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The Right Stuff: Breaking 50 Knots

While in the East Bay, we had a chance to visit the SailGP base in Alameda located just to the South of Alameda Marina. Coincidentally, we arrived not long after SailGP founder and five-time America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts landed to see what was taking shape as the second heat of the 2019 SailGP circuit readies for its US debut on San Francisco Bay May 4-5. We were able to get a few insights on the upcoming event. The first being, if San Francisco Bay offers its generally reliable winds we should see the F50 catamarans reach 50 knots. Coutts explained: “The top recorded speed so far is 49.7, reached by the Australians. That’s tantalizingly close. To go fast you want to lift the boat high up on the foils, which reduces the already very limited wetted surface. However, the closer the foils get to the surface there’s a higher likelihood of them ventilating. This will cause them to nosedive off the foils.”

At 50 knots there’s no time to decorate an office. Russell Coutts was hard at work keeping in touch with all the partners bringing SailGP to San Francisco Bay.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

It’s clear these highly refined and further-evolved foiling cats will burn up the Bay at almost any wind speed. If conditions are right we could have a six-boat fleet racing at near 50 knots, and, when on opposite tacks, closing speeds of almost 100  knots. Other boats have exceeded 50 knots in straight-line speed runs, but fleet racing at these speeds is entirely new territory. Beyond sailing, the engineering and technical challenges of creating cutting-edge sailing machines are a continuing fascination for Coutts. “With 18 knots and reasonably flat water we should see 50 knots,” Coutts said. It should be flooding on the Cityfront during the noon to 2 p.m. race time.

SailGP TeamUSA
Team USA practices on flat water on San Francisco Bay. Conditions could change on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
© 2019 Stuart Kiehl

Beyond the technical, another aspect of SailGP Coutts enjoys is being in control of the entire event. Though he’s won the Cup five times, he lamented the incredible amount of time lost on the negotiations surrounding the America’s Cup Protocol defining rules for Defender and Challenger relating to the America’s Cup Deed of Gift. For SailGP, Coutts and his team define the rules and go sailing. After all those years racing for the ‘Oldest Trophy in Sports’ he’s now created the newest trophy in sports.

SailGP Trailing Edge
The trailing edge of the centerboard foils is literally razor-sharp.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

The other element discussed was the youth of the sailors. Unlike much of the sailing world, from the America’s Cup to Star champions, this league is dominated by sailors under 30. The American team is the youngest. Most of the sailors have experience in classes like 49ers, 29ers, Moths, catamarans and kiteboarding — somewhat relatable experience. But this is a quantum step up in speed and complexity. Additionally, the sailors have only spent perhaps 15 days on these boats practicing before and during the racing in Sydney. This means there’s still a big learning curve to climb to smoothly operate these waterborne fighter jets and an opportunity to continue the speed gains.

SailGP Wings
How big is a wing? SailGP marketing team members give us a sense of scale.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

Coutts also alluded to plans to develop a youth path to this level of performance sailing. No matter how zippy the Nacra 15 or 17, it’s a big step up to a 50-knot, 50-ft foiling cat, so ideally there will be a step in between. We’ll look forward to seeing what emerges and, for those for whom fast is never fast enough, how they find a track to participate at this level.

SailGP wing controls
Since it’s all one-design, there are no secrets between the teams. We can take photos which look like they’re shot at the Boeing factory south of Seattle.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

SailGP San Francisco is now just a week away. Spectators can buy tickets for ringside seats in the grandstands near the Golden Gate Yacht Club or on SailGP-organized spectator boats. You can get details on spectating opportunities here. At the recent Pacific Sail & Power Boat Show, Latitude 38 and Summer Sailstice also collected names to draw winners for tickets provided by SailGP. We have three very excited winners of the double passes to the May 4-5 event: Tammy Forrest, Piyush Arora and Michael Law are the three Bay Area sailors whose names were drawn from the hat (literally).

Piyush, who has been sailing regularly for only two years and is looking forward to one day racing his 31-ft Beneteau in the Pacific Cup, will no doubt be hoping to learn something from the professionals, though applying the lessons to recreational sailing may be challenging! “Watching the pros do it is always amazing,” says Arora. And Michael, a lifelong sailor originally from the Great Lakes region and now 30 years in the Bay Area, had the opportunity to see the boats close up during a tour of the race pits just 24 hours before learning of his win. “The tour was fantastic! Amazing technology and logistics.”

“We were crossing over from the City to San Rafael on Wednesday and caught a glimpse of GBR and one other boat heading back to the barn in Alameda just as the westerly was filling in,” writes reader John C. “Hope those folks can deal with 25 knots with a good ebb running with those  finicky thoroughbreds — should be entertaining at the least.”

Since the 2013 America’s Cup the world of foiling has simply exploded. Seeing foiling kiteboarders is now the norm. The pioneering Moth is a very active foiling class worldwide. An early Bay Area pioneer was Russell Long, who started breaking world speed records as he developed the Greg Ketterman-created tri-foiler in the early ’90s. The Olympics will include the foiling Nacra 17 in Japan in 2020. Russell Coutts and SailGP competitors are on the outer limits of foiling competition. On May 4-5 we’ll see if the Bay serves up the right conditions and the ‘pilots’ of these carbon watercraft have the ‘the Right Stuff’ to push them over 50 knots plus hold it all together to make it to the podium.

If you’d like to get a preview of the main event, take note: “We plan to have F50s on the Bay every day between now and racing except on Sunday, April 28,” advises SailGP’s Christy Cahil. “The timing is generally in the noon to 4 p.m. window, and it can either be in the south area of the Bay near Oracle Park, or in our racecourse area between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. The location is weather-dependent and determined day-of. April 30 and May 3 are practice race days; we’ll be in the City Front racecourse area during our race window (12:30-2 p.m.).”

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Navy Training Barque
A hardy crew of sailors were onboard Call of the Sea’s Schooner Seaward this morning to welcome the BAP Union as she sailed through San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate. As the Union entered the Bay and sailed gracefully beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, we considered ourselves to be among the fortune few who witnessed this once-in-a lifetime spectacle.