On an ordinary day in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois – something extraordinary is happening. A speedboat circles the bandstands of the shoreline along the Navy Pier, with a gargantuan LED clock fastened to its sides. Its two-minute countdown timer gives a taste of sailing’s unlikely new chapter, known as SailGP.
It’s a type of stadium racing like no other, minus starting grids, pit lanes, and roads for that matter. It’s a playground for the world’s best sailors – those who tour the globe in high-speed F50 catamarans while fighting for their country on the open ocean. When the clock hits zero, fleets cross the start line and race for 15 minutes or so along a set course, battling the wind and their opponents to be victorious. At each Grand Prix, teams compete in five races across two days, and then a winner-takes-all final.
“People want fast, active sports,” says Sir Ben Ainslie one June morning ahead of the 2023 season’s first race. The most successful sailor in Olympic history (four golds, one silver) is just finishing breakfast with fellow Emirates Great Britain teammates before he takes to the water. “TV viewership and attention span are so important,” Ainslie says. “The whole [SailGP] league is modelled around that. From spending a whole day watching sports, you’ve now got about 45 minutes max.”
The renewed focus on time and pressure evokes an F1-like intensity for the competition, which has circuits as far apart as Sydney and San Francisco. One of the priorities is making sure spectators feel part of the story from the get go, and they lean in to the way a sailing race starts before the race actually starts.
What plays before you is 10 teams making critical strategic decisions during the countdown. It’s a jostle for where – and how fast – you begin the race. While some favour a slow, calculated descent to arrive at the line bang on “go”, others time a rapid sprint to get the fastest possible start. Arrive too early, and you’ll be penalised; too late and you’re languishing behind. It’s sporting chaos in the most superlative form. “It means there’s a lot of boat-on-boat interaction,” Ainslie smiles. “We’re sailing in foiling boats, so the speed has almost tripled from what it used to be.”