Style & Experiences

SailGP: The Championship Profiling the Legends of 21st-Century Sailing

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino17 août 2023

The opening of the 4th season of SailGP took place in Chicago last June. Elevated to the zenith of competitive sailing, this championship, now featuring twelve Grand Prix events throughout the year, has become the definitive gathering for the world's foremost navigators. Rolex, the Presenting Partner, solidifies its commitment by signing on for an additional ten seasons.

SailGP races are intense. The F50 hydrofoil catamarans can reach speeds over 50 knots (almost 100 km/h). Here, the German SailGP Team competes in SailGP for the first time. Four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel is one of the team's co-investors (Rolex. SailGP)

On Chicago's Navy Pier, the crowd gathered densely during the inaugural weekend of the SailGP championship as ten high-performance vessels battled for victory. Along the shores of Lake Michigan, the Rolex United States Sail Grand Prix-Chicago inaugurated the 4th season of this foiling catamaran sailing championship, which expanded to encompass twelve events spanning four continents throughout the year.

Sébastien Schneiter, Swiss SailGP helmsman, in action behind Jeremy Bachelin, Swiss SailGP grinder, during the first day of racing at the Rolex United States Sail Grand Prix of Chicago at Navy Pier, Season 4, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. The Swiss team is currently 9th in the standings (Ricardo Pinto for SailGP)

Following the Australian boat's triumph in San Francisco, concluding Season 3 in May, all crews were again present on Chicago's waters. On June 16th, the first date of the Season 4 calendar, the fleet even welcomed a new nation, Germany, joining the ranks of SailGP. Each crew has extensively refined their navigation and race communication methods this year, leveraging the thousands of data points collected from each boat throughout the championship. Russell Coutts, the CEO of SailGP since its inception in 2019, conceived a groundbreaking sailing competition: all data gathered by the hundreds of sensors placed on each catamaran are transmitted to London's data center, where they are analyzed and instantaneously relayed to the event site, providing real-time, open-source information to all teams.

Our models take inspiration from the MBA or Formula 1, both of which are deeply invested in the digital realm

Russell Coutts, CEO of the SailGP championship

Russell Coutts, four-time America's Cup winner and CEO of the SailGP championship (Rolex. SailGP)

This innovative approach was motivated by a singular ambition: to spotlight the talent of crews, all equipped with identical boats, technologies, and financial resources (including a budget of 7 million Swiss francs covering boat rental, transportation, maintenance, and various technical support). Russell Coutts, the famous New Zealand sailor, and four-time America's Cup winner, aimed to establish an international sailing championship featuring a fleet of cutting-edge F50 foiling catamarans active across four continents and uniting the world's premier navigators.

Cutting-Edge F50 Catamarans

The acquisition of the F50 foiling catamaran fleet by Oracle owner Larry Elisson came about following the 2017 America's Cup, in which the New Zealanders triumphed over the Americans in Bermuda. These 50-foot vessels introduced novel features like a rigid sail and an onboard hydraulic energy generation system powered solely by the crew's arms or legs, necessary for activating electronic controls. These technological advancements have continued to shape innovations in competitive sailboat design worldwide.

For Russell Coutts, CEO of SailGP, sailing as close to the shore as possible and on waters close to major cities are essential criteria. Guaranteeing a quality show is vital to the success of the championship (Rolex. SailGP)

Today, the catamarans crafted by Core Builders Composites in New Zealand bear little resemblance to those developed for the 2017 America's Cup. The cockpit has undergone a complete overhaul. Three sail options are now available based on wind conditions, along with two sizes of foils. The objective remains unchanged: stabilizing the catamaran and extending its airborne phase over the water for as long as possible during the 15-minute races.

Sir Ben Ainslie, Rolex Testimonial, most successful Olympic sailor of all time, CEO and helmsman of the British Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team, currently 6th in the rankings (Rolex. SailGP)

While the America's Cup allows each team to interpret innovations within certain parameters, SailGP offers identical F50 catamarans that can be leased annually. This distinction provides teams with ample room to express their navigating and strategic prowess freely. Each race demands exceptional skills and experience at the pinnacle of competitive sailing.

The F50s can showcase navigators' talents

Sir Ben Ainslie, Rolex Testimonial, helmsman of the British Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team

Sir Ben Ainslie, a Rolex ambassador, and the most decorated Olympic sailor, helms the British Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team. He shares, "These races are incredibly intense. The boats can reach up to 100 km/h on a racecourse where all ten boats compete in close quarters, often in choppy waters. It's very extreme! Our ability to navigate with the winds remains key, as does our analysis of the racecourse, which can make all the difference. Finding 2 knots of wind can transform a mere push into triple the speed. The F50s can showcase navigators' talents. Of course, the margin between success and failure is razor-thin; everything must be perfect, every opportunity negotiated flawlessly."

An Inclusive Championship Model

These qualities – performance, talent, and excellence – have cemented Rolex's commitment to SailGP since its inaugural season. Rolex has pledged to support the championship for ten more seasons as the Presenting Partner. This partnership aligns with the brand's enduring ethos and resonates with SailGP's core values: a drive for excellence, a taste for challenge, and a passion for competition. With a history of seven decades of involvement in numerous top-tier races and regattas worldwide, Rolex, through its partnership with SailGP, champions the nautical elite, embracing the most innovative and sustainable aspects of the 21st century.

Rolex, partner of the SailGP since the first season, has confirmed its commitment by signing on for another ten seasons as Presenting Partner of the championship. To launch season 4, Rolex was Presenting Partner of the United States Sail Grand Prix-Chicago (Rolex. SailGP)
Hannah Mills, the most successful sailor in Olympic history, a strategist on the British SailGP boat, and Rolex testimonial (Rolex)

Beyond technological feats, the championship aspires to exemplify inclusion, diversity, and sustainability – prerequisites for the longevity of events. Hannah Mills, the most decorated Olympic sailor in history and a strategist on the British SailGP team, highlights, "SailGP has established a program to bring women sailors into the competition. Each boat has included a female crew member for the past two seasons. We currently hold the strategist position, but Russell Coutts is working to enable us to take on the helming role by Season 6, depending on the sailors' profiles. This requires time and training outside of races, necessitating additional financial support since the boats aren't owned by the teams, making non-race usage impossible. Fortunately, simulators are available. However, I am optimistic. After yesterday's race, I had the opportunity to helm the boat for the first time. It was incredible! Ben Ainslie, the helmsman, and all my teammates are attentive to these issues; they are remarkable men." Mills serves as a role model for many aspiring sailors, becoming the first SailGP sailor to pause her career to have a child in 2022 temporarily. After a year-long hiatus, she rejoined the British team while keeping her child close during Grand Prix events as often as possible.

Each boat has included a female crew member for the past two seasons. We currently hold the strategist position, but Russell Coutts is working to enable us to take on the helming role by Season 6, depending on the sailors' profiles

Hannah Mills, Rolex testimonial, strategist on the British boat

Serving as an innovation hub across various programs, SailGP is also a trailblazer in sustainability. The Impact League, an initiative developed by the championship's leadership, tangibly involves all crews in energy-saving efforts, minimizing their impact on water and land and advancing diversity and inclusion. Each event is audited, every team is monitored, and performance is assessed against various criteria. The Impact League necessitates competition among teams at a level as intense as their on-water battles. Another hallmark is the Inspire Program, also conceived by Russell Coutts, which provides young sailors, both men, and women, with opportunities to sail on smaller foiling boats, gradually ascending the ranks by engaging with F50 sailors during each Grand Prix event. Notably, Natasha Bryant, the strategist for the Australian ship, emerged from the Inspire Program.

Open-Source Data Shaping 21st Century Sailing

Over the past four years, SailGP has profoundly revolutionized the sailing landscape, emerging as a pivotal force in the sport's future. It assumes a central role, marked by strides in inclusion, sustainability, and carbon footprint reduction. These indispensable attributes factored into Rolex's partnership decision, driven by their pursuit of precision, dedication, and the utmost performance from competitors and their vessels.

Sébastien Schneiter, helmsman of the Swiss boat (Rolex. SailGP)

A pivotal innovation within SailGP, the concept of open-source data available in real-time to each crew, has also revolutionized the ethos of the sport. Sébastien Schneiter, the helmsman of the Swiss boat, explains, "Indeed, this allows new teams to compete with more experienced counterparts quickly. They gain access to data from previous years made available through Oracle's cloud, where all the information is stored. We can review videos, analyze maneuvers, determine which buttons were pressed, and hear what's being discussed on the boats. We can relive moments, whether from years past or from live races. Our coaches can observe, listen, and analyze what other teams are doing during training, guiding us directly from the shore."

Each season, new evolutions may provide a certain degree of leeway

Sébastien Schneiter, helmsman of Swiss boat

Could any semblance of privacy or navigational secrecy persist? To this query, Tom Slingsby, the star helmsman of the Australian boat and multiple-time SailGP victor, admits, "Of course, we try to keep some secrets. We use words that may have multiple meanings depending on maneuvers. However, a thorough analysis of the data can uncover these little tricks. It doesn't hold for long." Notably, the advancements are more intriguing to observe on the F50 side; as Sébastien Schneiter explains, "Each season, new evolutions may provide a certain degree of leeway. All boats are identical, but this year, there's a bit more freedom in how we control our panels where all the control buttons are located. Each team can decide the functions assigned to each button."

Now firmly entrenched in the schedules of premier sailors alongside the America's Cup, SailGP has succeeded in captivating an ever-expanding audience over a few years. On this front, Russell Coutts has expertly aligned his championship with the most popular sporting competitions. He adds, "Our models take inspiration from the MBA or Formula 1, both of which are deeply invested in the digital realm. Our races are tailored to appeal to all audiences, including the younger generation, thanks to the brief duration of each race and the spectacular display they offer right along the shores and within iconic locales. What could be better than sailing beneath the Statue of Liberty in New York? That's what awaits the spectators next year in the penultimate Grand Prix of the season."

The ten SailGP crews are set to rendezvous on another iconic shoreline, as the upcoming Grand Prix is scheduled for September 9th and 10th in Saint-Tropez.

The next SailGP event will occur in the Bay of St-Tropez, France, on September 9 and 10, 2023. (Shutterstock)

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