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Letter from the Antipodes: Was Chicago a watershed for Cup? Vendée Arctique freezes

by Richard Gladwell/ 23 Jun 2022 16:10 PDT 24 June 2022
Canada SailGP Team helmed by Phil Robertson - T-Mobile United States Sail Grand Prix, Chicago at Navy Pier, Lake Michigan, Season 3 © Bob Martin/SailGP

The second event in Season 3 of the SailGP circuit threw up several surprises.

It was the first time since its inception that a SailGP event had been held on fresh water. Chicago had been one of the short-listed venues to host the 2017 America's Cup - after holders Golden Gate Yacht Club and the City of San Francisco decided they didn't need each other after the successful and spectacular 2013 America's Cup Defence.

Chicago and Lake Michigan were one of three venues left on the short-list after then America's Cup Events Authority, and now SailGP CEO Russell Coutts announced the elimination of San Francisco. Chicago was the next to be eliminated, but clearly, its credentials remained in the memory banks, and last weekend Cup fans saw what could have been.

Chicago came up very well as a venue offering a spectacular city backdrop; thousands of exuberant fans gathered at the finish on Day 1; good and varied sailing conditions; and a course that offered some opportunity for recovery from a poor start or mishap in the first legs of the race.

Racing was close, mixed up and dominated by the Phil Robertson-led Canadian crew competing in just their second SailGP regatta. The Crazy Canucks made their second successive Final. The same three teams (AUS, GBR and CAN) made up the Final in Bermuda and Chicago. Australia won both Finals. Canada improved from third to second overall in Chicago.

Bragging rights for both series lie with the Canada SailGP team - the self-styled Crazy Canucks. As a rookie crew they topped the leaderboard after Day 1 at both Bermuda and Chicago; made the Final at both events; and improved between series to dominate the first five races in Chicago. One of the litmus tests for judging a performance, other than seeing who topped the leaderboard, is to look at who they beat. In this context Phil Robertson has a couple of world championships to his credit, but a zero in the boxes for America's Cup wins and Olympic medals, or indeed having competed in either of those prestigious regattas. Behind the CanadaSailGP after five fleet races, were a slew of America's Cup winners, Olympic Medalists, the defending SailGP title-holder, and multiple world championship winners.

The Canadian performance is one of David versus multiple sailing Goliaths. The Crazy Canucks pride themselves on being disruptors - they have turned the form book inside out in just two regattas.

However Team Canada with many of the F50 crew aboard turned in a sobering performance after five races in the GC32 regatta currently underway in Lagos, Portugal.

Skippered by Graeme Sutherland, a top matchracer and coach, born in Canada but who grew up in New Zealand, the Canuck's GC32 lies at the back of the ten boat fleet on the overnight leaderboard after sailing five races on Day 1. Alinghi Red Bull Racing is the overall leader, with Team Rockwool Racing (Denmark), also a competitor on the SailGP circuit, in second place. The French team K-Challenge Team France, tipped as a likely America's Cup challenger, is placed seventh in the ten boat GC32 fleet.

Skippered by Arnaud Psarofaghis SUI-15 is one of two GC32's raced by Alinghi Red Bull. Instead of joining the AC-crowd racing on the SailGP circuit, the Swiss team are running a two-boat program in GC32's along with the TF35's and will obviously move later into the AC40 and AC75. The latter, formerly Emirates Team NZ's first generation AC75 Te Aihe, is expected to be sailing in mid July, from Barcelona. Swiss 49er and Flying Phantom skipper Maxime Bachelin skippers the second GC32 in the Alinghi Red Bull program. Boat 2 is lying fourth overall after Day 1 in Lagos.

It was Psarofaghis who gave Live Ocean their first SailGP race win when he stood in for Peter Burling, who was otherwise engaged on Tokyo2020 Olympic Regatta duties.

Nicolai Sehested helming Team Rockwool Racing (DEN) is the only benchmark with SailGP, the Danes finished 6th in Chicago and 4th in Bermuda. After Day 1 in the GC32's sailing for the Lagos Cup, Sehested lies second overall. Make of that what you will. Sehested is also helming on the ETF26 circuit, and competing against the Live Ocean Racing team skippered by Live Ocean's F50 co-pilot/tactician Liv Mackay (NZL).

It is an oft-quoted but trite statistic that New Zealand and its double America's Cup Champions crew have not made a final of the ten SailGP regattas they have contested in Season 2 and early Season 3.

Australia and their crew drawn from Oracle Racing's America's Cup ranks have contested 13 Finals from 15 SailGP Regattas in Seasons 1, 2 and 3 - winning 12 Finals. They have also won both the Season 1 and Season 2 Grand Final.

SailGP CEO Russell Coutts says the "Australia SailGP Team has now won USD 1,850,000 in bonus prize money in the last 12 months in addition to their salaries or crew fees." That's a few dollars under $NZD3million.

We've covered this point before, but in the Kiwi's defence, they were caught by the Tokyo2020 postponement and had no option but to run conjoint Olympic programs and America's Cup campaigns, involving four of their crew, just four months apart during SailGP's Season 2. Other SailGP crews (aside from GBR's Giles Scott) didn't have the dual encumbrance of the Cup or Olympics, along with the expectation that they would defend the first and win another Gold medal in the latter.

The illusion of the SailGP result sheet is that it is an even playing field for all teams - it's not, and there are some good reasons why top teams fail to perform across single or multiple regattas.

That is why the performance of the Canada SailGP team is intriguing. By any measure, they have hit the ground running and are on track to hit the Australians in the pay-packet at the next SailGP event in Plymouth, the UK, at the end of July.

For the first time in 35 years of America's Cup competition, Team New Zealand has signed two top helmsmen, Peter Burling and Nathan Outteridge, and with a nominal option on a third, Phil Robertson - who is eligible to sail for the Kiwis by way of nationality. Mainstream media in New Zealand are running the storyline that Robertson is hot to trot for the 2024 America's Cup.

Robertson is currently the skipper of the Crazy Canucks, and while the results on the water are excellent, the way he has put together the team is equally impressive.

Many pundits believe that Team New Zealand has problems in its sailing crew, based on the last Cup, where they were 3-3 after three days of racing, and more recently, the 10-0 Finals scoreline in SailGP. But it is early days for the 2024 America's Cup, and the current champions have plenty of options.

Team New Zealand's sailors getting a paddy whacking in the SailGP is the best thing to happen for the Kiwis from a 2024 America's Cup perspective.

It's better to be found out now rather than in the Cup.

Before the start of Season 3, the Live Ocean team were on the record saying their goal was to make the podium in each of the SailGP regattas in Season 3. Although on the improve, they have yet to achieve this key objective. The anguish was clearly visible on Peter Burling's face when he realised closing on the finish of Race 5, that the combination of finishing positions in the final race mathematically worked to exclude his Live Ocean crew from the three-boat Final in Chicago.

Team New Zealand/Live Ocean have also made a clever move by including Ray Davies as coach. That relationship is undergoing a test of fire at present.

With more sailors in the America's Cup team than there are spots on the race boat and the possibility of further additions, there is clearly pressure to perform. SailGP seems to have become a performance baseline for all America's Cup teams.

It is simplistic to extrapolate SailGP results into an America's Cup scenario. However, the hours of tedious but vital testing for America's Cup teams are about to get under way with the arrival of the first AC40s in September. There are also the hours of simulator work by the sailing team. Later comes the testing and training in the AC40s and AC75 raceboat. SailGP is a means to an end for America's Cup teams, and as the Kiwis found with their conjoint 2021 Olympic and America's Cup programs, plus getting a SailGP team up to full speed, means compromises have to be made.

Unfortunately the next America's Cup can't be won with a compromised program. Of course if some of the high-profile SailGP teams are struggling now, expect the bar to be raised several notches hight when Nathan Outteridge and JapanSailGP return to the fray in Denmark in mid-August.

Squeezing onto the Podium

A good showing in SailGP in a one-design boat doesn't automatically cross over into a custom-designed AC75 world requiring hundreds of hours of on-the-water development by its race crew. Remember too that ETNZ's (and maybe others) design philosophy is to design the fastest boat possible, and then require the race crew develop their skills by putting in the hours to learn how to make a cranky boat sail fast. This is the responsibility of the race crew, and can't be done by a mushroom crew or relying on Artificial Intelligence. All three have apart to play.

An imperative for all teams in this Cup cycle is to develop a match racing playbook based on the attributes of the AC75, including their ability to stop suddenly - creating a significant issue for a trailing boat which is obliged to keep clear in these situations. One memorable incident in Race 5 of the Prada Cup Final was when Luna Rossa applied the handbrake, resulting in the give way British boat being penalised and losing the race by 1150 metres. Developing other moves like that, and how to respond will be exercising the minds of Cup teams in the coming months.

As a double match racing world champion, Robertson can help any team in that regard as a training partner in the AC40s. But under the Protocol, for the 2024 America's Cup, he can only race for the Kiwis.

USA SailGP skipper Jimmy Spithill was clearly distraught with his team's performance in Chicago - finishing eighth in the nine-boat fleet. Like the Kiwis, the home team only had one top three finishing place in the five races before the three boat Final.

It was a similar story for both teams in the first SailGP event in Bermuda, where they each had two top three placings. USASailGP finished fifth overall in Bermuda and the New Zealanders sixth.

Spithill had placed much weight on improving from a fifth overall in Bermuda, to achieve a podium performance or win in Chicago. Finishing second to last in Chicago was a nightmare scenario.

Quite how this all works out will be intriguing. There isn't an established pecking order with so many top sailors involved in SailGP.

However, the top teams seem to have a podium place as their regatta objective. The only problem is that there are more top teams than there are podium places on the podium. Of the America's Cup teams/sailors involved in SailGP, only the Brits have achieved this podium goal in the two regattas sailed to date.

Phil Robertson and the Canada SailGP team are showing they are unfazed by the company they are keeping in SailGP, and have refreshed a series that was beginning to sleepwalk.

Kiwi in Vendée Arctique

At the other end of the sailing spectrum, the Vendée Arctique - Les Sables d'Olonne Race, with 25 entries, racing single-handed has been called off at the halfway stage of the 3600nm race.

Sailing IMOCA60's, the competitors faced light winds for the first few days of the race from Sables d'Olonne, France, around Iceland and return. The 3,500nm course was intended as a qualifier for the next Vendée Globe.

The shortened race was won by Charlie Darlin (FRA) in Apivia, who placed second in the 2020/21 Vendée Globe.

With three short-handed race circumnavigations in his logbook, New Zealand's Conrad Colman is competing in a "new" boat for him, but it was built in 2008 - and it needs a birthday.

He crossed the updated finish line just off the Icelandic coast at more than 64 degrees north. [SW: Cape Horn is 55 degrees south, and Stewart Island is 37 degrees south.]

Colman's final days in the Vendée Arctique were notable for "a full day with more than 50 knots of wind, and a 0300hrs mast climb with the sun still up". Winds gusted to 63kts as he punched his way north.

Colman was the first skipper to complete the solo around the world Vendée Globe without using fossil fuels. He placed 10th in the 2016/17 race despite being dismasted a few days before the finish.

He is also remembered in the 2016/17 Vendee Globe for being flicked over the side off the main boom at night while reefing the mainsail - on his final approach to Cape Horn in rough weather. Fortunately, he was clipped on but had to make the difficult decision to unhook from his tether to be able to climb back aboard. He was flicked back on board by a rogue wave while unclipped - and only told his wife of the incident in a media conference after crossing the finish line.

"The dead calm is extremely difficult psychologically," Colman wrote early in the Vendée Arctique. "There is certainly some bad luck in getting stuck twice within such a short time. I would have much preferred to have too much wind than not enough. In strong winds, you are in control of your destiny, and so you suffer less mentally."

"My relationship with my boat is taking shape. I feel at ease on board. But due to my lack of budget, nothing has changed on board since Maxime Sorel's Vendée Globe.

"A lot of equipment is tired on board. I am experiencing some technical problems because of this hardware which is getting old. In fact, my boat is like a friend who does his best to be on time but is always late. They have to be chased up several times. I am looking for partners so I can update the boat and make it more reliable."

Maybe an opportunity for the NZ marine industry to get some exposure in Europe, and with the Vendee Globe one of the most followed yacht races in the world??

Conrad Colman's next event is the Route du Rhum transatlantic race getting under way on November 6, 2022. His immediate goal is to accumulate enough race miles to qualify within the first 40 boats to be permitted entry in the 2024 edition of the Vendee Globe.

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