There’s an old joke doing the rounds of the Sydney waterfront again. Here’s how it goes. Question: What does ORACLE stand for? Answer: One Rich Arsehole Called Larry Ellison. Well, we know the “rich” bit is right, and Mr Ellison’s wealth is certainly on display Down Under this week as the first round of his much-hyped SailGP circus gets underway on Friday.
This is not the first time sailing has tried to imitate the incredible international success of the Formula One motor racing circuit but it is certainly the most formidable and well-funded.
The scale of the operation is massive. SailGP has effectively taken over a whole island in Sydney Harbour as its base for the six competing teams. Huge all-weather marquee/hangars for the boats, scores of shipping containers, a brand new fleet of chase boats, two giant cranes and an army of sailors, broadcasters, support crew, marshals and race management teams. There are 12 staff in the media division alone.
This is the America’s Cup you have when you’re not having an America’s Cup. Which may, of course, be the unspoken spur for the whole shebang. It would simply not exist without the financial support of Larry Ellison, the man who is apparently still rather cheesed off that his Oracle USA catamaran came a distant second in Bermuda to Team New Zealand. (It’s notable, in that context, that his Kiwi vanquishers are not taking part in SailGP. Invitation lost in the mail? Beneath their dignity? Who knows.)
But enough of the politics. Guided by Russell Coutts as its Chief Executive Officer, the event will certainly capture the attention of the sailing world for the two scheduled afternoons of racing on February 15 and 16. Six boats (upgraded rebuilds of the last America’s Cup fleet) will compete for the USA, Great Britain, France, Australia, China and Japan. The corporate Oracle brand logo appears discreetly on each wing sail, maybe to ensure that some of the millions invested in the project can be a tax write-off as promotional expenditure.
The main change to the fleet that raced in Bermuda is that power generated by the grinders no longer provides the hydraulic pressure to run the various onboard systems. That energy is now sourced from a big lithium battery housed in the main cross-beam. Never again will we have to watch a heads-down quartet of bum sniffers all pedaling away like crazy just to lift the foils. There is still one coffee-grinder in each hull but the crews are delighted they will now have more time to actually sail.
But how much sailing they will get is a different question. It’s a fair bet that at this time of year Sydney Harbour usually provides a pleasant North East breeze from around 1:00pm. But if the weather gets really hot, as it has been this Summer, then the day often ends with a ‘Southerly Buster’ – a solid, black blow that can reach 35-40 knots with driving rain. Too dangerous for the big cats, and a disaster for the TV coverage. Coutts & Co must already be checking the forecasts every hour.
On the whole, the Sydney sailing community has welcomed the SailGP enterprise. The Australian team is well favoured, with AC veterans Tom Slingsby and Sam Newton calling the shots. The race track will be protected by exclusion zones and even the busy Sydney Harbour passenger ferries will alter their regular routes and timetables to accommodate the ‘up and back’ courses.
Most sailing clubs have sensibly changed their weekend racing start times to avoid crossing tacks with a foiling cat at 35 knots. One club has even shifted all their Saturday pointscore racing to Sunday in the entirely reasonable expectation that not many of their members would rather be in church.
– Anarchist David