SailGP did the right thing

Published on March 25th, 2024

by Kai Yves
I have to admit, I went into the New Zealand SailGP event with my usual enthusiasm a little bit dampened. While last year’s event in Christchurch had been beautiful and engaging to watch, the same issues of dolphin protection remained and I knew the league had been criticized in the intervening year for inadequate precautions.

I had hoped that holding this year’s NZ event in Auckland would have given every one more time to reassess the Christchurch site and determine if it should stay the venue for 2025, but it hadn’t worked out that way.

I didn’t want to tune in and see an endangered dolphin killed by an F50 live on global TV— I didn’t want to witness something that brings me such joy become bloody and deadly.

And it didn’t help that just days after praising Christchurch to the stars and saying SailGP would be coming back for years, league director Russell Coutts was embarrassing himself by throwing an ugly media tantrum that the marine mammal protection rules were there at all.

Even as I tuned in to the online broadcast at 10:00pm my time, I felt a creeping sense of dread that this event might end up a complete disaster.

But then something remarkable happened. Dolphins did swim near the course, and the spotter network saw them in time to activate the protection plan. The commentators explained the situation, and there in the YouTube chat, we waited pretty happily.

The official SailGP account was in the chat answering questions and joking with us, and over two hours the vast majority of fans in the chat group agreed that the lives of the dolphins were more important.

Just like on past low-wind days (or bad-weather days like the aftermath of last year’s storm in Sydney), we joked and chatted amongst ourselves making dolphin jokes and sharing our own sailing stories.

We were reminded that nature is unpredictable and doesn’t know or care if we silly little humans have designated any particular two-hour window for a television broadcast. A sport powered by nature is at the mercy of nature, and to the wind and the sea and the animals, there’s nothing that makes these two hours any different from any other time.

Eventually the broadcast team signed off, and while we were disappointed at seeing no racing, we were also relieved to not have seen a race turn into a horror show of sliced flesh and bloody water. As the stream ended and I closed the tab, I felt a strange sense of… pride?

I had just watched SailGP do the right thing when it was the hard thing to do. Not the profitable or the television-friendly thing, but the right thing. After the controversies and outbursts of the past few months, after the messy move from Auckland and the windless events in petro-states, we had actually gotten to see SailGP, by accident of circumstance, live its values by putting concern for the ocean front and center for two hours.

And even if the NZ headlines the next day were sour with Coutts ranting again, the Associated Press one here in the US looked pretty good, emphasizing the orderliness of the protection plan and quoting Blair Tuke as saying that harm to the dolphins would be “not good for anyone”.

And the next day made it all worth it. The dolphins stayed away, the racing was fantastic, and the waters of Lyttelton Harbour looked as beautiful and jade-green as last year. We had close finishes, dramatic overtakes, and the only collisions were between the boats themselves and the race markers, with no injuries.

After sneaking through the fleet up from last, Team New Zealand got into the final for a rematch with Canada on home waters, and despite Phil Robertson and Quentin Delapierre’s skillful efforts, this time the home team took the prize. Watching at my computer, I cheered loudly and pumped the air.

I don’t know if SailGP will ever come back to Christchurch. Forever is a long time and perhaps in a future season the danger to dolphins might be lesser at another time of year and with future advances in technology. For the time being, the proposed move to Auckland or another harbor of this sailing-mad archipelago seems like an intelligent choice.

If host cities and nations bid for events like this as a way of presenting themselves to the world, then I have to say that as an American, I liked what I saw of New Zealand over the past two days and in the weeks of preparation.

I saw that the Christchurch area is a beautiful region where forested mountains descend to jade-green waters and the waves wash lovely beaches. I saw that its people have intriguing traditions like the Māori welcome ceremony that opened the event. I saw that its citizens turn out to watch sailing in the greatest numbers ever seen. I saw that New Zealand is a country home to beautiful and endangered wildlife and that it values their protection.

It seems to be a fair country, where even a rich and famous sports star must follow the same rules as everyone else. It is a country that produces talented and impressive sailors like the Black Foils, people like Blair Tuke and Peter Burling who earlier this month used their fame to call attention to the invasive seaweed problem in the Auckland region as both athletes and, yes, activists. All in all, that sounds like a pretty nice place.

In a way, this event ended up being an accidental reflection of the *promise* of SailGP, of what the organization wants to and can be— a league that gives equal balance and airtime to environmental responsibility and amazing competition.

I was worried Christchurch 2024 would be a disaster, but with one headline for doing the right thing and another for showing racing at its best, it really ended up as a triumph. It’s too bad that Russell Coutts can’t see it that way.

SailGP informationChristchurch detailsYouTubeHow to watch

Christchurch Final Results
1. New Zealand (Peter Burling), 1-4-2-(1)
2. France (Quintin Delapierre), 2-5-1-(2)
3. Canada (Phil Robertson), 5-1-3-(3)
4. Spain (Diego Botin), 3-2-4
5. Germany (Erik Heil), 6-6-5
6. Switzerland (Nathan Outteridge), 7-7-7
7. Great Britain (Giles Scott), 4-3-8
8. United States (Taylor Canfield), 9-9-9
9. Denmark (Nicolai Sehested), 8-8-6
10. Australia (Tom Slingsby), 10-DNC-DNC

Season 4 Standings (after nine of 13 events; results and total points)
1. New Zealand (Peter Burling), 1-7-8-DNC/6-4-1-1-3-1; 68 points
2. Australia (Tom Slingsby), 2-3-2-2-3-2-7-1-10; 59
3. Spain (Diego Botin), 5-1-3-6-6-10-2-5-4; 55
4. France (Quintin Delapierre), 6-8-6-4-7-4-4-4-2; 54
5. Denmark (Nicolai Sehested), 4-2-4-7-2-6-9-2-9; 50
6. United States (Jimmy Spithill/Taylor Canfield), 9-5-5-3-1-8-3-9-8; 48
7. Canada (Phil Robertson), 3-4-10-5-5-3-6-10-3; 46
8. Great Britain (Ben Ainslie/Giles Scott), 7-6-1-1-8-5-8-7-7; 45
9. Germany (Erik Heil), 10-10-7-8-9-10-9-5-6-5; 27
10. Switzerland (Sebastien Schneiter/Nathan Outteridge), 8-9-9-9-7-10-8-6; 22

For scoring adjustments, click here.

Season 4 – 2023
June 16-17 – United States Sail Grand Prix | Chicago at Navy Pier
July 22-23 – United States Sail Grand Prix | Los Angeles
September 9-10 – France Sail Grand Prix | Saint-Tropez
September 23-24 – Italy Sail Grand Prix | Taranto
October 14-15 – Spain Sail Grand Prix | Andalucía- Cádiz
December 9-10 – Dubai Sail Grand Prix | Dubai*

Season 4 – 2024
January 13-14 – Abu Dhabi Sail Grand Prix | Abu Dhabi
February 24-25 – Australia Sail Grand Prix | Sydney
March 23-24 – New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Auckland
March 23-24 – New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch
May 4-5 – Bermuda Sail Grand Prix
June 1-2 – Canada Sail Grand Prix | Halifax
June 22-23 – United States Sail Grand Prix | New York
July 13-14 – SailGP Season 4 Grand Final | San Francisco
* Added October 3, 2023

Format for Season 4:
• Teams compete in identical F50 catamarans.
• Each event runs across two days.
• Up to seven qualifying fleet races of approximately 15 minutes may be scheduled for each regatta.
• The top three teams from qualifying advance to a final race to be crowned event champion and earn the largest share of the $300,000.00 USD event prize money purse (increases to $400k for Abu Dhabi with the winning team now earning $200k at each event).
• The season ends with the Grand Final, which includes the Championship Final Race for the top three teams in the season standing with the winner claiming the $2 million USD prize.
• The top team on points ahead of the three-boat Championship Final will be awarded $350,000.00.

For competition documents, click here.

Established in 2018, SailGP seeks to be an annual, global sports league featuring fan-centric inshore racing among national teams in some of the iconic harbors around the globe.

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