SailGP’s contest on the seas turns toward a race to protect our planet

October 1, 2021 | 5 minute read
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Two sailing legends, Russell Coutts and Ben Ainslie, discuss how Oracle Cloud Infrastructure helps the racing league meet its sustainability goals.

Sailgp sail boat

For 50 years, Russell Coutts has sailed the world’s oceans and seas, scooping up accolades including an Olympic gold medal and five America’s Cup wins. Today, as he charts a course with SailGP—a league he cofounded to race some of the fastest catamarans built—he’s as focused on protecting the waters as competing on them.

“If we destroy our planet, it's not going to come back,” Coutts says during a stop in July for a SailGP event along the shores of Plymouth, Southwest England. “This is the path we are on now. We need to move six times faster than we currently are in order to really hold our own against climate change.”

SailGP, which stands for Sail Grand Prix, showcases eight national teams competing aboard F50 catamarans, which fly above the water as fast at 60 mph. In its second season, eight events are staged at destinations including San Francisco, Saint-Tropez, Sydney, Bermuda, and other locations around the world. Each catamaran is identical, with the outcome hinging on each team’s maneuvers on the water, including how they use data fed real-time from 800 sensors on the boats, via Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI). Data is used to determine strategies and make split-second decisions during a race.

“There's almost no end to how we will use this technology, when you look at the artificial intelligence programs, the machine learning that’s driving insights,” says Coutts. “We never dreamed this was imaginable prior to now.”

“Sailing has this fantastic connection with nature, with power by the wind. You can’t help but be influenced when you go on the water.”
—Russell Coutts, CEO, SailGP

Today, as SailGP approaches the final races of its second season, Coutts is relying on the same Oracle technology to take action against environmental impact caused by the competition.

“Oracle is helping us measure and track our carbon footprint,” Coutts says. “We can then use that data to come up with developed systems that reduce our usage and make us more efficient.”

Technology for environmental good

One example of technology’s role in lowering SailGP’s carbon footprint is through a sailing simulator—currently under development—that runs on OCI. The simulator will use season 1 data and visualization software to re-create race conditions and scenarios. This allows the world-class athletes to improve performance, work on their skills, and even conduct virtual crashes to practice safety tactics. Athletes can do this from anywhere in the world, thereby reducing the impact from traveling in order to meet.

For this season of SailGP, which runs through March 2022, production activities such as a broadcast control room and video production is taking place remotely, helping save on costs and lowering the ecological impact associated with bringing large crews and equipment to events. Also new this year is remote umpiring, eliminating the carbon footprint of umpire travel and the fossil-fueled boats they previously used on the water during the event.

SailGP also started what it calls an “Impact League” among the national teams, where members are measured and rated for sustainability efforts, on criteria including food waste, single-use plastic, diversity and inclusion, clean energy solutions, and using the team’s voice for good. At the end of the season there will be two podiums—one crowning the champion for success on the water and the other for a team’s impact off it. Winners receive funding to use toward an environmental cause of their choice.

And finally, SailGP is educating the next generation of climate activists by bringing young people in for tours to learn about the boats and the technology used. This mission of inspiring children runs throughout SailGP, says Ben Ainslie, CEO and driver of SailGP’s British team, and a medal winner in five consecutive Olympics, including four golds. The Great Britain team, for example, works with a program called STEM Crew aimed at UK children ages 11 to 16, providing teaching resources such as lesson plans, videos, and challenges to get students interested in science, highlighting issues such as protecting seagrass to absorb carbon.

Russell Coutts standing next to a Sailgp boat
SailGP CEO Russell Coutts relies on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure to help the league track and reduce the sailing competition’s carbon footprint.

“SailGP…has a massive responsibility to try and set the example to those younger generations coming through,” says Ainslie. “It’s imperative we find the initiatives to make a difference and set that example for future generations. “

Too many people have no relationship to the seas, Coutts says, something SailGP hopes to change where it can.

“If you show people the ocean, you show them what's real, and you give them that connection with nature. They can't help but be drawn in by it,” he says. “They become passionate about protecting it.”

Our most important race

Despite progress, the sports industry overall has much work to do in taking care of our planet. Athletes, coaches, staff, and fans fly around the world. Energy is used to run facilities. Single-use plastics are handed out liberally at events.

“Sadly, over the years, I’ve seen some pretty appalling scenes around the world at different sailing venues, including trash in the water,” Ainslie says. “But I think the positives I take out of the situation we’re in is this massive impetus to make a difference for people to change how they operate.”

Coutts acknowledges SailGP’s impact on the environment, from flights and accommodations to support boats that follow the catamarans and burn fossil fuels. However, SailGP is striving to have its operations run on clean energy by 2025—“powered by nature on and off the water,” it says. Coutts wants SailGP to be a role model for sustainability in sports.

“Sailing has this fantastic connection with nature, with power by the wind. You can’t help but be influenced when you go on the water,” Coutts says. “I have seen some terrible pollution, but I believe the ocean can recover. I think we can win this. It’s the most important race we’ve got right now.”

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Photography: Courtesy of SailGP

Kristen Schweizer

Kristen Schweizer is an Oracle content lead and writer. She was previously a journalist for Bloomberg and Reuters.

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