SailGP, Making Sailing Cool

This latest pro-sailing circuit, wrapping up its first year, had its growing pains, but the kids liked it.

SailGP Fletcher
SailGP made its U.S. debut in San Francisco, inspiring youth sailors who came to see the boats some deem to be the world's fastest.SailGP

Russell Coutts said, “I didn’t have a lot of coaching as a kid.”

Not that it's held him back. We were ­talking in an almost-quiet place as the San Francisco SailGP event wrapped up, and we stretched the boundaries of our conversation from the basics of kids messing about in boats to the outer limits of what it takes to build a professional sailing circuit with staying power. As to connecting the dots in between, that's paydirt, and here is where Coutts turned evangelist.

“It’s important for young sailors to have something aspirational that will be there and not change on them,” he said. “Volvo teams come and go. Australia II was an iconic brand that produced the most important sporting event in Australia in a hundred years. Stars and Stripes was another iconic brand. Neither exists today, and that’s crazy. Sailing has never had a pro series, like other sports, with features and teams that repeat themselves year after year. There are no examples that kids can connect to and grow with over time.”

Enter SailGP and foiling ­catamarans, with Coutts as CEO and backed by Larry Ellison’s deep pocketbook. In the background is that tendency to “soccerize” sailing for the young and consign them to their own strata to rise or sink in their age groups. Having personal experience with overhauling my club’s youth program to connect to sailors of all ages and stripes—valuing variety and spontaneity—I heard Coutts singing my song. As for connecting the dots, I explained that I had spent my SailGP days skippering Course Marshal Boat No. 8—not to be a fanboy but to share the opportunity with teenage crew, and recruiting was an easy sell. What that drew from Coutts was an outpouring of observations not unique to him, but uniquely arresting coming from a man at the top of the game, a gold medalist who has won the America’s Cup on other people’s terms as well as his own. Here’s a sampling:

“Sailing has herded kids into structured programs with constant coaching at ages that are way too young,” he said. “We see a painful dropout rate. I’ve been involved in the Bic class in New Zealand, and the Bic is about simplicity and fun. Early on, we’d arrive at a venue, and the race official would say, ‘We’ve got a great day, and we can run five races.’ I’d say, ‘We could, but we’d rather run two short races and take a break and let the kids interact with each other over lunch.’

“We’ve channeled ourselves into this windward-leeward mentality,” Coutts added. “We’re killing ourselves with a formula where the same kids are always at the top and others come off the water disillusioned. Why send kids on a 20-minute beat to weather when two-thirds of them are the wrong size for the boat? A couple of kids will thrive, but we shouldn’t structure everything around those kids. In our program, we take young sailors out in big winds because going fast is a thrill. We have reaching starts. We mix things up and run different formats, like distance races that are mostly downwind.

“We put them in doublehanded boats, and the kids love the variety. There were parents who opted for a more traditional path, and perhaps they were aiming for a junior championship, but after a few years, our best sailors were outperforming kids who were being coached three or four nights a week. When you’re talking about 11- or 12-year-olds, it makes little difference how that kid performs at a world championship. The important thing is to develop a passion for the sport.

“The best Ben Ainslie ever did at an Optimist Worlds was 32nd. There was nothing in that to suggest that he would grow into the greatest Olympic sailor ever,” he noted. “Let’s forget about assessing kids at a young age, and work on getting the numbers up. Let’s have kids coming off the water feeling good about life. Those with an eye on the Olympics or SailGP will get there. I had the good fortune to grow up alongside the water, and my friends and I would just go out and sail. That freshness is there waiting.”

Coutts stressed the value of an international circuit, in consistent venues, with durable teams, and I didn’t hear any hype when he declared: “This is our best chance.”

Coutts never did find it hard to make a case, and in 2019 is, if anything, more impassioned than ever about his multiple missions. The words pour out, and it’s a sure bet they had been pouring out all day as he moved from one SailGP venue to another, from one target audience to the next, and we still had the circuit to talk about.

I am told there were moments in the U.S. tour when the SailGP fleet was ­rushing-reaching straight toward the crowd on shore, and people leaned back and….

It wasn’t even IMAX 3D, it was real.

A long road separates SailGP from 2007 and the America’s Cup in Spain, when Coutts and Paul Cayard were hoofing around, shopping for a backer for a professional catamaran circuit. Now we know what it takes to make that happen.

Part of it, apparently, is winning, defending and losing the America’s Cup and then being free, with Ellison’s bucks, to give this thing a go.

Coutts stressed the value of an international circuit, in consistent venues, with durable teams, and I didn’t hear any hype when he declared: “This is our best chance.

“We need to create a pathway for young sailors who want to do this, even if they choose to do something else later in life,” he said. “At the level of promoting professional sport, sailing actually has advantages. Other grand-prix sports have tech teams behind their race cars, for example, but they don’t have ‘teams’ in the race, and sailing is not just sailing. It’s the tech side, the business side, the administration, teamwork and so many skills. But sailing has been hobbled by its traditions.”

One tradition not blocking SailGP is the grandeur—complete with baggage—of the America’s Cup. Given his chance, Coutts tried to remold Cup racing to his vision of an international circuit, but that baggage was heavy, just as it is heavy now for the Kiwi defender and the Italian challenger of record. SailGP has much of the look of the Cup, 2013 and 2017, but it isn’t a secret arms race. Instead, its 50-foot cats are one design, “and because everyone is racing the same boat, we can open up the data sets,” he said. “We could, for example, allow coaches to coach during races, but in a ­format that everyone can follow.”

Any improvement to SailGP boats or technology is shared by all, a process that encourages enlightened development. As of 2019, some teams are fully national and others are “national,” but no more so than in other international sports.

It’s like this:

SailGP came to town under a haze of vague skepticism—we’ve been hyped before—but that brightened into enthusiasm, no hype needed. The circuit is budgeted for a five-year run, to give it that “best chance” to catch fire and become viable on its own. As the teams packed up, it wasn’t hard to find sailors in my youth group who had dreams to race SailGP—I expect a youth-development track to come—and this works on many levels. I didn’t feel badly used, volunteering my time on behalf of road-tripping pros. I was satisfied to see young volunteers Instagramming photos of their Course Marshal badges, and long before I finished writing this, the Course Marshal No. 8 flag was hanging on a teenager’s wall of legends. Along with spectator thrills and selfies with rock-star sailors, SailGP was a weekend’s worth of powerboat training for a few of my kids—and Larry paid for the gas.