After a lackluster year with no victories, the U.S. SailGP team won this weekend’s race in Cádiz, Spain. It is the fourth event of the SailGP season, which started last June in Chicago. “We came here with something to prove,” said Jimmy Spithill, driver and CEO of the U.S. team.
The Americans dedicated the win to Hans Henken, the team’s flight controller, who was injured last month in Italy during that SailGP event. “It was such a massive blow for the team,” said Spithill. “But it also inspired us and gave us a real amount of purpose for this event.”
Given Henken’s absence, Spithill had warned before the weekend’s races that his team would “remain realistic” in Cádiz.
Conditions were not ideal. “[The wind] was light and fickle, which makes it difficult to get these boats out of the water. It’s all down to technique and how you sail the boat in those conditions,” said Canada SailGP’s driver Phil Robertson. The Canadian team finished fifth overall.
The Americans sailed well through the weekend, narrowly beating New Zealand on the second day to claim a place in the final race against season leader Australia and the Danish team, Rockwell Denmark, which had been tapped by pundits to win the Spanish event.
During the finals, the light winds prompted the U.S. to sail its F50 foiling race boat with a four-person crew, rather than the typical six-person configuration. The team started poorly, attracting a boundary penalty, but then caught up and sailed past the Danish team and nearly lapped the Australians. The Americans killed on all metrics, having the highest average speed of 32.7 km/h, the highest flight time on foils (58 percent), and executing just six maneuvers. It finished 2:38 seconds ahead of the Danes.
The U.S. win shocked the season leader, Australia, which has dominated the league over the last two years. “It’s just one mistake and the race is over,” said Tom Slingsby, the Australian team’s CEO and driver, regarding the team’s performance in the final.
Was the U.S. win just a blip, similar to its only win last season in Saint-Tropez, or the start of a consistent push toward the winner’s circle? The team made the finals in Italy in the last event, and the win in Spain pushed it from ninth place to third on the leaderboard.
SailGP has been playing to large crowds in each venue, but more importantly to the television and online audiences that founders Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison and SailGP CEO Russell Coutts, who led multiple America’s Cup campaigns for Ellison, hope will become a successful business model for sailing.
“It’s all about the eyeballs,” Spithill told Robb Report during last season’s finale in San Francisco, referring to developing a global fan base large enough to attract sponsors, advertisers and franchise owners for each team.
The U.S. team currently has Red Bull as a sponsor, and SailGP recently signed a ten-year agreement with Rolex as a league sponsor. A new team, Germany, also joined the league at the beginning of this season, bringing the total to 10 countries.
The league has also ramped up the number of events for this season to 13, including four in the U.S.—the season started in Chicago in June before moving to Los Angeles in July. The 10 teams will travel to New York in June 2024 and race in the San Francisco finals the weekend of July 13-14. In between are stops in Europe, the UAE, Australia, Bermuda, Canada, and New Zealand.