Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines
Flying across Sydney Harbour at speeds approaching 40kts, the SailGP F50 foiling catamarans showcased the potential of this new regatta format, reports KEVIN GREEN.
The world had watched in awe as these former America’s Cup boats had match raced in pairs but former AC combatant Larry Ellison had something else in mind so gathered his old shipmates, including five time AC winner Russell Coutts to create this new SailGP circuit, that began in Sydney on 14/15 February 2019. Claiming to be about 15% faster than their original configuration, these 50 footers were renamed from AC50’s to F50’s in New Zealand, where they were refitted before arriving across the Tasman.
The six F50’s will compete across five international venues for the $1millon dollar prize, crewed by Olympians, AC sailors and world champions. Bank-rolled by Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts as a rival to the America’s Cup circuit, the event is believed to be underwritten by Ellison’s Oracle Corporation along with sponsors Rolex and LandRover for three years. Ironically, the 2022 America’s Cup in New Zealand is now a foiling monohull event, as chosen by the winning Kiwis who humbled Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team led by Aussie James Spithill 7-1.
The largely nationality based teams include joint favourites Japan and Australia, followed by France, GBR, USA and China. Both China and Japan are classed as development teams so are allowed two foreign nationals. Japan has the most experienced and accomplished foiling helmsman in Australian Nathan Outteridge. The eight times world champion and Olympic Gold medallist in the 49er was the helmsman during the development of the F50 so is unique in being able to maintain foiling while tacking the F50 which put him in the box seat initially in Sydney. “Yes, I’ve done about 380 days helming these boats so it puts me ahead of most including Tom Slingsby who was a crew rather than helm.” The friendly rivalry between the two accomplished Australians gave way to some lively banter between them at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Sydney where Outteridge claimed to know what Slingsby was going to do before he even did it. “I can tell by the expression on his face,” laughed Outteridge. “Bull****,” replied a laughing Slingsby and indeed Slingsby did have the last laugh at the end of two days racing in Sydney. But more about that later.
The format has all six teams competing head-to-head in two days of races with six races in each event. At the end of each event the top two teams match race in the final to decide the winner. The overall season winner is decided at the final event in Marseilles, France where the top two teams from the season advance to the final where the winner takes the USD$1million purse. The timetable for the SailGP is: Sydney February (15-16), after which SailGP will move on to San Francisco in May (4-5), followed by New York in June (21-22) and Cowes in August (10-11), before the Marseilles final in September (20-22).
Geared towards spectators, that turned up in their thousands on Sydney Harbour, the F50’s foiled for most of the six races, despite the light winds, so were a thrilling spectacle as they sped across the water between the Bradley’s Head on the north shore and Darling Point, passing Shark Island where spectators were ideally positioned to see the 50ft cats only metres away. Most useful for us spectators was the SailGP App which gave real time information on all the competitors, including commentary. It allowed us to check on each team’s performance during the racing. So for instance we noted that the fastest boats on day one of racing was the Australian team that clocked 34kts boat speed in only 9.6kts of wind. This information was also available to teams so post-race they could analyse one another’s performance. The Australian team in testing on New Zealand waters reached a record speed of 49.7kts and there’s more development to come for these boats so the potential is awesome.
Japan team skippered by Aussie Nathan Outteridge foiling at speeds of nearly 40kts on the F50 catamaran. Image Bob Martin for SailGP
Speaking to Russell Coutts before they set off for the first race, he assured me that there would be no holding back, despite the fact that a bingle could render the team out of action. “I’m telling the boys to go for it!” he laughed as we watched the five man crews leave the hospitality tent at the Royal Yacht Squadron where they’d mingled with spectators before jumping aboard.
The F50 is described by SailGP as the world’s fastest, most technologically advanced flying catamaran, so I was keen to visit their temporary boat yard on Cockatoo Island where I was shown around by Kiwi technical operations manager Brad Marsh. “The F50 is a version of the AC50 but really a whole new class of boat, despite a lot of similarities on the surface,” he said as we stood outside the vast hangers and tall cranes required to hoist the delicate 79ft wing sails weighing a ton. Along with the wing, there are three jibs and SailGP organisers dictate which one is to be used by all teams on each particular day, to ensure true one-design racing.
Stored power is a major change from the AC50, with lithium batteries allowing push-button trimming including the rake of the foils, their canting and the twist on the wing sail but the wing sheet is manually trimmed by two grinders. The electronics has pre-programmed ‘mode’s which the crew uses at their own discretion. Along with each team’s three headsails there are two sets of foils per team – one set are light air boards (LABs) and one set are high speed boards (HSB’s). SailGP organisers dictate which boards will be used on any given day.
Safety is the overriding factor, given the previous injuries and fatality in the AC cats. “When the boat is lowered into the water with the wing on, we class the boat as ‘hot’ because it has the potential to sail or even tip over,” explained Brad Marsh. Protector boats surround each F50 to ensure it remained head to wind and before racing these RIB’s usher the F50 well clear of obstacles before the five man crew take over.
The fleet separated more by day two as the dominant teams of Australia, Japan and GBR pushed ahead of the young Americans skippered by AC winner Rome Kirby and the French team skippered by Billy Besson, a four time Nacra 17 World Champion. Image David Gray for SailGP
CREWING AN F50
The five man crew comprise a steerer, trimmer, flight controller and two grinders. Their safety equipment includes helmets, air-breathers and harnesses attaching them to the boat at all times. Sat in each of the hulls, then moving over during tacks, which may seem pedestrian but when doing this at speeds of 30kts+ it’s potentially very dangerous.
“The G-forces are something we are still getting used to,”explained Phil Robertson who had only nine hours practice time on the F50 in New Zealand before Sydney. Talking with the skipper of the China team was fascinating as Robertson is known for speaking plainly. “With closing speeds of 80kts plus I’ve no idea how we decide when its safe to cross another boat!” However the jovial Kiwi was clearly relishing the challenge but aware of the onus on safety for the relatively inexperienced Chinese crew who had offshore experience but none on this kind of catamarans.
“These boats are very technical to sail, so things like managing your hydraulic usage – operating accumulators that can overheat if over-used to push the boards up and down – are some of the challenges.”
Tacking on the foils is another major challenge for all the teams. “We are getting closer and have landed one in New Zealand and a couple in practice here,” said Phil. The crew use headsets for communication and given the loud humming noise that us spectators heard as these boats passed us, it would be essential. The loud humming (a zinging sound) reminded me of the reality of attending a Formula One race rather than watching the relatively muted version on television.
Keeping the boat foiling is paramount to competitiveness, Robertson said which relies on fast team work, as they only start to foil at about 14kts boat speed. The large light air foils are massive so getting their tips out of the water takes time, as we saw during the races when some of the boats were stuck to the water as they wrestled with the foil friction; which requires the boat to be pointed upwind.
“There’s quite a lot of functions you need to set up for either an upwind or downwind run, so the first crewman to move in a tack is your wing trimmer and one grinder who goes to set up the boat to leeward then I drop the board, then spin the boat as fast as I can,” explained Robertson.
RESULTS SYDNEY SAILGP
1st Australia – 48pts
2nd Japan – 45pts
3rd Great Britain – 36pts
4th China – 33pts
5th France – 33pts
6th United States – 31pts
GP50 Regatta Sydney
by Shaun Jackson
Team USA, keeping in mind this is a 50ft boat travelling at 20kts.
GP50 regatta’s first outing on Sydney Harbour could be deemed a real success. Large number of spectators, over 1000 spectator boats on the water, hundreds on Shark Island and the event being televised to both national and international links.
The event was a collection of great sailors on amazing boats. A lot has been said about their similarity to the AC boats, really the major difference is in one less crew, electronic battery driven controls, three dimensional control over the foils and generally smaller foils. These changes mean (although it is incredibly complicated) more control over the foils particularly with respect to righting moment with the ability to get the foils well past the width of the boat.
Reducing in general the foil size has of course reduced the drag co-efficient increasing the potential top speed of the boats. Although there will be a larger wing available in the future, the light to moderate winds in Sydney Harbour meant that only the best co-ordinated team could make the boats fly in truly marginal conditions.
Team Australia doing a great job even with the smaller foils, managing better than the other teams through tacks and jibes was crucial for getting the jump.
From a multihull sailor’s point of view it still seems surreal and you look around Sydney Harbour seeing normal boats not achieving 8kts and these boats flying along well in excess of 20kts.
I can’t imagine how any of the crews got the level of skill they did to be able to fly these complex boats in such difficult conditions and in tight formation. Mostly my pictures will describe the real effect of some of the controls and the effect when they go wrong.
I am certain that the racing in the future with simply more practice on the controls and potentially a bigger wing for light air will create a really tight series where the smartest sailors and great team work will be the difference between winning and losing. Anyone racing fast or foiling boats will learn an enormous amount by watching how these guys use lanes and tactics to make gains on their competitors.
I can thoroughly recommend if anybody ever gets the chance to go and watch these weapons in real life and I am booking now for Sydney next year because I can’t imagine anyone who sails not wanting to miss this spectacle on Sydney Harbour. Although it appears an expensive weekend, stay close to the harbour, get to the action by ferry, doesn’t matter whether it is Shark Island or whether the chartered spectator boats or even on the water in a friend’s boat – it will be a great weekend. Sydney offers great restaurants and bars for the evening, and fantastic sailing for the day.
Close starts with six boats each doing in excess of 20kts in 8kts of breeze.
I could also thoroughly recommend saving your pennies for the year and throwing them at the VIP spectator boats or the Shark Island experience – each allowed you to get incredibly close to the action and the fastest boats in the world.