sail gp turns three

What can we learn from Sail GP?

Shortly after the start of the first race of the final SailGP round in San Francisco one of the hyperventilating commentators screamed at us that this was “NASCAR on water!” There was certainly some good close racing, but that outburst of hyperbole was about as silly as calling something “LIV Golf on ice”.

Beyond appropriating the “Grand Prix” tag, the series has, indeed, attempted to ape the crash-and-burn intensity of motor racing. Even the television coverage (which is generally excellent) includes many of the same stylistic devices. Close calls and collisions are treated as the highlights. The producers seem obsessed with top speeds (which are given in kilometers-per-hour, not knots, just to annoy real sailors) and any ‘fender-bender’ moment is replayed umpteen times from multiple angles. 

We can all understand the underlying impetus in attempting to develop yacht racing as a viable commercial product. The conventional wisdom is that to be attractive for big-money sponsors the events must secure super-sized TV and online audiences. To achieve that, the assumption is that all races should be short, and conducted within easy camera range.

Consequently, the SailGP heats each take only between 12 and 15 minutes to sail. Crossing a digitally imposed boundary – even during the pre-start – incurs an instant penalty. The series culminates in what we’re given to understand is a $1m winner-take-all final race – a confected climax that reduces the event to a one-off crap shoot that’s contrary to the whole ethos of regatta sailing.

But never mind. It seems that Messrs Ellison and Coutts are determined to continue with their creation. Teams and sponsors come and go but the caravan moves on. So, rather than bemoan its crassness, maybe there are some useful takeaways for the mainstream sailing community from the SailGP experiment. Here are a few…

Lesson 1: Sir Ben Ainslie is not god. It seems that the multiple Olympic champion’s default response to any pressure is to sail with increased aggression. That might have worked well for him while fleet racing in small boats but the big F50 cats demand an entirely different approach. 

Because of this consistent aggressive approach, Ainslie made more tactical mistakes than many of the other skippers over the series and therefore had to claw his way into the final. It was notable that Sir Ben was then out-thought by Slingsby in the final pre-start and never recovered. Maybe he would rather have been invited to the coronation of his new monarch, King Charles III, in London. 

Lesson 2: Boatspeed beats anything. Tom Slingsby and his Australian crew often made poor starts yet were usually soon challenging for the lead. The narrow courses restrict tactical options so the ability to pick wind shifts is only a major factor in very light winds. What counts most are accurate helming, trim, and flight control. 

The Australians have mastered this new style of sailing (despite a heart-stopping fumble late in the final) and seem able to squeeze just a few extra knots from their boat when it matters. It’s heartening to know that in an event so dominated by technology, sailing skill, and teamwork still count.  

Lesson 3: Money talks – and walks. Sponsorship and naming rights for SailGP seem to change from location to location. The finals series last weekend was brought to us by Mubadala. Who are they? Mubadala is an investment company owned by the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Their head honcho is His Highness Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. What possible commercial or public relations benefit he believed his corporation might gain from sponsoring an event run by a legion of elite Caucasian sailors more than 8,000 miles from his home is anyone’s guess.

SailGP has, up to now, been bankrolled by Larry Ellison. But he’s widely thought to have made his support conditional on each of the teams becoming self-funding after their first three years. Have they met that requirement? The Japan team has already dropped out. The plethora of ever-changing minor sponsor signage on the boats indicates that an unseemly scramble for cash is ongoing. Sailing – however much it might be hyped or sensationalized – is still a questionable commercial enterprise.   

Lesson 4: Perils of moving the goalposts. Because the 50-foot foiling cats are essentially straight-line boats they have difficulty doing a quick 360 or 720 penalty turn for rule breaches. So, not all of the RRS that serious sailors know by instinct apply. The real-time umpire imposes penalties from a range of sanctions invented by SailGP itself. For the most part, these only require the boat at fault to drop behind the boat they have infringed.

The problem is that those punishments don’t always fit the crime. During the first day of the San Francisco series, there was a blatant port/starboard breach that, under normal racing conditions, might well have prompted a DSQ. The right-of-way boat was forced to take evasive action and lost valuable time. But because the infringing boat was already behind, no penalty was imposed. There must be a fairer way.

Lesson 5:  The way of the future? There is no doubt that SailGP has established itself as an acknowledged component of the professional sailing calendar. A huge amount of time, expertise (and truckloads of money) has been invested in the project. But whether it will ever be genuinely popular – and self-sustaining – is another matter. 

The event website and TV coverage both put a huge emphasis on trying to explain yacht racing and the complicated progressive scoring of the SailGP format. Yet to the non-sailing sports fan, it must still be difficult to follow. Sailors might understand, but an infinitesimal number of them will ever race on a 50-foot catamaran, let alone one with a towering wing sail, retractable foils, hydraulics, electrics, and onboard computers. Nor is that level of technology ever likely to ‘trickle down’ to the average club sailor. 

In other words, the core issue for SailGP is relevance.

 – anarchist David