A chat with SailGP skipper Phil Robertson
The New Zealand sailor was a recent guest on The Yacht Racing Podcast
New Zealand sailor Phil Robertson has earned a reputation as one of the top high-performance sailors in the world. He made his name on the World Match Racing Tour – where he won the world title on two occasions – and is now a well-established skipper on the international SailGP high-performance regatta circuit.
During an interview on a recent episode of The Yacht Racing Podcast Robertson chatted with host Justin Chisholm about the way his career has evolved and gave some unique insight into what it is like to be at the wheel of an F50 foiling catamaran in the heat of battle.
One of Phil Robertson’s earliest sailing memories is as a child falling asleep in the warm sunshine at the front of the Robertson family dinghy as his dad sailed it around the course in the local Sunday club race.
Fast forward twenty years or so and these days Robertson needs to be very much awake and fully alert at the wheel of his F50 high-performance foiling catamaran racing on the international SailGP circuit.
An early convert to the foiling revolution, Robertson is now one of the few sailors in the world to have developed the skills and experience to take the wheel of an F50, which can top 50 knots in the right conditions.
Robertson was in Europe with a group of Kiwi mates racing on the World Match Racing Tour when the America’s Cup switched from monohull to fast catamarans for the 34th edition in San Francisco. Spotting this as a paradigm shift in the sport he quickly also made the change from one hull to two.
“Sailing evolves all the time and I always try to stay relevant,” he said. “I had never sailed a cat before, but to be honest, it probably suits my style a lot more than a slow keel boat.”
His first foiling experience was on an SL33 back in New Zealand (“Someone had got the designs and built one at home – that's how kiwis do it”) but Robertson says it was the time he spent on the now defunct Superfoiler circuit in Australia that taught him many the core skills for high-performance foiling.
“That was a boat where the skipper had to trapeze and control the foils on the tiller – and do it somewhat safely on a platform that no one had sailed before. There was so much learning to do and the boat scared you. It was fast and it was wild – and there were some pretty big capsizes – scary ones too – but they were wicked boats and a lot of fun. That experience has been key to my development towards getting on to a boat like the F50.”
Before SailGP was born Robertson skippered the Oman Air GC32 foiling cat in the Extreme Sailing Series for two successful seasons.
“That is a very relevant experience too,” he said. “Everyone’s doing different jobs which control the flight and the speed of the boat. So you've got to trust your guys and learn how to communicate well.”
Find out what else Phil had to say by clicking a logo to listen to the full podcast episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Robertson recalls not knowing what to expect on his first sail at the helm of a SailGP F50. “It was a fairly windy day and probably one of the most stressful sails of my life. Knowing that you're sailing a boat that can do above fifty knots sorry and you're you're driving it and you're flying it. Plus you've got four other guys on board – they have to trust you and you have to trust them. It's a pretty daunting feeling.”
Now though, having experienced the immense speed of the F50, Robertson says sailing other foiling boats can seem a little pedestrian.
“It has kind of ruined me for anything else,” he said with a laugh. “If a boat is not foiling everywhere then it is a boring boat to sail now – too slow. It is a bit of a shame, but even in the Moth the speed gets a bit diluted. Now I can sail one at thirty knots and it feels slow.”
So what does the experience of steering an F50 in a fleet race actually feel like?
“It’s different from anything else,” Robertson explains. “From the driving point of view you obviously have a wheel like most boats, but the thing people probably don't realise is how twitchy the boats are. If you turn that wheel an inch or two the boat flicks and goes off in the other direction. They can turn on a dime almost and when you do that the G-force is phenomenal.
“When you see the guys and girls running across the boat in the tacks and gybes, if you are going with the G-forces it gets you across the boat extremely fast – and sometimes too fast. We have seen it in the Cup when guys fall off the side of the boat and so with SailGP we are tethered on now. But I have spent a few tacks hanging off the side of the boat by my tether.”
“The other thing is the wind that's going across the deck. I guess we are doing 27 to 33 knots upwind, so if you've got 20 knots of breeze you have almost 95 kilometres per hour of wind going across your face. There's an analogy of putting your head out the car window on the highway and that's exactly what it's like. The wind noise is phenomenal and you really get an appreciation for aerodynamics when you are doing those speeds.”
That wind noise, Robertson says, makes verbal communication between the sailors extremely difficult – despite them all wearing headsets inside their crash helmets. “You can't really even talk to the guy next to you when you're doing those speeds. You are sort of yelling at each other and barely picking up a few words.”
As skipper and helmsman Robertson has a lot on processing masses of data from the instruments as well as reading the wind and waves and monitoring the competition.
“As the driver there is a lot to be looking at at any moment. You are sort of constantly cycling around quite a big loop of all the information you need to gather: your numbers, the wind, the waves, the course, the boundaries.”
Likewise for the flight controller who Robertson says normally barely utter a word during the typically 20 minutes SailGP races.
“The flight controller is extremely focused on one thing and one thing only. They have a very shallow field of view and, to be honest, they probably do not even know where they are on the racetrack. In the same way, the wing trimmers are also extremely focused on the wing and the numbers coming off that.
“As a helmsman that puts a lot more responsibility on you in terms of your take on all the tactics and strategies and the positioning of the boat around the course.”
One aspect of SailGP that Robertson believes goes in-noticed is the focus and skill required just to get the boats from the dock and back again each race day.
“The racing is almost the easy part,” he says. “At a location like Sydney where you are quite far up inside the harbour, you firstly have to crane the boat into the water – which is a high risk thing to do in itself and there is a lot of responsibility in just that.
“Then, getting the boat on and off the mooring is not easy and requires a lot of mental focus and skill. Then getting to the racecourse towing a foiling multihull with a wing sail at 20 knots with another 20 knots of breeze coming from the side is not an easy task. It is a stressful time and extremely draining. We have failed a couple of times and capsized and broken the boat.”
Practice time on the F50s before each SailGP regatta is closely rationed out to the competing teams by the circuit organisers. This limited opportunity to spend time on the water has seen the teams booking up slots on the F50 simulator based at Artemis Technologies in Belfast.
But how close to the real thing is ‘sailing’ the simulator?
“It’s pretty close – closer than anything else, that is for sure,” Robertson answers. “It is like a flight simulator in that it is on hydraulic rams that move it around and it feels very much like being on board the F50. They have worked hard to get those sensations the same and the platform moves like the real thing.”
“The back three guys [helmsman, flight controller, and wing trimmer] have a position in the simulator exactly the same as the F50. You are working on those specific skill sets of flying the boat and trimming a wing and and and driving.”
As well as spending simulator time with his current SailGP team – the Spanish crew – Robertson has also been using the system to assess sailors for the newly formed Canadian team, which Robertson will take charge of for the international circuit’s third season.
“It’s quite a cool place to throw people into and give them their first experience and see how they handle it. I think for people's first experience it is the best thing that there is.
“You can go out there and crash the simulator 50 times and it doesn't cost you anything to repair it and get sailing again. In fact you can get sailing again in 30 seconds after a capsize. It is a great tool and something we will be working pretty hard on over the next few months to get right up to speed within our team.”