As the six SailGP teams train on the new F50s in New Zealand, the crews take to the water knowing they have received best-in-class safety training.
SailGP Safety Officer Julien Cressant is a former America’s Cup sailor with experience on just about every professional sailing tour. He says the goal of the safety training is to prepare the sailors to handle worst-case scenarios.
“The progression of the safety course is for the sailors to be able to master every part of a capsize situation,” Cressant explained from the marina in Nice, France, where he was putting a group of sailors through the paces.
“We want to simulate every kind of problem they might encounter, so we’re teaching them how to breathe from their spare air tanks and how to get clear of the net underwater. And for our final test, we combine everything.”
For SailGP CEO Russell Coutts, the safety training is just one part of a robust plan to make safety a core value of the new circuit.
“The safety of our athletes is absolutely our top priority,” he said. “Just as we've utilized the best technology available in designing and building the incredible F50 boats, we are also actively developing and testing advanced safety technology, including protective clothing, crew restraint devices, safety equipment and response training.”
With boat speeds expected to reach and even exceed 50 knots at times, training and preparation is critical.
“The danger is real,” acknowledged Phil Robertson, China SailGP Team helmsman. “The speeds push the limit. So we see real value in coming and spending two days with Julien and his team, and we know that it will prepare us for what we may encounter on the water.”
When the teams are training on the F50s in New Zealand, there are always at least four powerboats speeding alongside and behind the catamarans.
During racing, a dedicated safety boat will idle on the edge of the race course, ready to respond immediately in the case of an issue.
As speeds approach the 50-knot barrier, risk is inherent, and mitigating that risk is a shared responsibility of the sailors, teams and race organizers. The sailors must be prepared with self-rescue skills for the crucial moments before help arrives.
“You always need to be prepared,” said Kyle Langford, Australia SailGP Team wing trimmer and one of the most experienced sailors in the world on high-performance foiling multihulls. “Getting in good training is so crucial.”
“It’s very important, not only to be prepared to save your own life, but you might be in a position to save your friend and crewmate too,” noted Jinhao ‘Horace’ Chen, China SailGP Team grinder.
A big focus of the safety course is ensuring the sailors are put in challenging situations to expand their comfort zone, so that in the case of a real emergency, the response is calm and calculated. Breathing exercises to promote calmness and prolong survival underwater, for example, are a core component of the course.
“It’s pretty scary,” said Dylan Fletcher, Great Britain SailGP Team helmsman. “Your natural reaction is that you haven’t got enough air and you can panic pretty quickly. But this proves that you’ll be ok.
“The idea is that the skills we learn here become second nature. We know exactly where our spare air is, we can relax, we know what to do and hopefully get ourselves out of the situation safely as quickly as possible.”