Counting heads aboard one of SailGP’s racing catamarans, an observer will come to six. Unseen, however, is a seventh, present and not present. The U.S. team calls him the Eye in the Sky.
Philippe Presti, longtime coach to the skipper Jimmy Spithill, no longer follows in the traditional chase boat.
When racing begins in Cádiz, Spain, on the Atlantic coast, Presti and the other coaches will be ensconced in shipping containers surrounded by screens and data streams that show them more than they, or a racing crew, can see on the water. Digesting the information and sharing it with the crew on the boat are their jobs.
Coaches pass on such information as wind fluctuations across the racecourse and, critically, how to manage a crowded start. Outside information helps the drivers make rapid decisions.
Remote is the new standard for SailGP coaching, adopted across the fleet. Seen as a way to reduce the carbon footprint of the event, it places fewer motorboats on the water. Coaches say it raises their game. Integrating remote coaches with the crew, however, places SailGP outside the tradition of a sport that elsewhere prohibits outside assistance.
Ben Durham, coach for the series leader Australia, sounded philosophical about the plusses and minuses.
“I was skeptical that you could keep the connection and read the play,” he said. ”Being on the water, close to the team and the sailing conditions, is sometimes critical. That said, analysis can provide data that allows the team to navigate a situation for a better result.”
Presti expressed confidence that the positives win out.
“In many sports, the coach is part of the decision-making process, in real time,” he said. “I think it’s exciting to be out of the chase boat. I have a bigger view of situations as they develop, and I can be vocal about it.”
Spithill said using coaches made racing safer during starts and hectic moments. “Coaches are able to provide that ‘eye in the sky’ and help us avoid collisions,” he said. “There’s strategy, too. The key is for the coach to know when to input, which is a strength Philippe brings to the game.”
All members of a SailGP crew wear helmets and headsets. “Remote, I have the high view and the best audio, and I have input, but I can’t be pushy about communicating,” Presti said. “I’m just one part of a puzzle the driver is assembling, rapid fire. But, for one thing, I can see whether boats are crossing safely or not. That’s hard to judge on board when you’re going 50 knots and so is the other guy.”
Trust is key. Presti and Spithill have developed it over time.
It was 23 years ago, while Presti was training in Sydney, Australia, for the Olympics, that a very young Spithill was recommended to Presti as a match-race sparring partner. (Match racing was one boat against another, as part of the Soling Class competition.)
The training partnership with Spithill was productive.
“The kid was aggressive,” Presti said. “It was clear he was going to be a star, but we had to do our work between 5 and 8 a.m. Then Jimmy would hop on his bike and pedal off to be a schoolboy.”
Later developments included stints on competing America’s Cup teams before the two were united at Oracle Team USA, leading eventually to Presti’s role coaching Spithill for the America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017. However, Emirates Team New Zealand defeated Oracle that year and captured the Cup. That defeat helped launch SailGP.
“It was a big disappointment to lose,” Presti said. “The plan and the structure were in place for Cup racing to become the international circuit that SailGP is now, with the America’s Cup itself as the grand finale. The players were in place too. Jimmy, Tom Slingsby, Kyle Langford, for example.
“When Jimmy kept going, and the team became U.S. SailGP, he asked me to come along.”
A note of context: Well before the SailGP mastermind Sir Russell Coutts joined the Oracle team as chief executive, he had proselytized an international catamaran circuit.
With seed money from Larry Ellison, a founder of the Oracle Corporation, Russell organized SailGP and standardized the hydrofoiling 50-foot boats, eliminating the costs and complexities of independent research and development. Moving all SailGP coaches off the water in 2023 is another case of standardizing technology.
Before Presti would discuss technology, however, he made it clear that, “In the container, I am missing context. Before the race I spend time outside. I look at the wind and the clouds, breathe the air and launch my mind onto the water.”
Setting up his control room, Presti faces four large screens.
“I first analyze the other boats and fit in as much data as I can,” he said. “I have one screen that is dedicated to video feeds. Two screens are dedicated to real-time data. I will choose two, perhaps three criteria that I want to follow and make sure those data streams are engaged. That includes race management chat, so I can track whatever is developing.
“Finally, there is the umpire screen. That gets most of my attention during the race. It is very precise. It’s what the umpires use to determine penalties. I hear all the communications coming from our boat, and I can talk clearly to the crew. I can zoom in on boats, zoom in on the breeze, zoom out for an overview, rewind, loop.
“Or I can get overwhelmed. But these are great diagnostic tools.”
Weighing the move off the water and its prospects, Jacopo Plazzi, the coach of the Switzerland team, said, “The great plus is the quality of the comms coming from shore to the F50. We are probably more effective ashore. We see more data, but we also lose, having no direct contact with the athletes.”
Thus, Presti each morning looks at the wind and clouds and breathes the air. And takes it into the technology booth, clouds and all.