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Ex-America’s Cup champs Coutts, Ellison launch SailGP league

October 3, 2018

SAN DIEGO (AP) — New Zealander Russell Coutts is moving past the America’s Cup to help launch what he hopes is a commercially sustainable sailing league using supercharged foiling 50-foot catamarans capable of zipping across the tops of waves at 53 knots (60 mph).

Coutts and American software tycoon Larry Ellison announced their SailGP global racing league Wednesday in London.

Teams from the United States, Australia, Great Britain, France, Japan and China will compete starting in 2019 in highly advanced catamarans called F50s.

The series begins Feb. 15-16 in Sydney, Australia, followed by regattas in San Francisco on May 4-5; New York on June 21-22; Cowes, England, on Aug. 10-11; and the finale in Marseille, France, on Sept. 20-22 that will include a winner-take-all $1 million match race.

“I’m super excited about it,” Coutts, SailGP’s CEO, told The Associated Press ahead of the formal announcement. “I’ve been waiting for this for quite some time and that’s the unique thing about sailing is we don’t have anything like this that exists today and it will fill a void.”

Coutts, 56, won the America’s Cup five times from 1995-2013. He sailed undefeated through three straight matches, the first two as skipper for Team New Zealand and the third time as skipper of Alinghi of Switzerland. After sitting out the 2007 America’s Cup, he became the non-sailing CEO of Ellison’s Oracle Team USA, which won the Auld Mug in 2010 and defended it in 2013 before losing it to Emirates Team New Zealand in 2017.

Coutts attempted to steer the America’s Cup toward being commercially sustainable but that quest ended when Oracle Team USA was routed by New Zealand, which has decided to ditch catamarans in favor of a high-performance, foiling multihull.

The next America’s Cup won’t be until 2021. By then, there will have been two seasons of SailGP.

The America’s Cup turned into a playground for billionaires — including Ellison — although the cash-strapped Kiwis bucked that trend when they hit on a brilliant boat design that carried them to a stunning upset last year. Fewer teams competed in last two editions of sailing’s marquee regatta due to staggering costs.

It’s roughly estimated that Ellison spent $750 million during five America’s Cup campaigns.

SailGP plans to get around that starting with a centralized design team, led by America’s Cup Hall of Famer Mike Drummond, that will provide identical boats to each team, and a centralized maintenance and logistics operation like the one used by the Volvo Ocean Race.

“We want each of the teams to have the same chance with emphasis on close racing,” Coutts said. “It will be nation vs. nation in fast, exciting boats, with close racing. We don’t want it be an arms race where one team takes a technological advantage over the other one. It will be close racing between top sailing teams.

“All the racing I’ve done in my life, the ones that are competitive and close are the ones you remember the most,” said Coutts, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “That applies to racing fans as well.”

Coutts said a SailGP team will cost $5 million a year to run. And unlike the America’s Cup, where iconic teams such as Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes come and go, the plan is to keep teams going for the long haul.

Ellison, one of the world’s richest men with a fortune estimated at nearly $63 billion, will initially cover the league’s costs before it moves to a franchise ownership model that Coutts said has already attracted interest.

Sail GP took three 50-foot catamarans from the 2017 America’s Cup and redesigned and reengineered them, and built three new ones.

Coutts said the performance difference will be significant, with the F50s predicted to do 53 knots (61 mph) in 20 knots (23 mph) of wind. The performance prediction for the AC50 class was 45 knots (52 mph) in 20 knots of wind, although there were speeds of 48 knots (55 mph).

New components will come on line during the 2019 season to improve performance at the upper and lower end of the wind range, most notably modular wing sails that can be adjusted for wind conditions.

Oracle, Land Rover and Louis Vuitton, which once had a significant role with the America’s Cup, are founding partners of SailGP.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson

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