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Teams from the US, France, Britain, Japan, Australia and China compete in the Cowes leg of the SailGP. Courtesy SailGP
Teams from the US, France, Britain, Japan, Australia and China compete in the Cowes leg of the SailGP. Courtesy SailGP

SailGP: Five sailors in a catamaran

  • A competition touted as the Formula One of sailing promises viewers high speeds and immersive access
  • The first season of the championship culminates in a grand final in Marseille, France next weekend

Though it is a busy stretch of water near the harbour of Southampton, UK, the vast expanse of the Solent strait is ideal for sailing. One can imagine people perched on their sail boats, cradled in life-jackets, cruising through the waters here on a sunny weekend.

But on an overcast afternoon in August, our RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) are slicing through the salty air, chasing the Great Britain and Japan teams’ F50 catamarans. The two teams are going through the final training runs before the Cowes leg races of the inaugural SailGP Championship. Just a few hours before this practice run, the British team broke a new speed record with the F50, clocking 50 knots (92.6 kmph) during a training session.

If that wasn’t fast enough by sailing standards, team Australia, with Olympic gold medallist and America’s Cup winner Tom Slingsby at the helm, became the first crew to breach the 50-knot speed barrier in sail racing. They did so while crossing the finish line during the first race of the Cowes leg. It was a dominating performance from the Australians, who made a clean sweep of all three races in the leg.

Since February, six teams (the US, Great Britain, China, Japan, France and Australia) have been competing for the SailGP Championship, which will culminate in the final leg and a grand finale race—a $1 million winner-takes-all match—scheduled to be held in Marseille, France, from 20-22 September.

The RIB speedboats chasing the F50 catamarans clock around 38-40 knots at top speed. Every wave makes the ride bumpier. The experience is somewhat similar, if not faster, on the F50s, which are powered by 24m wingsails and fly above the water on hydrofoils. These wing-like foils—made of carbon fibre—are placed under the boat’s hull and when the boats go faster, the hydrofoils lift the hull above the water. The result is a boat with a sailing weight of 2.4 tons, or 2,400kg, that sails parallel to the water’s surface, quite literally flying in the air, thanks to the reduced wetted area (the immersed hull area), which results in decreased drag and higher speeds.

The F50 also follows a strict one-design, development-class rule, which means every boat in the championship has exactly the same design and specifications. The boats have two parallel hulls of equal size. These are connected with cross beams and a trampoline platform, which allows the sailors to move from one section to another during a race.

The high-speed catamarans are not the competition’s only highlight. Each boat is equipped with almost 800 sensors that send back approximately 1,200 pieces of data to the team coaches and data analysts on shore through the Oracle Cloud. According to the competition’s official website, all the information and data is streamed to a base on shore from each of the six boats and made available to teams, fans and umpires within 200 milliseconds. Viewers can watch the races on the SailGP app or through a live host broadcast on Facebook.

The boats also have a water-proof, 32-inch screen dashboard that displays data to the flight controller. On-board cameras and microphones let the viewers watch and listen to every tactical call.

The data from the boats does not give anyone an advantage despite the fact that every team has access to the performance data of the other teams. Instead, this makes the race more competitive. A team can use the data to optimize its performance and manoeuvres. “The technology is there as a constant reference but it’s almost like we are still using the normal sensory skills to do a lot of the sailing," says Chris Draper, the wing trimmer for the Great Britain team. Every team races with five sailors: a wing trimmer, two grinders, a flight controller and a helmsman.

Scott Babbage, a data analyst with SailGP, says the key is to compare your performance with the better-performing team in a race, identifying the differences in real time and communicating them to the boats. “In a race scenario, you are looking at (things like) speed, wind and wind angles. Then you start to dig down and look at boat set-up, or trim…you are looking at rudder and dagger-board movement, angle through the water. You can also look at how the teams have configured their boats—what settings they are using or how fast their boats might move. The teams often converge quite quickly on a setting based on what the best team is doing," adds Babbage.

The intersection of technology and sport has thrown up interesting possibilities in recent years. In most of the leading Twenty20 cricket leagues, it is commonplace to see Hawk-Eye’s ball-tracking technology tracking the trajectory of a delivery from the moment it leaves a bowler’s hand. In the contact sport of kabaddi, data and immersive graphics are used to show a particular skill move executed by a player, or simply to show the distance between a retreating raider and the mid-line as he is pulled back by a pack of defenders during a raid.

Similarly, viewers watching a SailGP broadcast can see, among other statistics, the speeds at which the teams are sailing, through real-time graphics. “If you were watching a race, you will see all the graphics and stats coming up in real time. The on-board cameras allow a picture-in-picture format where you can see the sailors on the boat. So, that experience of feeling like you are part of a race has made sailing more accessible to the general public," says Neil Sholay, vice-president of digital and innovation for Oracle, Emea.

Russell Coutts, the former Olympian who founded the competition in 2018 along with Oracle’s Larry Ellison, says sailing was once a difficult sport to understand. He believes the data is accelerating the learning curve for teams and making the sport more exciting for non-sailors.

Coutts says there are plans to expand the competition, with one new team to be added next year. “Currently, there are six national teams competing against each other. There are some of the more traditional sailing nations like Denmark, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands that are interested," he adds.

The writer was in Southampton, UK, at the invitation of Oracle.

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