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Ex-Cup champ Kirby to lead US team in new SailGP league

October 10, 2018

In this photo provided by SailGP, from left, Hans Henken, Dan Morris, Rome Kirby, Mac Agnese, Riley Gibbs of the new United States team in the SailGP league pose at a launch event in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. Former America's Cup champion Rome Kirby has been named skipper and helmsman of the United States' team in the new SailGP league. Kirby was introduced with the rest of the American crew Wednesday in New York. SailGP was founded by American software billionaire Larry Ellison and New Zealander Russell Coutts, a five-time America's Cup winner. SailGP will be contested in supercharged, 50-foot catamarans. (Matt Knighton/SailGP via AP)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Former America’s Cup champion Rome Kirby has been named skipper and helmsman of the United States’ team in SailGP, the new global league that will be sailed in foiling 50-foot catamarans beginning next year.

Kirby, 29, of Newport, Rhode Island, won the America’s Cup with Oracle Team USA in 2013 and has also sailed in the Volvo Ocean Race. He is the son of Jerry Kirby, also a former America’s Cup champion and Volvo Ocean Race veteran.

The other members of the U.S. crew, announced Wednesday in New York are wing trimmer Riley Gibbs, 22, of Long Beach, California; flight controller Hans Henken, 26, of Coronado, California; grinder Mac Agnese, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and grinder Dan Morris, 30, of Newport, Rhode Island.

Morris has won a World Match Racing Tour title. Agnese, Gibbs and former youth world champion Henken are all bidding to represent the United States at the 2020 Olympics.

SailGP, launched last week, was founded by American software billionaire Larry Ellison and New Zealander Russell Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner. They began working on the concept of the annual global league after Oracle Team USA was routed by Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2017 America’s Cup. Kirby was a reserve with Oracle Team USA in that regatta.

SailGP will have five regattas next year, starting in Sydney, Australia, in mid-February. There will be stops on San Francisco Bay on May 4-5 and on the lower Hudson River in New York on June 21-22.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Kirby said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I don’t think sailing’s seen anything like it. I think our sport needs something like this that is consistent. We have great sailing events but they’re hard for people to follow. Some of the events happen every two to four years, so having something that is year-round is good for the sport.”

There will be five regattas in 2019, with teams from six countries. Plans call for the league to eventually expand to 10 teams from 10 countries, with 10 regattas.

SailGP will initially be underwritten by Ellison, with plans calling for it to move to a franchise ownership model. Coutts envisions it becoming commercially sustainable.

Kirby believes that’s possible.

“Sailing hasn’t had an event like this. Russell has an unbelievable vision and at first a lot of people were pretty skeptical of it,” Kirby said. “But once you have a chat with Russell, you see his vision and understand it. It has serious merit and there’s a big void in the sport, a massive gap that kind of needs to be filled. As a sailor you get pretty excited about it. All of us can go sailing year-round. You’re not jumping from the America’s Cup to the Volvo.”

The next America’s Cup will be in 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand.

SailGP will be contested in F50s, a redesigned and reengineered version of the catamarans used in the 2017 America’s Cup.

“I absolutely love the cats,” Kirby said. “It’s obviously been a part of my life for the last seven years and I think the F50s are great boats. I’m pretty happy they’re getting repurposed and reused in this series because a lot of race boats get tossed in the garbage or are never touched or seen again, which is a real shame. These are cutting-edge boats. I’m glad they’re continuing on.”

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

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