By Lauren Withrow
A new sport is coming to Chicago: Nine national Sail Grand Prix teams will set sail on Lake Michigan at Navy Pier this June. In its third season, SailGP is compared to Formula 1 racing on water. National teams made up of six sailors race highly technical, hydrofoiling F50 catamarans, which reach top speeds of around 60 mph. With dedicated viewership up 131% from Season 2 to Season 3, the sport is growing as fast as the boats race.
But SailGP isn’t just dedicated to growing viewership, it’s also committed to growing the sport through diversity, equity and inclusion. After an inaugural season in 2019 with no women sailors, SailGP began Season 2 by launching its Women’s Pathway Program: a program designed to train women to race the high-speed F50 catamarans.
The number of female athletes competing in SailGP more than doubled from Season 2 to Season 3. Now, the circuit is setting sail toward a new milestone: the launch of an all-female league. CJ Perez, the league’s youngest athlete and first Latina sailor, joins host Lauren Withrow to discuss the Women’s Pathway Program and the sport’s progress toward achieving gender equity.
Perez will be one of six U.S. sailors to set sail on Lake Michigan in June, when the league competes in Chicago for the first time ever. June’s race will mark the first of a two-year hosting agreement between SailGP and the city of Chicago.
SailGP CEO Sir Russell Coutts and Chicago Sports Commission Director Kara Bachman discuss the future of the sailing sport in the Windy City, while U.S. SailGP Team flight controller Rome Kirby emphasizes the importance of winning on home water in June.
Chicago’s SailGP championship takes place June 18-19 at Navy Pier. For tickets and more information, visit SailGP.com.
Lauren Withrow: Hello and welcome to Medill Newsmakers. I’m your host, Lauren Withrow. One of the world’s fastest emerging sports leagues is coming to Chicago. Sail Grand Prix will compete on the waters of Lake Michigan at Navy Pier this June.
So, what exactly is SailGP? It’s like Formula 1 racing on water. Now in its third season, the league was founded in 2018 by champion yachtsman and Olympic gold medalist Sir Russell Coutts, and Larry Ellison, founder of computer technology giant Oracle. SailGP is a global racing circuit that competes in the most iconic cities around the world. Teams race identical F50 catamarans, which are highly technical, hydrofoiling race boats that can reach top speeds around 60 mph. Crews of six sailors represent each of 10 national teams during every race. Thanks to a partnership with Oracle, the F50 catamarans deliver 30,000 data points every second that are shared with each team, broadcast partners and fans. By giving each team the same data and information, SailGP levels the playing field and increases competition.
This season, SailGP will feature 10 championship events, each of which includes multiple races. Races take place during Saturday and Sunday of each championship weekend, with three races scheduled per day. Each race is about 15 minutes long. The first five races, including all three on Saturday and the first two on Sunday, are fleet races, which means that all 10 teams compete. Teams earn points for each fleet race, and only the top three teams compete in the sixth and final race on Sunday. The winner of the final race is crowned the champion.
U.S. SailGP team flight controller Rome Kirby described the recipe for success for Team USA in Chicago.
Rome Kirby (United States SailGP Athlete): At the end of the day racing these boats, they’re super close. It just comes down to positioning, boat handling. It’s basically fundamentals. If you can get the basics right, you can put yourself in pretty good spot. If you can start to boat well, get around that first reach mark, you can execute your first maneuver, you’re in pretty good shape. So, we just try and keep it simple.
Withrow: The last event of the season is the Grand Final, during which the highest ranked teams on the season leaderboard face off to be named the SailGP champion and win a $1 million prize. SailGP races are just as exciting for fans to watch as they are for athletes to compete in.
Coutts said that SailGP is on a mission to make sailing a mainstream sport, and the league has the numbers to prove that the mission is working.
Sir Russell Coutts (SailGP CEO): Dedicated viewership, as we call it, live on the live has grown by 131%. So, we’re growing rapidly and if you look at it for Season 3, we have more teams, more venues, more positive impact, definitely more adrenaline, more innovation and tech. It’s really exciting.
Withrow: But SailGP isn’t just dedicated to growing viewership, it’s committed to growing the sport through diversity, equity and inclusion. We’ll learn more about SailGP’s Women’s Pathway Program and hear from one of the league’s first female sailors, after the break. The number of female athletes competing in SailGP more than doubled from Season 2 to Season 3.
Now, the circuit is setting sail toward a new milestone, the launch of an all-female league.
After an inaugural season in 2019 with no women sailors, SailGP began season two by launching its Women’s Pathway Program, a program designed to train women to race the high-speed F50 catamarans.
Coutts: That’s been big push for us. We started that in Cadiz, Spain, and we’re building that rapidly.
Withrow: Six months after launching the program, SailGP increased its crew size from five to six sailors and required each team to include one woman on the F50’s during each race. Eight women from the Women’s Pathway Program became the league’s first to set sail in October 2021 in Cadiz. Twenty-two women are included on SailGP rosters for this season, which began in Bermuda last month. I asked SailGP CEO Sir Russell Coutts how he plans to continue supporting women in the sport.
With the Women’s Pathway Program and three women on the U.S. team, specifically, how has that diversity increasing over the last couple of years elevated the sport, and where do you hope that it’s going this season?
Coutts: Well, it’s obviously past time. You know, so, we’re trying to accelerate that whole pathway program and expose these athletes to the top level of the sports and so that they can then keep for pushing themselves. So far, I think is essential to being really, really successful. Long-term, we want to achieve gender equity throughout the sport and, as a first step, we have some pretty ambitious plans to see a female afterguard crew through, let’s say, within the next two seasons in SailGP as a minimum. So that we not only have come to a situation with them racing on the boat, but to eventually have a team, a competitive team, at least, driven by female athletes.
Withrow: The Women’s Pathway Program has been successful in introducing women to the league, but there’s a growing problem. Now, as women go through the program, they face a bottleneck effect, where they are all competing for a single position on each boat. Each SailGP team crew has six positions: a driver, flight controller, wing trimmer, two grinders and the sixth sailor, which was added to accommodate the women. The driver, flight controller and wing trimmer are all tactical positions, while the two grinders require great strength, since they are in charge of turning the boat’s winches.
But women like United States SailGP athlete CJ Perez want to be more than an extra set of eyes on the boat. At 18 years old, Perez became the youngest athlete and first Latina to compete in SailGP. I sat down with Perez to talk about how she and other women are maneuvering uncharted waters in this interview.
CJ Perez (United States SailGP Athlete): It’s an old argument and very sexist one that in sailing, the women aren’t strong enough to do it, even though that’s completely false. Like on these boats, only the two grinding positions really require muscle, and you might be hard pressed to find like an 80-kilo female that can turn the winches, but the back three positions like the driver, flight controller and the wing trimmer it’s, it’s so tactical, and I think so many females like they will be awesome at it. I’ve been learning so much from the team already and really starting to understand this boat. And Jimmy actually, the other day, he let me do like 10 laps around the course behind the wheel driving, and that was like the best day of my life.”
Jimmy Spithill (United States SailGP CEO & driver): Yeah, it was awesome. We got CJ on the wheel for, man, I want to say 45 minutes or an hour, and she did a really good job. She’s obviously got a lot of natural talent.
Perez: It was it was so incredible getting to practice on the F50, which not a lot of people get to do and, in my mind, that’s just all that practice is going to go toward that woman’s league, which I’m really excited for.”
Withrow: For such a tactical sport, why do you think it’s taken so long for women to be included?
Perez: Sailing is such a small world. These spots, the few spots that they have on board, would be filled like that. Because these guys have been in the America’s Cup and have been doing it for so long. They wouldn’t put someone with less experience on it. People are opening their eyes and seeing like, what, it’s just so wrong to not include women at the top level of the sport, and it really is sad that it’s taken so long, honestly. But it is an entire culture of just exclusivity. It’s an old man’s sport and for so long they wanted to keep it that way. And in many ways, we are still, like, breaking through this barrier. And yeah, you can tell it’s just a total culture that we’re trying to change, and it is quite difficult to do that. Because it’s been like this for so long. It’s still like the men will hire men to work on their boats. So, you need to make it mandatory in order for it to happen.”
Withrow: SailGP and Oracle just put together a video featuring your parents and your home sailing coach, among others. Let’s take a look at the promo.
Lorna Perez (CJ’s mom): When people think about a sailor, they picture an older white male. When they see CJ, it flips the stereotype on its head.
Carlos Perez (CJ’s dad): When she starts racing, she turns into a beast.
CJ Perez: That day I made history.
Harald Von Sydow (Hawaii Kai Boat Club Founder): It’s very emotional.
Lorna Perez: And we couldn’t stop her anyway.
Withrow When you watch that video, how do you handle knowing that you just being on the United States SailGP team can have such a great impact on other young girls?
CJ Perez: Yeah, it’s hard to like really step back and see all that you’re doing and how much of an impact I’m maybe making. When I was in San Francisco for the Grand Finals, and doing some autograph signings, you know, some females came up to me and they just told me how much of an inspiration I am to them. And they actually like made me cry, and because I just didn’t realize how much of an impact me just being here is making to other women and that meant so much to me and just gave me so much motivation to, you know, really follow my dreams, which is to drive these boats one day. And so, yeah, it’s incredible when I know how much of an impact I can make to other females.
Withrow: What feeling does sailing give you that you want other women to experience?
Perez: I feel it’s kind of cheesy, but alive. I just feel like this is, it’s what I was meant to do. I feel like that being on a boat that is so dangerous, it makes me nervous, and it gives me excitement. It just gives me all of the emotions, and that I feel like it makes me feel alive again. And that’s what I love about it so much. I can hit every single emotion, and at the end of the day, I will always be happy because I spent my time out on the water, sailing these boats that really are just top of the line, the most advanced in the world. So, I feel very grateful to be here doing that.
Withrow: Although Coutts hasn’t announced an official timetable for the launch of an all-female league, he said it’s a priority. Coming up, SailGP is coming to the Windy City. More on the event and how you can join in on the fun, up next.
SailGP is competing in an arena like no other, in front of the most iconic city skyline, in the number one sports town in America, as the world’s top athletes go head-to-head on Lake Michigan in June.
Kara Bachman (Chicago Sports Commission Executive Director): It’s the perfect opportunity really to showcase our city. There’s no sports city like Chicago, and that’s why SailGP wants to be here, and I think we can prove that to them. We get to show the world what Chicago looks like from a different vantage point. And when you see the boats across our skyline, it’s almost as if they fit in and they’re meant to be there, and it’s really incredible and I think it draws people to our city even more. They don’t always understand how expansive our lakefront is. And SailGP gives us that opportunity to show that asset off to the world.
Withrow: Fans can view the race from multiple vantage points like the shoreline, the pier or from other boats on the water.
Bachman: I think the fan experience is going to be incredible. I think you know when you look at it and you look at this truly as a venue you have the onshore and, you know, water viewing. People can really watch this and then from so many different perspectives, and I think that is also going to keep them coming back for more. I think it’s unique in that it comes with fans but also an opportunity to meet new fans, and I think that’s really important for the sport.”
Withrow: U.S. SailGP team athlete Rome Kirby said that fans should come ready to cheer on the U.S. team from wherever they are watching.
Rome Kirby (United States SailGP Athlete): We need to get the monkey off our back. We’ve been pretty, pretty close to winning quite a few events, and just being able to get over the hurdle and to win here would be huge.”
Withrow: June will mark the first race of a two-year hosting agreement between SailGP and the city of Chicago. But Coutts and Bachman said that they hope to make Chicago an annual host for the circuit.
Coutts: It’s going to be spectacular venue. I think, from SailGP’s perspective, we obviously would love to leave a positive legacy here each year we come back.
Bachman: What better way than enjoying an incredible event, welcoming people from all over the world, spending an incredible weekend in the summer in a global city with a global audience?I don’t know if it gets much better than that. So, I hope it’s here for years to come.
Withrow: Chicago’s SailGP championship will take place June 18th and 19th. For tickets and more information, visit SailGP.com.
Lauren Withrow is a Sports Media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @lolowithrow.