Canada’s F1 yacht team take a different tack

An exclusive look at SailGP aboard Canada’s F50 catamaran yacht and how this international sailing competition is keeping sustainability in mind

  • May 11, 2023
  • 1,468 words
  • 6 minutes
Photo courtesy SailGP
Expand Image

It’s fast, it’s fun, and Canada is making waves. Powered by wind and racing in spectacular locations worldwide, welcome to the spectacle of skill, technology, glamour, and entertainment of SailGP. It’s a high-speed, high-tech yacht racing series that aspires to become the next global sporting phenomenon, appealing to both sailors and non-sailors alike. As Canada’s gutsy team discovered in its maiden competitive season – and I discovered with an exclusive opportunity to get in their $4 million US race boat – champagne and heartbreak are just a gust away. When the world’s fastest yachts blitz across one another at 100 km/hr, drama is all but guaranteed.

Standing 15 metres long with a 24m-high wing, an F50 catamaran yacht is like a Formula 1 race car on water: incredibly expensive, loaded with sensors, tuned to the millimetre, crafted with cutting-edge materials, and operated by the very elite in the sport. Its fixed, aircraft-like carbon-fibre wing doesn’t so much catch wind and turbo-boost it, with hydro-foils raising the hull to remove friction and generate an absurd amount of speed. A six-person crew are all specialists, made up of a flight controller, wing trimmer, driver, two grinders and a strategist, including a mandated female athlete. You can fall down a rabbit hole with the technical jargon, space-age innovation and race rules, but if you’re new to sailing, like me, know that shore-facing fixed courses and innovative graphical overlays make the races far easier to follow. Along with slick marketing, countless cameras, and cheering crowds in the grandstand, SailGP is not your grandfather’s yacht race.

On the foil. (Photo courtesy SailGP)
Expand Image
Canadian SailGP1. (Photo courtesy SailGP)
Expand Image

US tech billionaire and America’s Cup veteran Larry Ellison set out to create a branded, consistent and consumer-friendly yacht race inspired by the successful format of other major sports. It’s been tried before, but never with this level of investment or sophistication. Unlike Formula 1 motor racing or America’s Cup, every team races with the exact same boat model, all built and owned by SailGP Technology headquarters in New Zealand. Creating an equal playing field means any team can win on the day, which is why each of the nine national teams competing in Season Three won a race.

It costs in excess of $10 million US to operate a team each season, and SailGP is largely funded by billionaires and sponsors. Canada’s team is the sole exception. It was founded by digital entrepreneur Fred Pye with a vision to inspire interest in competitive sailing beyond its traditional affluent demographic.

Robin on the F50. (Photo courtesy SailGP)
Expand Image

“We want to get to a place where we never hear a kid saying they can’t afford to sail or join a local yacht club. We also want to show kids there’s a future for them in professional sailing,” says Fred, a passionate and vocal advocate for the sport. Unlike other teams in the league, the Canadians are funded by nearly two dozen limited partners, drawing diverse but complementary parties into the sport with the hope of attracting many more. Joining the league in the 2022/2023 season, Canada SailGP attracted fans with their fun attitude, commitment to the Impact League  –  an adjacent leadership table that rewards teams for positive social and environmental change  – and their drama, on and off the water.

At the Sydney race in February 2023, a freak windstorm blew into the harbour just as Canada’s F50 was being loaded out by crane, smashing it into surrounding tent structures and forcing people to run for their lives. Along with minor injuries, the boat was heavily damaged, and the very future of the Canadian team lay in doubt. One month later, at the next race event in Christchurch, skipper Phil Robertson was showering his team with champagne. Canada had just won their first-ever race event in a tight showdown against local favourites New Zealand and Australia. 

“For a team to face a lot of adversity, you either get torn apart or you get stronger. Fortunately, it really helped us grow,” Phil tells me. 

We’re in San Francisco for the final event of the season, with the race course set in the bay between Golden Gate Bridge and the infamous Alcatraz Island. After several rounds of fleet racing, there’s a $1 million winner-takes-all showdown between the season’s top three teams. Finishing an impressive 5th place for their debut season, Canada watched defending champions Australia narrowly beat two New Zealand to win their third successive title. But what’s it like to actually be on one of these aquatic rocket ships? After getting some training and receiving an impact vest, I’m invited onboard Canada’s F50 for an exclusive opportunity to find out.

SailGP Canada. (Photo courtesy SailGP)
Expand Image

Tethered onto the boat with a harness, I scramble from a high-speed chase boat onto the F50 and hop into an available slot at the helm. Grinder and Canadian Olympic canoeist Tim Hornsby helpfully suggest I hang on for dear life. The wing sail adjusts, and instantly we launch metres off the water, flying above choppy waves to the high-pitched hum of water literally boiling with pressure around the foils. Wearing a high-tech helmet, I listen to the crew constantly adjusting for the conditions, calmly directed by Phil. “Jibe in three, two, one”…we make a knife-sharp turn, and instantly I get hit with G-force. The crew somehow runs across the trampoline to take identical  positions on the other hull, the wing sail shifts, and once again, we explode with pace, pounded by the wind and ocean spray. Very few individuals get the opportunity to sail at 80 km/hr on a high-tech racing yacht beneath the Bay Bridge of San Francisco. “How was that?” asks Phil. My clever answer is: “Pure velocity without friction,” –  but it takes a few hours for my adrenaline to subside before I can think of it.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of SailGP is the fact that sustainability is baked into every aspect of it. It was one of Larry Ellison’s founding visions, and building a global sport from scratch has made it possible to implement positive social and environmental actions from the outset. Fiona Morgan, SailGP’s Chief Purpose Officer, believes that sport has a unique voice in popular culture, educating and inspiring everyone across the political divide. 

“We’ve committed to reducing our carbon footprint, using biofuels, increasing efficiency, cutting down on waste, all while working with our host cities,” she explains in the media lounge. With just three seasons under its belt, SailGP has mobilized their teams for action, inspiring other sports to follow its wake and create their own version of the Impact League.

For Canada, this includes partnering with Vancouver-based Ocean Wise on a range of initiatives to protect and restore the ocean, including shore clean-ups and water sampling in host city ports to understand the presence of microplastics. The team also launched an international award-winning youth-outreach program called We CAN Foil, giving youth across the country the opportunity to learn about foiling and inspire tomorrow’s champion racers.

Airing on TSN in Canada, SailGP clearly has the wind in its sails and is set to expand both the number of teams and host cities for a fourth consecutive season. More good news for Canada is an announcement that we’ll be hosting one of five events scheduled for North America, with Halifax, Victoria, Kingston and Montreal all bidding for the honour (the location is yet to be confirmed). Season Four kicks off in Chicago on June 16, 2023.  


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content


Surviving the Race to Alaska

This motor-free ocean race — with vessels ranging from paddleboards to pedal-assist sailboats — is less about how fast you can go and more about whether you get there at all

  • 3522 words
  • 15 minutes


One year on, adventurer Bert terHart on his monumental world circumnavigation and future plans

Inspired by 18th century explorers, the serial entrepreneur and adventurer sailed non-stop around the world using just a sextant, navigational log tables, and good old pen and paper

  • 1574 words
  • 7 minutes


A tribute to Chester, Nova Scotia 

Explorer and author Sir Christopher Ondaatje escapes each summer to the shores of Nova Scotia. This is his tribute to Chester.

  • 1631 words
  • 7 minutes
Photo: Paul Colangelo

Science & Tech

Van Isle 360 Yacht Race

An exclusive photo essay of the Van Isle 360 International Yacht Race