Star Wars

The America’s Cup needs to be very careful. Sail GP is just getting better and better as evidenced by this weekend’s racing from another planet, perhaps another galaxy. It’s Star Wars sailing. If you’re not enjoying what’s happening out in Aarhus, Denmark then there’s not much more that our sport can do for you at the professional end. This is cool. And as a series that has more naysayers and carpers than is reasonably justified, it just keeps on delivering. The naysayers are wrong. Sail GP is brilliant.

©Ricardo Pinto / SailGP

And I’m watching it in the same way that I view Formula 1 – I have a huge national interest in seeing Ben Ainslie win and he’s akin to Lewis Hamilton, always there, absolute undoubted talent, brilliance incarnate and a past-master at pulling rabbits out of hats. But I’m also admiring the brilliance of Tom Slingsby who I kind of feel is the best sailor on the planet at the moment, and two of my favourite sailors – the Kiwis Pete & Blair – are right in there too. And of course we have that bundle of competitiveness personified, Jimmy Spithill, adding the needle, the dry machiavellian humour and his own brand of spice to the competition. Meanwhile, the young pretenders in Phil Robertson leading the Spanish Team and Billy Besson for France, even Nicholai Sehested from Denmark are doing what upstarts should do and upsetting the apple cart of the highly paid before them.

Clocking record speeds of 53.1 knots – I mean come on – and with more thrills, spills, broken bodies, capsizes and near misses than you can shake a stick at, this format works brilliantly. It’s heart in mouth stuff and I vow anyone to watch the Race 3 start yesterday where Ainslie absolutely nails the port end of the line on the ‘B’ of the Bang not to go ‘wow’. It’s racing out of the top drawer and it’s just fabulous to watch. This is grand prix racing and Russell Coutts has got it so right all over the show. As a highlight on our calendar, Sail GP has quickly become the pinnacle inshore, stadium event with the world’s very best giving their absolute everything and the traction that it’s gaining in the void of the Cup is very dangerous to what we all see as the apex of the sport.

©Ricardo Pinto / SailGP

Through the lens of youth engagement, Sail GP is trouncing the Cup. For the Instagram generation, they are bang on the money. The key is that the short-form media editors in the comms team at Sail GP are injecting humour into what they are conveying and that’s rare in the rose-tinted, misty-eyed traditional yachting media. They highlight the chap falling over on the trampoline, the near capsizes, the fire-hydrant spray hitting the grinders, the cuts and bruises, the spills and the thrills. It’s not all about the result and they should be applauded for it. Sailing at this level is very tough. The athletes onboard are in peak condition spending more time in the gym in a week than you and I do in a year and the Sail GP communications team are bringing it to us in real style. I almost feel like I’m on the boat and hell, I would love to give it a go – and that’s the exact same feeling I get from Formula 1.

Almost the result is secondary to the spectacle and that’s a classy achievement. Creating something that people want to watch without the politics and design advantages that dog the Cup is modern, fresh and so apt for the times. As a committed, lifelong Cup fan it can be a frustrating watch at times. The current six month hibernation, whilst I understand is necessary, has been a lesson in losing momentum, of public and sporting goodwill seeping away arrogantly and again when you try and explain this all to a youthful generation they look at you like you’re mad – “who cares?” is creeping into the vernacular and that’s long-term dangerous.

©Ricardo Pinto / SailGP

Sail GP steps into the void magnificently. I have a teenager going: “Did you see that bear-away by Ben Ainslie, Dad?” And that’s everything right there. Everything. Engagement of that generation is captured in a split second on social media on an iPhone. Fail there and you’ve lost them forever. But grab them and show them the finest athletes ever to sail, not only performing but also making mistakes and you’ve got real, live, beautiful engagement that they talk about to their friends. The Cup is going to need the very best communications team on the planet to make up lost ground and the old guard that has dominated that event for years now need to simply not be invited back. It’s a new world. It needs much fresher thinking or it’s stone-dead other than for the fanatics.

©Ricardo Pinto / SailGP

And for the record, just ahead of the final day, anyone can win this outstanding event in Aarhus. The leaderboard is packed and tighter than a mackerel’s bottom so if you’re a Brit, Kiwi, Aussie or USA supporter you’ve got skin in the game right to the very last gun. That’s proper racing. This is grand prix on the water and Sail GP is absolutely delivering on a tremendous Danish weekend on the calendar. I thought Plymouth couldn’t be bettered. I was wrong.

Dial into the App and watch it all unfold. It’s out-of-this-world sailing and we should be very grateful that it exists. My money’s on Ben – who’ve you got?

2 thoughts on “Star Wars

  1. Oh, Mag, you forget so quickly: The Cup needs nothing but the Cup. A tiny sport funded entirely by competition and ego is not susceptible to your mass marketing ideas. It’s too easy and cheap to own it once every three or four years. Wake me when winning a SailGP title has the effect on these kids careers that sailing a Cup or winning an olympic medal does.

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  2. I have a massive love hate relationship with SailGP.
    We went down and watched in Plymouth and it was a great weekend in the sun watching the boats – like a trip to Silverstone but without the expense and the crowds!
    But the whole thing seems maligned by the arbitrary penalty scheme and the bonkers umpiring. The judgement against Spain in the GB event seemed draconian with a make-it-up-as-we-go-along air, but the penalty on GBR in Denmark took it to a new level, effectively deciding the entire event outcome right there and then.
    The whole thing is beginning to feel like sailing meets WWE, and I can’t help but suspect a bit of stage managing going on to try and make it more controversial for the audience. Give Ainslie a level playing field he’ll walk away with it, so let’s tip the field up a bit so the result stays wide open until the last mark of the last event.
    Which is ok when it’s just for a bit of fun, to bring sailing to the masses, but I worry that it is bleeding over into other areas of the sport and especially the Americas Cup. Imagine if the next AC is decided over an umpire call like the one in Denmark, with no right of appeal or redress because “it makes it too complicated for tv”?
    The glamour and drama of a world series run by a ringmeister like Bernie Ecclestone or Dave Richards makes lucrative tv for a world with a short attention span, but is it sailing as we know it?
    I find myself looking back at the increasingly grainy and low res footage of dial ups and twenty minute tacking duels in 12 metre AC yachts and regret what has been thrown away to get to where we are now

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