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SailGP, Making Sailing Cool

Published on September 17th, 2019

by Kimball Livingston, Sailing World
Russell Coutts said, “I didn’t have a lot coaching as a kid.”

Not that it’s held him back. We were talking in an almost-quiet place as the San Francisco SailGP event wrapped up, and we stretched the boundaries of our conversation from the basics of kids messing about in boats to the outer limits of what it takes to build a professional sailing circuit with staying power. As to connecting the dots in between, that’s paydirt, and here is where Coutts turned evangelist.

“It’s important for young sailors to have something aspirational that will be there and not change on them,” he said. “Volvo teams come and go. Australia II was an iconic brand that produced the most important sporting event in Australia in a hundred years. Stars and Stripes was another iconic brand. Neither exists today, and that’s crazy. Sailing has never had a pro series, like other sports, with features and teams that repeat themselves year after year. There are no examples that kids can connect to and grow with over time.”

Enter SailGP and foiling catamarans, with Coutts as CEO and backed by Larry Ellison’s deep pocketbook. In the background is that tendency to “soccerize” sailing for the young and consign them to their own strata to rise or sink in their age groups. Having personal experience with overhauling my club’s youth program to connect to sailors of all ages and stripes—valuing variety and spontaneity—I heard Coutts singing my song.

As for connecting the dots, I explained that I had spent my SailGP days skippering Course Marshal Boat No. 8—not to be a fanboy but to share the opportunity with teenage crew, and recruiting was an easy sell. What that drew from Coutts was an outpouring of observations not unique to him, but uniquely arresting coming from a man at the top of the game, a gold medalist who has won the America’s Cup on other people’s terms as well as his own. Here’s a sampling:

“Sailing has herded kids into structured programs with constant coaching at ages that are way too young,” he said. “We see a painful dropout rate. I’ve been involved in the Bic class in New Zealand, and the Bic is about simplicity and fun. Early on, we’d arrive at a venue, and the race official would say, ‘We’ve got a great day, and we can run five races.’ I’d say, ‘We could, but we’d rather run two short races and take a break and let the kids interact with each other over lunch’.” – Full story

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