Alongside his achievements on world match racing circuit, Canada driver Phil Robertson has become renowned for his proven track record in fast-tracking the development of new SailGP teams.
After leading China to a podium finish in Season 1, he took the reins of Spain in Season 2 and had the team in fourth place overall before his early exit ahead of the San Francisco Grand Final. Impressed by Robertson’s ability to train up two new teams in two different languages, founder of the Canada SailGP Team, Fred Pye, personally recruited Robertson ahead of Season 3 to lead his team. Ahead of the Dubai Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas, we catch up with Robertson to talk new-team challenges and meeting untested weather conditions head-on.
With minimal on-water training time and a largely inexperienced crew, expectations weren’t high for Canada’s debut event in Bermuda. But smooth and consistent fleet racing throughout both Bermuda and the following event in Chicago saw the team net two podium finishes, shocking spectators, commentators and the rest of the SailGP fleet. But then the conditions changed. Plymouth, Copenhagen, Saint-Tropez and Cádiz provided an assortment of different sea states and wind speeds, peaking with 55.5 km/h winds in Saint-Tropez. Tackling these conditions for the first time is ‘the biggest challenge’ for a new team on the F50, Robertson says, and one compounded by the limited training time available to teams. While Bermuda and Chicago presented ‘nice and easy conditions’ with light to medium breeze and flat water, the next four events provided ‘new conditions everyday we went racing’. “You really have to look at that as a day of development and learning to be prepared for the next time you race in those conditions,” Robertson says.
Coupled with tackling new conditions is the challenge to up-skill the crew as fast as possible. As driver, Robertson says his role is ‘effectively to point and shoot’. “You put the boat in the right direction and you have to trust that everyone else on board is going to do their job perfectly under pressure,” he says. Aside from Robertson and wing trimmer Chris Draper, who previously raced with the Japanese team, the team is ‘pretty inexperienced’, he says. “So getting everyone’s skill levels up and building the trust with the team to be able to push the boat to its limit is one of the biggest challenges.”
After testing events in Plymouth and Copenhagen, both of which resulted in sixth place finishes, the team’s developing trust and skillsets were put to the ultimate test in Saint-Tropez’s 55.5 km/h winds. Even with his decades of racing experience and status as a SailGP veteran, Robertson admits he ‘hadn’t experienced those conditions before in the F50’. “You’re doing 100 km/h, you’re surrounded by boats, there’s no escape route or exit from a situation, and it takes all six people on board not to make a mistake and crash,” he says. While Robertson is confident in the ability of his own team, Saint-Tropez’s conditions required all competing boats to trust each other as well. “I trust my team and how we sail the boat, but when there’s someone right in front of you, you’ve got to put all your trust in that team as well,” he says. As a result, he admits the first day of Saint-Tropez was ‘probably one of the most challenging days of [his] life.”
Despite this, it was the next event in Cádiz that provided the biggest test for the Canadian team, with a rough sea state forcing crews to choose between speed and stability. Canada struggled to navigate the conditions, finishing the first day with a 7-8-6 fleet racing record. But it was a different story on day two - Canada won the two remaining fleet races and finished just one point from a place in the Final. This turnaround in performance, which was the result of ‘a lot of learning on day one’, was Robertson’s proudest moment of the season so far. “Mistakes are going to happen but we rallied, got back up and came out the next day with a different approach to the conditions,” he says, “Seeing that fighting spirit in the team is what I’m most proud of.”
Following Cádiz, the F50 fleet faces a six-week hiatus before the next SailGP event in Dubai - a time period that risks becoming a ‘momentum stopper’, Robertson says. To keep the energy levels and motivation high, the team has remained ‘active’ outside of the league, undertaking a training camp back home in Canada and spending ‘a lot of time on phone calls debriefing, discussing, and studying’ past-performances.
Ahead of Dubai, Canada sits in fifth place on the overall Championship leaderboard - a position Robertson says he is ‘stoked’ with. “To have experienced all the conditions that you can experience and be in the middle of the fleet is a good place for us and we’re only going to get better from here as the season goes on.” While the team doesn’t have a ‘super defined strategy’ heading into Dubai, its attention is focused on ‘learning and fine tuning’. “Your first phase of learning is really steep but now we’ve taken those big steps and we’re looking at all the details,” Robertson says.
With just over a week until racing resumes, Robertson’s eye is already fixed on the weather forecast and average wind speeds at this time of year. He’s hoping for light to mid airs and ‘dead flat water’ in which, he says, the team has ‘excelled’ in the past. “That’s probably when the boats are easiest to sail and as a team we’re quite strong,” he says, ‘but saying that, we now feel a lot more confident in all conditions having gone through some pretty wild days in the last four events.’
The nine strong F50 fleet will meet again at the Dubai Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas on November 12-13.