With the first ever British stage of the SailGP international circuit set to take place in Cowes next weekend, Australian yachting journalist Rob Kothe sets the scene based on conversations with the Australian, British and Japanese crews.
The SailGP series, using one design F50 catamarans, is tearing up traditional racing norms.
These boats are very fast. Team Japan’s Nathan Outteridge skippered Artemis in Bermuda and he says:
‘The SailGP F50 boats are quite a bit quicker than the AC boats in Bermuda. We started with Artemis polars, and we were doing 110 to 120 per cent of those polars.
‘The main gains in that? The SailGP daggerboards sit half a metre wider, creating much more downforce, and optimised for speed. As a result, the light to medium performance much better, then in heavy weather we use the boards designed for 30-50 knots.
‘While imagining that Team NZ would beat these boats around the course, I think it would be embarrassing winding these boats up against her. NZ would be left behind very quickly.’
But the real twist is that SailGP is a unique event, because all the telemetry coming from the boats is available in real time to all competitors.
Team Australia won the first two events, Sydney and San Francisco and skipper and CEO Tom Slingsby, Olympic Laser Gold medallist and America’s Cup Team USA tactician explains the effect of the availability of this data.
Slingsby: ‘A first for our sport, the ability for boats to compare data in real time is having a dramatic effect on the speed of development and the ability of new teams to come up to speed.
‘The data coming off the boats is making the racing tighter, as you can study manoeuvres made by competitors and pick the best to improve your own performance. For instance, USA has been tacking in our opinion better than others, so we’ve been studying their process and Japan’s gybes are strong, so we have been studying those closely.’
So, the fleet’s boat handling is improving rapidly. AC veteran and 49er Olympic medallist, Great Britain’s SailGP team campaign CEO and wing trimmer Chris Draper, who sailed on Luna Rossa and then sailed aboard Softbank in Bermuda can see the affect it’s having on the fleet.
‘The information on each boat setups, angles of daggerboards dropped when tacking and gybing, all the wing settings, for instance, is helping the entire fleet get better at sailing the F50 and helping the less experienced crews catch up.
‘Foiling cat neophytes Dylan Fletcher – 2017 49er world champion – our helmsman, and Stu Bithell – his 49er crew and our flight controller – are learning fast from the Australian and Japanese who have around 300 days in AC50’s.
‘This ability to see just how others are sailing means that in SailGP training days in New York after 22 days of sailing the F50’s, we were doing manoeuvres that in my 220 days of sailing Softbank in the AC50 we never managed to achieve.’
And so, to SailGP New York- sailing in front of crowds lining the waterfront at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City. On the Manhattan side, 1000-foot-high skyscrapers bend the winds, and on the New Jersey shore, there are less of these obelisks but enough to make the lower Hudson River course, one of the most challenging in the world.
On Friday afternoon, it was clear that the wind gusts of 20+ knots would provide a challenge for the pilots and crew of these low flying craft.
The drama started 30 minutes before the start with the first SailGP capsize. Disaster for Great Britain’s team.
Fletcher’s take: ‘We saw the gust coming. The boat just took off, and we just got high then the windward hull crashed in and then the other. I said to guys hold on, with the bows down the mine we knew we would capsize.’
Complimented on his impressive leap down to the water, he said:
‘I know the captain is supposed to be last off the boat, but being at the back I climbed down the rack then jumped into the water to help the guys to get the boat up as quickly as we could.’
‘Friday night repairs, the guys did an incredible job righting the boat quickly and getting it back to shore, and onto the hard, our own shore team and the SailGP tech team did a fantastic job.
‘Wing flap three was pretty much evaporated. One of the quadrants that take the load in the wing was completely split apart and that had to be replaced. The starboard hull was totally waterlogged, so the electronics and the wiring looms were replaced.
Heroic overnight efforts meant the British were back on the water for Day 2, but they were plainly shell shocked.
Summing up their regatta, Draper comments:
‘Not the regatta we were hoping for. The most frustrating thing for us was very little racing, just two races on day two. We did get some points, so we are still in the mix.
‘On Saturday, we were a little apprehensive when we loaded her up. Not perfect but good enough.
‘Conditions were difficult, very up and down and random and very hard work. But the Japanese made it look easy, to be honest, so they dealt with it best and deserved to win, that is what this sport is all about.
‘We scored a third and a fourth in our only two races. We are still in third place on the leader board, and we were hanging on quite well before New York, our problems meant that they’d opened quite a point gap. Our goal for the first season was to be very competitive by Marseille. There is still plenty to learn and a massive improvement to be made.’
Fletcher: ‘Races 4 and 5, the most challenging racing I’ve ever done in my life. Sailing the boat with the breeze coming thru the buildings, 20 knots, then five knots, then back up, it’s just something else.
‘We were sailing cautiously, not pushing it as hard, but our manoeuvres when we had breeze, were good, so we think that in Cowes when the breeze will be more consistent, we will right back up there.’
Draper: ‘At Cowes, we have three days of training time before racing starts, and we will feel much more prepared when we get on the start line in front of our home supporters.
`I did the Extreme 40 series in Cowes Week in 2009 and had fond memories of winning the event. The atmosphere will be incredible with the F50’s, and for us racing with the Union Jack on the wing will be insane.’
Stu Bithell: ‘SailGP is super exciting, super-cool boats and super-cool venues. If we can get good summer Solent south westerlies, then the F50 series is going to provide some of the best racing the UK has ever seen.
‘The fastest boats in the world in an iconic British venue, racing metres away from the shoreline in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron. You won’t need to be on a boat to watch; the bar will be on your left, the beaches on the right and the action will be on the water right in front. See you all in Cowes!’