears to be one that could be emulated by many professional sailing teams looking to climb the first few rungs of the Grand Prix sailing ladder.

Spanish exit

Robertson's relationship with the Spanish team ended very publicly and prematurely before the final event of Season 2 in San Francisco. The F50 sailing crew voted for him to be replaced with Jordi Xammar, a Bronze medalist in the Men's 470 class at Tokyo2020 and helm of the Spanish entry in the 2017 Youth America's Cup Bermuda. The Spanish SailGP team was fourth overall going into San Francisco with Robertson as skipper and exited the breezy final of Season 2 in seventh place overall after Robertson's departure and replacement.

"They had a very different vision for the team than mine," Robertson says, reflecting on his departure. "My vision was based around performance and sport. Their vision was very focussed on the future. To me, sacrificing performance in sport for some future goal didn't make much sense."

"But that was their decision and was why I was replaced at the last minute. I wasn't too disappointed with that. But I was disappointed in the team's comments about me."

The early exit allowed Robertson to focus full time on the CanadaSailGP team, on which he worked since late 2021.

Disruptive tactics

On the SailGP and match-racing circuits, Robertson is known for his, at times, aggressive sailing style. Maybe that is not surprising from someone who has won two world match racing titles and is not backward about engaging in one-on-one combat with other teams.

Fred Pye and other team sponsors are very open about using disruptive tactics to gain a competitive edge in their markets. The word disruptive also seems to be a good description of Robertson's sailing style in SailGP.

"What do you mean by 'normal?" was Robertson's quick response to a question as to whether he would continue with his more aggressive tactical approach or opt for something more normal with the new Canada SailGP team.

"I'm definitely not going to change my style. I think many people come into sport at this level and can easily get intimidated by who they are racing against. But regardless of whether we are a new team or an experienced one, I will still push as hard as I can push, to try and beat as many of the teams as we can."

"As skipper, my attitude is that I want to be winning, and I will make sure we are in a position to do so."

"The format of the SailGP series is short course racing with confined boundaries. Tactics in that situation are mostly about positioning - against one or multiple boats."

The skills a top match racer, like Robertson or the likes of double America's Cup champion Jimmy Spithill bring to SailGP is their knowledge of the racing rules of sailing and knowing when the rules transition to confer a competitive advantage or control over a competitor. Precise positioning on the racecourse is a big factor, as well as being able to play differences in wind pressure and direction. - coupled with being able to think several plays ahead of your opponent.

"My match racing background is a big part of the tactics we will use. The key considerations are understanding your positioning, where you want to be and where you need to put your boat compared to a group of boats or one other boat.

"Because SailGP is so restrictive in its one design structure, it is not all about speed. It's all about racing."

One of the learnings from the 2021 America's Cup was the effect of turbulence on the foiling monohulls. Robertson says this will be an increasing factor in the SailGP racing, particularly with nine boats on the furious fast reach from the start line to the first mark.

It's akin to the start of an F1 race where the drivers jockey for position at high speed going into the first corner. It can be carnage and is always chaotic.

"The effect of turbulence is dependent on wind strength to some extent," he explains. "In lighter winds, there is more air being sucked out. If you gybe early at Mark 1, you sail into an area of no wind, and turbulence is a significant factor.

"Again, it is all about positioning before you get to that mark, where you are positioning yourself relative to the boats around you, and where you are picking your spot to gybe. You are trying to compute all that while sailing at up to 50kts and trying not to crash into anyone else. It is racing on a knife-edge and is very exciting!"

In Season 2, SailGP racing became notable for the frequency of serious collisions, which often took teams out of the series completely, and certainly affected the quality of the racing.

"There's been a lot spoken about it," Robertson says. The software developers are constantly updating the system to focus on collision avoidance. We have to improve because if we carry on at this rate, there won't be a lot of F50s around to race anymore.

"There's a lot of testosterone out there, and people want to beat each other. But that's a byproduct of putting the nine best teams, with the world's top sailors, on the same startline in very fast boats."

The Boat Whisperer

Robertson's feat of skippering ChinaSailGP into third position on the leaderboard at the end of Season 1 and SpainSailGP into 4th overall ahead of the final of Season 2 is quite an achievement given that both were rookie teams.

Robertson says there are several phases through which any rookie team must pass to be competitive.

"We are still in Phase 1, which is about very basic boat handling, tacking and gybing. We have to learn to do that consistently well and do that under pressure.

"In the second phase, your manoeuvres are getting to be a lot tougher and more difficult. We also have to learn to refine our speed and ride height and all the intricacies around that.

"Phase 3 is all about dialling in your speed and locking that in."

"SailGP racing is very much a boat handling competition before you can start the speed work.

"The last 10%, which is where the top teams are all at, is all about refining the little speed increments and gains you can make all around the course. We're definitely in the initial 90% phase where we are just trying to catch up, making sure we can tack and gybe OK and not embarrass ourselves out there."

His reply prompts the question as to whether Robertson would continue with his aggressive sailing approach or would take a more sedate line.

"You're very conscious of the team's capabilities and sailing within that. But when the start gun goes, you start to forget about all that very quickly."

Total focus on SailGP

Robertson dismisses any thought of getting involved in the 2024 America's Cup, as are many of the sailors on the SailGP circuit.

"The America's Cup has always been on my radar. It is something I want to do. I have spoken to a few teams, but the way SailGP is progressing and it's level is quite incredible.

"Right now, I am extremely happy to be racing in this series. All the best sailors in the world are there on the start line, and there is probably no better place to be right now.

"If there were an opportunity to be in the Cup one day, I'd definitely consider it, but right now, I'm focussed on leading this Canadian team into the next season of SailGP.

There are currently 11 events on the SailGP calendar, and they are looking to add one more. You've got to stay on your toes involved in the start-up phase of a series like this, so stand by!" is Robertson's parting shot.

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