With more than 300 shipwrecks dotting its waters, Bermuda is better known for sinking boats than flying boats. But this weekend, the tiny archipelago in the North Atlantic could see speed records being shattered by some of the fastest yachts in the world.
Season 3 of SailGP, the global series which has been dubbed ‘Formula 1 on water’, kicks off on Saturday with the F50 catamarans used by the 10 teams expected to reach up to 54knots (100kph) in the right conditions.
“We have been hitting 52kts in practice this week,” reveals Matt Gotrel, the former GB Olympic oarsman who is now a grinder on the British challenger helmed by Sir Ben Ainslie. “And there’s definitely more in there. It’s just a case of whether the conditions allow for it.”
It is not just a question of the conditions, it’s a question of physics. Hydrofoils - appendages bolted on to the bottom of a hull or board which provide lift, greatly reducing a boat’s drag - are incredible tools for generating speed. But at a certain point they come up against a phenomenon called ‘cavitation’ (watch explainer video below), which is when the water around the foils literally starts ‘boiling’ due to the difference in pressure between one side and the other. This creates a loss of lift, and instability.
It was believed that cavitation occurred at around 50 knots. But more efficient foils, better boat handling, smaller and lighter wings, warmer waters, can all have an impact.
“In Season 1 we were seeing cavitation at around 49 knots,” Gotrel explains. “That’s why it was such a big moment when we broke the 50-knot barrier. But now, with the smaller, 18-metre wings that were brought in last year, we’re seeing much faster speeds.”
Last summer, Ainslie’s team set a new SailGP record of 53.1kts in practice ahead of the Denmark round of the championship.
In terms of race boats, only American Magic, the New York Yacht Club’s challenger for the last America’s Cup, has gone faster, registering 53.3kts. It is eminently possible a SailGP boat could top that this season, breaking the 100kph (54kt) mark in the process.
“I think it’s possible. A lot of it is down to the piloting,” Gotrel says. “The more time we spend sailing these boats, the better we get at sailing them closer to the limit. Last year we didn't actually do that much racing with the 18-metre wings because we kept getting light weather weekends. Hopefully this year we can really see what these boats are capable of.”
Organisers will be hoping for some spectacular weekends as they look to develop a series which has grown steadily since its debut season in 2019 without ever quite cutting through into the mainstream.
Now comprising 10 teams, and boasting pretty much all the world’s top helmsmen, including Ainslie, Pete Burling, Tom Slingsby and Nathan Outteridge, SailGP certainly has the raw ingredients. Nor is the Formula 1 on Water epithet merely an idle comparison. SailGP features the fastest boats, best sailors, exotic locations, and live television (Sky Sports in the UK). It even has a similar format to its race weekends with practice on Friday and racing on Saturday and Sunday.
The drawback has always been the relatively paltry number of races per year (just five in the first season, then eight in the second) which makes it difficult to build a narrative or any real tension.
But with 10 venues confirmed already for 2022-23 - including new races in Chicago, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore and New Zealand - plus an 11th due to be announced shortly, there are hopes Season 3 can finally achieve lift-off.
The America’s Cup may still be professional sailing’s Holy Grail - almost akin to the World Cup with it being held every four years and requiring vast investment and resources - but Gotrel is adamant there is a place for a one-design series featuring the best sailors in the world. “Not only have you got all the best sailors, you've got them all on the startline, at the same time, in the same boats,” he points out. “It’s very cool.”
Teams this season will once again be required to feature at least one woman in their crews - the GB boat this weekend has former Olympic sailor Nikki Boniface on board - and they will once again be racing for a final jackpot of $1million. “We made too many mistakes last year,” Gotrel admits of last season, which GB finished fourth behind winners Australia. “But we know we're capable of beating anyone out there.”
And the 100kph record? Gotrel smiles. “No one actually goes for that,” he says. “You are just looking for control in those sorts of breezes. The speed will find you not the other way around.
“On the day we set the record, I think only two of the four boats on the water actually attempted the bearaway. The others backed out. I wasn't even on the boat after an earlier incident in which I cracked my head on a pedestal and had to go get some stitches. It’s seat-of-the-pants stuff.”