When the all-new Canada SailGP Team took to the water in Bermuda last month for its first regatta in the international sailing league’s third season, it is fair to say that expectations from outside of the fledgling syndicate were not high.
Many will have been surprised then to see the Canadian squad led by Kiwi skipper Phil Robertson come out all guns blazing with a stellar performance that saw them clock up four top five results – including a second and a first in the opening two races – in the nine-boat fleet racing series.
That scorecard was good enough to earn them qualification for the final race, a three-way shootout against the highly fancied Australian and British crews. These Canadian newcomers ultimately finished that race in third place, but only after giving the more experienced teams a run for their money.
So just how did Robertson’s SailGP rookies get themselves on the podium at their very first event when they were racing an F50 in anger for the very first time? According to Robertson – who has in previous seasons trained up newcomer SailGP teams for both China and Spain – the most important factor was populating the new Canadian team with the right people.
A call for applications went out shortly after the Canadian team was announced back in October last year. This prompted an influx of CVs, which were all read by Robertson and followed up with 30-minute online interviews.
“We tested their knowledge base a bit and tried to understand what sort of person they were during the half hour interview time,” Robertson says. “Then we picked the best candidates out of that process. We then looked a lot at past experience – the boats they had sailed and also other skills – and then tried to work out which position on the boat they might be suited for.”
“The majority of our sailors had never foiled before so it’s been quite a big learning curve for everyone,” Robertson explained. “The key to our start-up phase was to focus on people’s understanding of the fundamentals of foiling, how it works and the physics of it.“
Those selected were brought to Portugal for a foiling training camp using a GC32 catamaran, as well as spending time on the F50 simulator at the Artemis Technologies facility in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“The majority of our sailors had never foiled before so it’s been quite a big learning curve for everyone,” Robertson explained. “The key to our start-up phase was to focus on people’s understanding of the fundamentals of foiling, how it works and the physics of it.
“We tried to make sure that their core knowledge base was there before we tried to upskill them. We used the GC32 for that and then the simulator to work on the specific skills of sailing the F50.”
Smartly recognizing that this was a project that would require more SailGP-experienced people than just himself, Robertson drafted British Olympic bronze medallist Chris Draper as wing trimmer—on loan from Nathan Outteridge’s Japan SailGP Team.
“The wing trimmer on these boats has a huge amount of control over the team’s destiny, in terms of how the boat is sailed, the speed, and the safety of it all,” Robertson says. “We identified very early that we needed someone with experience in that role. Chris is a huge asset and it means that the rest of the team can be learning, safe in the knowledge that the wing trim is under control and the boat is going to be safe. That’s so important because it means we can learn the limits of sailing the F50 without the consequences.”
Robertson also brought in coaching support in the form of British double Olympic silver medalist Joe Glanfield who had previously worked with the Japanese team.
Glanfield’s first priority was to try to establish a team culture in which the sailors could learn quickly and feel comfortable asking questions and talking through problems together.
“It’s a challenge,” Glanfield says. “You need to try to empower them to take real ownership over their own development and to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. But equally, on boats like these it has to be safe. You can’t break equipment and you can’t break people, so it’s a real balance between giving instruction on what they should be doing and letting them find out for themselves.”
It is an approach which sat comfortably with wing trimmer Draper.
“I think the biggest thing for any team is to foster an atmosphere where people know that if they focus on their individual role and doing a really good job, then, when you bring it all together, the better the team performs,” Draper says. “That’s something that Phil and Joe continually reinforce.
“This is the third team that Phil has brought up and so he is obviously very experienced at how to do that. I think the team dynamic is very good – they have been very methodical and that seems to be working quite well.
Having the vast experience of Robertson and Draper in two of the three key roles at the back of the boat meant the Canadian squad could focus on training up a flight controller – the third highly critical role on the boat – from scratch.
The nod for that key position for the opening regatta in Bermuda went to triple 49er Canadian national champion Billy Gooderham – who seemingly took to the job like a duck to water.
According to Robertson, the key to the flight controller role is “a solid understanding of the physics of the boat when it’s foiling, and what affects the flight of the boat.”
Glanfield was full of praise for how quickly Gooderham had got to grips with the knife edge task of flying the F50. It is a role he says which comes with additional pressures to other roles on the boat.
“You need pretty thick skin as the flight controller,” Glanfield says. “You are very tunnel vision on the boards and it’s inevitable that you are going to crash the boat at times and probably mess up the odd race for your team – and maybe even hurt someone, or at least give them a few bruises. They need help with that so that when something happens they can just brush it off, carry on and quickly get their head back in the game. But also, you do need to be of a certain mentality as well.”
The two new teams for Season 3 – the Canadians and the Swiss – were allocated considerably more training time than the rest of the fleet prior to the season opening event in Bermuda in May.
Despite having to share a boat with the Swiss, the Canadian squad still managed to accumulate 15 days of vital training time. As Robertson explained, that training time was broken down into three distinct phases.
“Phase one was about stability and straight-line sailing,” he says. “That’s where we were focused on getting the boat locked in and stable before we moved on to the very basics of the manoeuvres – tacking, jibing and how to bear away and round up safely.”
A variety of wind conditions in their first week of training meant the crew had to learn quickly how to adapt to the F50s range of wing and foil configurations – each of which can dramatically change the boat’s handling characteristics.
“What you want is a stable wind at about 8-10 knots so you are using the light air boards and the AP [all-purpose] wing,” Glanfield says. “Then you can get in a lot of hours of finding stability, and getting the right control through the manoeuvres.”
Understandably, the new crew adopted a controlled and somewhat cautious approach to those early days of sailing the F50 for the first time.
“We were keen to not straight away put a lot of pressure on ourselves by doing everything quickly,” Glanfield recalled. “That way the sailors could get an understanding of what the boat should feel like when you are doing it properly.”
Robertson described phase two as being when: “we started to punch the basic manoeuvres and bring in the harder ones like jibe round-ups and tack bearaways.”
The third phase, Robertson said, was to pull everything together and sail the boat in race mode. The crew entered this phase only in the few days before racing in Bermuda began.
“That’s when we are looking at the whole package and actually pushing the boat to its limit on the ride height and everything else you do while racing,” Robertson says.
As part of their focus on achieving maximum efficiency aboard the Canadian F50 the team identified an opportunity to eliminate a potential weakness in their tacking and jibing.
Previously, the wing trimmer would be the first to cross the boat and once in place on the new side would then take the wheel to allow the helmsman to cross the boat. During that brief time the ability of the wing trimmer would be somewhat impaired, as Draper explained.
“You are always slightly compromised on your wing trim because you can’t really trim the twist while you are driving,” he said. “You can ease the twist with your foot, but if you need to bring it back on, then that’s a problem.”
Instead, the team’s female sailors – Georgia Lewin-Lafrance and Isabella Berthold – were pressed into service to steer the boat out of every manoeuvre. It is a solution, which Draper says made his life a lot easier, and enabled him to coordinate better with Gooderham on the flight controls to get the boat powered up and fast out of every tack and jibe.
On the eve of the Bermuda event, Robertson said he was comfortable that the crew were accomplished enough that he felt confident to put the boat into whatever scenario the racing demanded. Moreover, with a forecast of 10 knots and flat water for the opening day, even at that early stage he believed his new team was capable of winning races.
“The goal for us here will be to try to be consistent about it and actually do things well all the time,” he said at the time. “We set ourselves the goal of being competitive and I think we are at a stage where we can be. I will be frustrated if we make mistakes, but that has probably got to be expected.”
In fact, there were few, if any, mistakes from the Canadian team on the opening day. In the first two races Robertson was at his effervescent best on the start line and two first turn mark roundings in the top group were comfortably converted into a second and first.
A poorer start in the third race saw them struggle early on. Impressively though, they were able to claw their way back into the top five at the finish – a feat many of the more experienced teams could not achieve.
Remarkably, their 2,1,5 score line saw the newbies top the Bermuda event leaderboard overnight. Then, a seventh and a fifth on the second day was good enough to put them into the final winner-takes-all race against the Australians and the British to decide the Bermuda event.
Although in the mix throughout, ultimately the superior speed and technique of two more experienced teams shone through and the Canada crew had to settle for third overall.
It was, by any standard, a dream start for a brand new team competing at their first ever SailGP event.
“The whole team is thrilled,” Robertson said afterwards. The Canadian sailors are brand new to this style of sailing and they have done an incredible job of committing themselves to the learning process. It’s a great result but our goal is always to learn,” he cautioned. “Whether we are first, fifth or last we have been learning heaps out there on the water.”
Despite their remarkable opening result there were few indications that there would be any prospect of resting on laurels for the Canada syndicate. In the month leading up to the second SailGP event in Chicago in July Robertson said the crew would be clocking up valuable hours on the water aboard their GC32, as well spending time in the darkened room that houses the F50 simulator.
“We know it is very early days,” Robertson says. “We know we have plenty more to do to catch up to teams like the Australians and GBR. You can rest assured that we will be working very hard to prepare for the next event.”
That event is coming up this weekend in Chicago, not far from the Canadian border, where the team’s fast-growing fan base will look for another top performance Robertson and their native sailors. Having emerged near the top in their debute regatta Bermuda, the goal is simple: stay in the hunt and keep progressing.