Taking the wheel: the role of a helmsman

17 MAY 2019News
Australia SailGP Team helmsman Tom Slingsby

Keeping the F50 under control is no small feat, the helmsmen of SailGP’s six national teams lay out what it takes.

Big wipe-outs, high-flying action and close calls - not just any athlete can handle the helm of an F50. It takes expert decision making, excellent tactical knowledge, and serious grit and determination to get one of these foiling catamarans around the race course.

China SailGP Team helmsman Phil Robertson sums it up, “you need the mental capacity of a chess player combined with the physicality of an Olympic rower and the composure of a monk.”

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The skills required are tangible, getting the boat up and foiling, driving it around the race course at high speeds and quick decision making and communication with the crew all come into play. But there’s an element that can only come from hours of training, getting a feel for the boat.

Tom Slingsby, who has already led the Australia SailGP Team to two victories in SailGP Season 1, says, “I think probably what makes a helmsman good in the F50 is your intuition.”

Rome Kirby of the United States SailGP Team attests to the same, “You have to have good instincts and you’ve got to be able to have good feel because you have to fly the boat as well as drive the boat.”

The United States SailGP Team's Rome Kirby and Riley Gibbs

Knowing when to push boundaries and when to stay conservative played into a lot of the decisions made in San Francisco, making a big difference on the leaderboard. The China team was able to come back from a particularly bad nosedive to compete in San Francisco SailGP.

“You’ve got to be able to think quite far ahead, everything that’s happening is happening so fast, if you aren’t ahead of the boat and the situation, you’re going to be caught out,” said Robertson.

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“The feeling, the sensation, is very pure, when the boat is going fast,” said Billy Besson of the France SailGP Team. “Your mind would like to go, ‘more speed,’ but you have to have another part that says, ‘ok, maybe safety is better’.”

With six boats on the course, and five sailors on each boat, communication and awareness plays a key role in keeping the entire fleet safe, while pushing the limits.

“There’s a lot of things going on around the race track, so the communication with the crew is super important, they all look to the helmsmen for guidance,” said Slingsby.

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It takes precision in the moment to keep an F50 foiling at speeds over 40 knots and navigating in the best tactical way around the course.

Dylan Fletcher, helming the Great Britain SailGP Team puts it simply, “you are always on a knife edge, the higher you foil, the faster you go but then the closer you are to crashing.”

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Only two events into SailGP Season 1, the helmsman are still getting to grips with the F50 but by the season finale in Marseille, who has mastered it best will be revealed. Until then, all six helmsmen will be pushing their teams and boats for the most optimal performance - body, machine and mind.