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HomeSailThe Sudden Internet-fueled Evolution of Yacht Racing

The Sudden Internet-fueled Evolution of Yacht Racing

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Yesterday, somewhere in the world, nine one-design sailors raced each other. A guy named Pete won. Whew! Writing such scintillating sports copy really takes it out of a marine journalist!

Which begs the question: why cover one yacht race over another? And what, exactly, is the future of yacht racing at its most exalted level? Which modern regatta is truly ‘sailing into the future?’

Does anyone care about those nine guys flogging their windblown vessels around a short, 15-minute race course?

Good question. 

Here’s another one—why did SAIL GP even stage a regatta on January 14-15 in Singapore—a country that knows almost nothing about yacht racing, and cares less?

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Answer: F1 auto racing. 

That’s it—that’s the key to all this F50 madness in Asia. Singapore feels that it ‘put itself on the sports map’ with F1 Grand Prix auto racing and has managed to leverage a lot of money and international prestige from the relatively few pennies invested. I have sat through numerous meetings with the movers and shakers of the Miracle of Singapore and this is a core belief they have: The pennies they invested in F1 racing paid off handsomely for their people. 

Fine. SAIL GP wants to be the greener F1 and Singapore needs the Next Big Thing. A three-year contract was signed. Yacht racing and public money are mingling in new and exotic ways. 

And in what better venue than ultra-modern, ultra-efficient Singapore?

Mounting the mast in the Tech Area
Mounting the mast in the Tech Area

Why should readers of ALL AT SEA care?

Well, one reason is that SAIL GP and a fellow named David Palmer and his Bernoulli-Locke DAO (a decentralized autonomous organization) have combined with NEAR (who are involved in cyber security and will tell you more if you just send them your email address) are unexpectedly soliciting money while mentioning the Caribbean region. Huh? Money for what? How? Why?

Frankly, I’m not sure. To buy an F50? To sponsor a regatta? To purchase the whole SAIL GP organization? Strangely, after two intense days of covering SAIL GP, I’m more confused about who is paying whom for what—than ever. 

As a yacht race, SAIL GP is succeeding brilliantly. I, personally, enjoy watching each and every event on the Internet—and have since its inception. But Russel Coutts and Larry Ellison—two odd bedfellows if ever there were—have cooked up a strange, strange brew to compete with the American’s Cup. 

Fatty, outside the SAIL GP Media Center on East Coast Park, S’pore
Fatty, outside the SAIL GP Media Center on East Coast Park, S’pore

Let’s take an in-depth look. 

SAIL GP is part yacht race, part eco-cult, and part educational—a holy trinity that combines in odd and unusual ways. The question is: what does yacht racing have to do with DAOs and NFTs? Is SAIL GP ‘sailing into the future’ as it claims or merely currently obscuring its financial present?

Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

In many ways, SAIL GP has a greater eco-focus than any other yachting event in the world. It’s in their very slogan—“Powered by Nature.” Part of this emphasis is because public funds of the host countries are involved, I assume. And, yes, the F50 boats are powered by the wind, as sailboats are—even the F50’s lithium batteries are solar-charged. Fantastic! Admirable! Amazing!

What isn’t solar-powered or ‘carbon-positive’ are the 300 people that the event jets around the world each month, the 100 containers it moves, or the 30 vessels (most with twin 300hp outboards) it ships.

Which isn’t to say SAIL GP isn’t doing good things in the ecosphere. It is. However, it might be laying on the greenwash a bit too thick. 

There were times being in its Media Center was like watching Patrick McGoohan’s TV show The Prisoner being cross-pollinated with a yacht race. I knew the Truth was Out There—somewhere; but where?

According to press releases, there’s really two races going on during a SAIL GP event—both equally important. 

One competition is to save the planet while conserving carbon, with prizes of “upwards of $100,000!” for the crews. They refer to it as the ‘Second Podium,’ the Podium for the Planet! There’s even an Impact League leaderboard. And a huge (recycled carbon fiber, natch) trophy. 

Right now, as of January 15 at the close of racing in Singapore, Team Canada is winning with 1074 points, NZ second with 1072, and Denmark holding third at 1069. Cool, eh?

Another eco-prize: the Golden Crane ticket (which allows the boat’s team to skip to the head of the line after the event).  Even better, individual crews can solicit their own eco-sponsors—more ways to raise more funds! 

Everywhere the focus is on the environment (and fundraising). But often the SAIL GP clearly overreaches. I couldn’t help but smile when an earnest young spokesperson told me that “no plastic is allowed in the Tech Area” where the boats are kept and worked on. 

Hell, the boats are frig’n plastic! Everything is plastic, plastic, and more plastic! (What the spokesperson perhaps meant to say was, “SAIL GP discourages the use of one-use plastic bottles on its premises.”

This is true. And this is admirable. And, yes, I rode my bike 1.5 hours each way to the event because I, too, care about Planet Earth. 

Perhaps I should seek sponsorship?

New Zealand SailGP crew celebrate as they cross the finish line to win the final race on Race Day 2 of the Singapore Sail Grand Prix presented by the Singapore Tourism Board in Singapore, Singapore, 15th January 2023. Photo: Bob Martin for SailGP
New Zealand SailGP crew celebrate as they cross the finish line to win the final race on Race Day 2 of the Singapore Sail Grand Prix presented by the Singapore Tourism Board in Singapore, Singapore, 15th January 2023. Photo: Bob Martin for SailGP

Does SAIL GP really expect me to believe that if a millionaire named Russell and a billionaire named Larry, jet 300 people around the world every month and ship 30+ boats/engines and 100+ containers—that Singapore or our planet’s eco-problems will be less?

That’s what they’re selling—at least in the Media room. 

Gee, maybe what we need is 100 billionaires flying 30,000 people and shipping 10,000 containers and 3,000 yachts around the world to race in exotic locales—and we could cool the planet and solve world hunger too!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I want to repeat my previous statement: I’ve never attended a yacht race with a greater emphasis on the environment than the recent SAIL GP event in S’pore. And that’s good. And to be commended. 

But, alas, we must remain reality-based. 

There’s a difference between massive PR spin and actual solar power. 

Spectators watch the fleet in action from the SailGP Beach Club on Race Day 2 of the Singapore Sail Grand Prix presented by the Singapore Tourism Board in Singapore, Singapore, 15th January 2023. Photo: Christopher Pike for SailGP
Spectators watch the fleet in action from the SailGP Beach Club on Race Day 2 of the Singapore Sail Grand Prix presented by the Singapore Tourism Board in Singapore, Singapore, 15th January 2023. Photo: Christopher Pike for SailGP

Why am I making such a big deal about this?

For one simple reason: SAIL GP makes a big deal of this. As a sailor, I’m primarily interested in boats-moving-through-the-water. SAIL GP constantly conflates this simple act of eco-babble. Or am I being too harsh? 

While I was there, a sailor attached a flag to a shroud with some wire ties—as a few of his fellow sailors cringed. Moments later, a different sailor replaced those bits of one-use plastic with some biodegradable waxed linen twine. 

“Renewable,” he said. 

Laughable? Or a first baby step towards a better world?

I’ll leave that for you, dear reader, to decide. 

One thing that I do know about is the Singapore government. It wants real-world results; they can spot BS a mile away. 

On the positive side, I really didn’t see any plastic bottles on the Tech site and the chilled water refill stations (BYOB) were plentiful. Hooray!

Even better, SAIL GP has won the 2022 BBC Green Sports Award—the Ambitious and Impact Award. 

They also won three gold medals in the UN Climate Neutral Now Initiative. 

As mentioned, there is also a Youth Educational Component to SAIL GP. It is in its infancy. While at the Tech Site, I did, indeed, see two dozen Singaporean youngsters in a couple of small tents being taught something. 

Again, admirable—or, at least, embryonically so. 

Singapore has the highest, most incredible, most respected education system on this planet. And when they eventually evaluate the SAIL GP educational program, they’ll instantly be able to determine whether it is BS or not. 

Extreme 40s & the Future of Yacht Racing

Now we come to the sickly, disconcerting part. 

I’m a 71-year-old sailor who has lived aboard for 63 years and raced throughout the world over the course of my four circs. I like to think I’m a tolerant fellow, willing to change, and learn new things. But recently the SAIL GP team contacted me (and the general public) in evident partnership with Bernoulli-Locke (NEAR) which is a DAO (a decentralized Autonomous Organization) from which I’d be able to (lucky me!) purchase tokens from a Mister David Palmer. 

Huh? 

They want to sell me tokens? How, exactly, does blockchain factor in? And why is this a Caribbean Team? Has Bermuda been towed to the Caribbean? 

What is going on here? What does any of this have to do with yacht racing?

I read much of their Palmer’s prospectus—word salad! Especially the part about the Earth Day posters and downloading a NEAR digital wallet. And the fact that the first 20 lucky, lucky people to buy their NFTs will get t-shirts, real sustainably-made t-shirts! 

How could anyone pass that up?

Why does any of the above matter? Because I think Russell and Larry might be accomplishing their goals. They might actually be succeeding where the early Formula 40s in the 1980s and the Extreme 40s recently failed. Why do I say that?

Because, in America at least, SAIL GP is beginning to get more clicks than F1 auto racing after an event—depending, of course, on what metric you’re measuring. 

This totally bowled me over. 

If so, hats off to SAIL GP!

Singapore Stan

Once I was able to set aside such PR/financial questions, I was enthralled with SAIL GP.

Example: Each vessel is always continuously reporting 2,400 data points to the organization. That’s not what blew me away. The fact that any crew can analyze that data at any time for as long as they want—did. If all nine boats do something while racing or during practice—and one boat does it notably better, then everyone can learn from it equally. 

With data, audio, and visual. 

This is a very new, very utopian idea to me. 

This may mean that all the top foiling sailors in the world end up being SAIL GP-bred. 

Also, the umpires are not on the water—not even on site!

Interestingly, in almost all the regattas I’ve covered, the international judges are totally transparent—their organizations, names, monetary pay, and personal motives. Not here. Who are they? Where are they? Who pays them? Why do they do it? How do they do it?

I haven’t quite got my head around this aspect yet—or the entrance fee (or financial commitment) of (whisper, it isn’t officially released) a rumored 14 million per boat. Huh?

“We realize that we must come up with money,” the French skipper told me. What money? Why? For whom? 

Japan just lost a sponsor so—hey, they’re out! 

But the idea among SAIL GP organizers seems to be that all these money/motivation questions aren’t important. Who cares? Relax, dude! Nobody asks the F1 people these things, do they? 

Just as the average F1 auto fans don’t know how to fix their cars—why should yacht racing be any different?

Should questions like this even be asked? I’m not sure—but I think so. Isn’t it my job and the job of small marine publications around the world to ask exactly such questions?

One thing I am 100% supportive of is the SAIL GP’s Woman’s Pathway Program. It has resulted in this rule change: each vessel must have a female member of the crew in order to race. 

That’s big—and, in my view, highly admirable. There is no reason why the winning skipper of SAIL GP or the America’s Cup can’t be a female soon… IF they have the same opportunities to learn. SAIL GP has taken the lead in this, and hooray for them. 

Another interesting factoid—all crewmembers must wear helmets and a life vest—which includes a knife and 8 minutes of air. 

This makes sense with boats zooming along at 60 mph—boats that can (and did) kill a crewmember by trapping them under the trampoline. 

Another interesting development or change: Extreme 40s practically arranged for vessels to collide in front of their cameras. SAIL GP is taking the opposite approach by severely penalizing the slightest contact. And the contact doesn’t have to be during an official race—practices and training sessions count too. 

Celestial Navigation Part II – Predicting the Suns Geographic Position

Okay! To the Race Coverage!

Singapore is a light-air venue. Heading into this regatta we only knew one thing: that because of a penalty imposed during practice, Pete Burling of New Zealand was down four points before the start—and thus at a severe disadvantage. 

There were five races. 

The first race was postponed due to lack of air. Only two fleet races were conducted on Saturday: two on Sunday, plus the final winner-take-all three-boat race on Sunday as well. 

Who won? Pete Burling of Team New Zealand dazzled—despite beginning with the above-mentioned deficit of minus four points. How/why? Because his crew was nearly flawless. And because, during a squall in the final race, he was best able to control his over-powered vessel in the momentarily strong winds.

Why did Aussie Tom Slingsby lose? Because during the final he allowed his vessel to fall off its foils during a slow (decreasing-wind) mark rounding. 

Racing is, at this level, a search for perfection. 

Nicolai Sehested of Denmark was in the final hunt but couldn’t ‘shift gears’ during the shifty (erratically increasing and decreasing) winds of the final race. 

Sadly, the aggressive Jimmy Spithill of USA Oracle was over the starting line early twice during the regatta. Ouch! 

Ben Ainslie and Team Great Britain seemed jet-lagged. I realize that’s an odd thing to say but it is true. Ben seemed like he was drowning in the confusion of his too-full, too hectic life. 

I watched him doing a sponsor photo-shoot on the beach. The poor guy wanted to scream but could only patiently smile. 

Switzerland, Canada, France, and Spain are all at different stages of their learning process. 

Here’s the bottom line: SAIL GP is working harder and more creatively than any other group to redefine yacht racing in the Internet age. To ignore them is to ignore the future, for better or worse.

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com
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