Is CAN SailGP the greatest thing ever?

Yes, it is and here’s why

By John Morris

The perennially just-out-of-reach gold ring for sailing is the engagement of the world beyond boaters. SailGP could be the first sail endeavour to break through. The competition for attention is ferocious – NHL, Jays, Raptors, golf, tennis, curling, WHPL recently and oops, we’ve run out of space. But SailGP is televised on TSN although it still hasn’t received much news or sports coverage in Canada.

The good news is that even for casual watchers, it really delivers the goods. This June, we can get right up close in Halifax when the speedster F50s visit this country for the first time in real life.

Some history

SailGP is the brainchild of American billionaire-businessman Larry Ellison – co-founder, executive chairman, and chief technology officer of Oracle Corporation – and prominent New Zealand yachtsman Sir Russell Coutts, a multiple world champion, Olympic gold medallist and five times America’s Cup winner. Together at Oracle Racing, Ellison and Coutts nailed two America’s Cup victories in 2010 in Valencia and 2013 in San Francisco.

In 2019 SailGP had its inaugural season.  We are currently in Season 4 with ten teams and a world tour. The sailors and everyone else get paid and crowds at the events, particularly in Europe, are large. The Canadian crew earns a reported US$70 – 100k, not quite NHL salaries but still a pretty handsome pay cheque to go sailing every day.

Montrealer, Fred Pye, drew honours for establishing the Canadian team but stepped out in 2023.

The Ballad of Fred Pye

Montreal sailor and crypto mogul Fred Pye’s initiative got Canada into this big league. His efforts as founder deserve huge recognition even though since June 2023 he is abruptly no longer involved. In any case, Fred jumped in to buy the Canadian franchise and made it real before his departure. He was honoured with the Sail Canada President’s Award in October 2022.

In July 2023 new ownership was reported to be on the horizon, but so far nada. The Canadian team, like the majority of the teams, is supported by the league ie: Oracle and Larry Ellison.

While Fred was on the scene, he made things hum. In 2022 CAN was immediately competitive thanks to the proven talent and leadership of Phil Robertson. (*While most of the sailors are homegrown, Phil is a New Zealander as allowed by the league rules which permit newer teams more non-citizens.)

Fred also saw the merit in creating a depth of foiling sailors in this country and provided a number of Waszp foiling cats to clubs, building the We CAN Foil programme as his segment of SailGP outreach Inspire Program aimed at creating new enthusiasm for sailing. At the events, introductory foiling instruction is offered to fans by another Canadian, Agustin Ferrario – (Aug and his crew will be in Halifax if you’d like to try a spin on a Waszp.)

The Boat

Wow! The F50 was created as a one-design class sharing DNA with the revolutionary catamarans used for the 35th America’s Cup in 2017 (but even more so!) The current F50 speed record of 99.94km/h, was set by France in Season 3.

Each boat is 15m with a beam of 8.8m, sailing weight is 2,400kg and houses six crew. The standard wing height is 24m but there are two other rigs available – 18m and 29m. Every boat uses the same setup each day. <diagram>

Computers and technology are very advanced. Every sailor is wired up and computers share everything including with onshore coaches who relay info to each team. Mechanically, batteries are connected to a hydraulic accumulator to power the foil and rudder pitch control, the jib sheet, and the wing twist control. The two grinders provide human power to the wing sheet.

The flight of the boat can be controlled from the twist grips on the steering wheel or from a joystick controlled by the crew member sitting in position 3 (flight controller). The ride height and foiling can be adjusted independent of the fore and aft bow down pitch in order to maximize speed and avoid nightmares during tacks and roundings.

The helmsman can also control the ride height, the jib sheet, and the rudder differential from push buttons on the steering wheel. The system allows the crew to regulate the speed at which each action happens. This is super tech.

The Crew

The current Canadian team is all-star.

Phil Robertson / Driver

Annie Haeger / Strategist

Paul Campbell-James / Wing Trimmer

Billy Gooderham / Flight Controller

Tom Ramshaw / Grinder

Jake Lilley / Grinder

Tim Hornsby / Grinder

Jareese Finch / Grinder

All are class champs; many are Olympians and National Team members.

Robertson, a New Zealander as the Driver and CEO is ultimately responsible for the decisions regarding the crew, with input from the team’s coach, Philippe Presti. Several other accomplished Canadian sailors have competed in spot races including Isabella Bertold, Georgia Lewin-LaFrance and Sarah Douglas.

The Need for Speed

While some powerboating experiences might include 60 miles per hour, that is pretty unusual on a sailing vessel. Billy Gooderham describes his flight controller time aboard as so busy he rarely knows where the boat is on the course.

Grinder Tom Ramshaw also controls the position and trim of the jib lead for trimming speed) with his feet while non-stop grinding the coffee grinder that controls the wing. He faces forward so is also eyes-out on the competitors, wind shifts etc. On the tack, he sprints across the trampoline and continues on the opposite side without missing a beat. Busy? Ummm, yes. 

Jareese Finch another grinder says that in each maneuver “there are about 40 functions that happen. It’s a symphony of how everyone is operating the boat.” “It’s amazing everything stays in one piece sometimes,” he chuckles. This all happens under high-traffic, high-speed conditions. “When it’s windy, crossing the boat uphill at nearly 100 clicks means living in a washing machine with 3Gs of force”

Now what?

Canada continues to distinguish itself in SailGP. The team won just one event in 2023 but is constantly in the hunt and is considered a force. In a recent anonymous survey of the ten teams’ athletes, Canada driver Phil Robertson was voted the most aggressive driver and Canada was deemed the team most likely to cause a crash. That sounds like a great reputation.

Sail GP itself, is growing. Like Formula One, the whole endeavour is a travelling carnival arriving at each world stop with two dozen containers full of tents, boats, and everything else. On race day celebrity teams, vast support crews and growing legions of fans create the kind of buzz and excitement rarely seen in sailing before.

You’re going to want to be part of this June when the circus starring CAN SailGP comes to town in Halifax. It’s the kind of series and Canadian presence event the boat community has always hoped for. And don’t be surprised if the Canadian Team wins.

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