History has been made.
In a year’s time, SailGP has blossomed from fledgling start-up to a global sports league celebrating the crowning of its first-ever champion.
The organization’s first year of operation included the inaugural season of SailGP, which visited three continents across five events, 29 races and a spectacular championship finale between the year’s top-two national teams.
Just 11 days ago, sailing’s largest cash prize of US$1 million was bestowed upon Tom Slingsby’s Australia SailGP Team after it crossed the finish line ahead of season-long rival Nathan Outteridge and his Japan team. That followed 10 minutes of heart-pumping action, which included a near-collision between the two F50 catamarans doing speeds never before seen in sail racing.
It was a year of historic firsts – the launching of what was to become the world’s fastest sail racing boat in New Zealand in December; SailGP’s debut in Sydney in February that saw fleet racing in such high speed boats for the first time; the breaking of the sport’s elusive 50-knot speed barrier in Cowes in August; and of course the awarding of US$1 million in prize money for a single, 10-minute championship final race in Marseille in September.
The global league made its mark on all five of its iconic first-time host cities – Sydney, San Francisco, New York, Cowes (UK) and Marseille (France) – with dramatic moments in each venue.
The China SailGP Team was first to experience significant damage to its multi-million-dollar racing machine with a 40-to-0 knot nosedive in San Francisco that snapped one of its wing elements in half, while the British were first to capsize when a strong gust of wind threaded through the Manhattan skyline to thrust the boat on its side in the Hudson River.
The year also saw SailGP sign global partners Rolex, Oracle and Land Rover, setting the foundation for long-term financial success and commercial viability. Meanwhile, the organization was one of the first signatories of the World Sailing Special Event Sustainability Charter and is the first league to commit to the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework with all of its teams. SailGP’s commitment to sustainable development was also highlighted by the August launch of its youth and community outreach program – SailGP Inspire.
“I am very proud of everyone involved in the launch and successful delivery of our first year of operation at SailGP,” said SailGP CEO Sir Russell Coutts. “Looking back to this time last year, it is hard to believe we were just pulling together the six teams, the boats were still being constructed and going through rigorous testing in New Zealand, and we were discussing commercial deals and starting conversations with the host cities.”
“Fast forward one year and we have come such a long way. There is no doubt we have learned a lot, which has further fueled our desire for SailGP Season 2 and continuing to build on the success of the first year as we shape SailGP into a sustainable, international sports property. We continue to believe having a consistent, professionally marketed and televised annual nation-versus-nation championship is a game-changer for sailing, and puts us on the global map alongside other professional sports.”
On October 3, 2018, SailGP was launched to the public in a glitzy ceremony at London’s Tower Bridge, and the first team – Dylan Fletcher’s Great Britain SailGP Team – was unveiled as one of the six competing nations in the inaugural global championship that would kick off just four months later in Sydney.
Following the launch, a flurry of activity happened across the globe as new nations were unveiled and world class athletes joined the SailGP family. Following the Brits were Rome Kirby’s young all-American team and at the opposite end of the world and experience spectrum was Olympic gold medalist, America’s Cup winner and multiple world champion Tom Slingsby’s Australian team.
Just a week later, eyes were on Europe as top French catamaran sailor Billy Besson and his long-time sailing partner Marie Riou were announced to represent France. And finally, Outteridge was named as the man in charge of upskilling a Japanese squad to bring the country to the fore of world class sailing, while World Match Racing Tour champion Phil Robertson was given the same task for China. The six teams were complete.
The next challenge was to take control and tame the supercharged F50s. For many of the teams, it was their first time in boats of this caliber and even those with experience in foiling catamarans knew that the F50 was taking the sport to a whole new level of performance and technology. Time in the boat was crucial.
A short stint training in New Zealand last Christmas and just a few months later, the teams were being handed the reigns of their brightly decorated F50s. Decked out in national colors, and with the first event in Sydney just around the corner, the pressure was mounting. National pride was at stake.
First blood went to Slingsby, who won the opening event on home soil in front of a lively Australian crowd, beating Japan in the first match race of the season. San Francisco saw the British team up its game and prove itself as a strong contender – just losing out on making the match race that came down to a Japan versus Australia rematch. Again, it was Slingsby who had the upper hand.
By New York, Outteridge was out for revenge and finally turned the tables in the match race to come out as victor and score a first SailGP win for the Japan team. New York was also a highlight for Kirby’s U.S team, which gave the home crowd a reason to cheer, winning its first ever SailGP race.
The penultimate event in Cowes threw up some serious challenges for the athletes and race management alike, when a severe storm caused the first day of racing to be cancelled. Decided on a one day, three-race showdown, Slingsby delivered a masterclass in heavy weather to dominate all three races and take Australia’s third event win of the season. Disappointment for the home team saw Fletcher steer the British boat home early after sustaining damage and Kirby’s team saw a bit more of the Solent than it would have liked after suffering a capsize just seconds into the first race of the day.
The season of course came down to the dramatic climax in Marseille with a 10-minute all-or-nothing race to decide the champion. In the end, it was Slingsby’s name etched in the history books as the first winner of the impressive Thomas Lyte-designed SailGP Championship trophy, taking home sailing’s biggest prize – US$1 million.
There was also an epic battle for the final podium place, which literally came down to the last fleet race of the season, and could have gone to any of the remaining teams. A late charge by the Chinese saw them overtake the United States and Great Britain to ensure the red and yellow colors of the China SailGP Team were part of the victory parade. The season also ended on a high for Besson’s France SailGP Team, delighting the French crowds in Marseille with its first SailGP race win. By the conclusion of season one, it is notable that all six teams had experienced the thrill of winning at least one race.
While the curtain closes on SailGP’s historic first season, fans have just under 150 days to wait until the world-class athletes step back into their F50s for Season 2. After a few months of modifications and testing in New Zealand, the F50s will be back better and faster than ever. A new modular wingsail will enable the boats to sail in a wider range of conditions, and new teams are expected to be announced to join the fleet during Season 2 as SailGP embarks on an expanded schedule.
If Season 1 is anything to go by, one thing is guaranteed – there will be more high speed, high tech and high drama as the teams do battle in Season 2, starting February 28 in Sydney. Tickets go on sale November 1 at SailGP.com.