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Speed sailing on a global scale

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James Wierzbowski sails on stilts. Stilts that barely touch the water, that is. This 28-year-old professional sailor who travels the world participating in international sailing competitions using high-performance F50 foiling catamarans couldn’t have dreamt up the life he is living now even if he tried. James explains: “I’ve been a member of Merricks Yacht Club since I was a kid, but the sailing I do now looks very different from back then. I travel a lot, and going to the airport is like catching a bus. It can be quite overwhelming crawling over the boat doing a systems check before a race, but I tolerate change well and can adapt especially when there is no option. I suppose that’s part of the attraction of SailGP. It’s a comfortable place for me.” 

SailGP (Sail Grand Prix) is akin to Formula One car racing. These 15m catamarans go fast – up to 50 knots, or about 90km/h – and the whole thing is over in about 15 minutes. Like liquid lightning. These big on technology and big on the bucks ultra-high-performance vessels are the world’s speediest wind-powered racing boats and the competition is fierce. The inaugural SailGP season in 2019 saw six teams compete in five events around the world, including the US, Australia, England and France, with a whopping $1 million in first prize booty. This young athlete who spent most of his weekends and holidays on Merricks Beach is what’s called a flight controller. He ‘flies’ the boat. That means he holds on to a little remote throughout the race and adjusts the position of the foils to find the balance of the boat, which can be up to 2m above the water. Pressure much?

He continues: “What makes SailGP racing so unusual is that all boats come out of same factory. They are all exactly the same, which means competition comes down to the team of sailors on board. You can collect data from each vessel and analyse everyone’s performance too. You’ve got to be intuitive. When not racing, we spend a lot of time training together on a simulator in London. You don’t necessarily sail for your own country in SailGP either. I sail for Team China.”

James knew he wanted to go down the Olympic sailing pathway by the time he was about 17. His father, Michael, was very involved in the Merricks Yacht Club and the love for sailing has clearly been handed down to his son. James continues: “I was in the Australian sailing squad from 2013 until 2015, but Australia is a very competitive sailing nation and you have to be one of the top three in the world to go to an Olympic Games. I decided to go into professional sailing and now fly between four to five hundred hours per year to get to races across the globe. That lifestyle can make it difficult for my partner, Georgie Nichol, who comes with me when she can. SailGP has a huge following and is televised around the world. I’m always overwhelmed by the reach professional sportspeople appear to have. Most SailGP sportspeople reach their peak by their mid-30s, and that’s OK. I’ll just cross over to another form of sailing.” 

By the time this story goes to print, James will have completed his second Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Alive. We’re sure that as long as he’s on the water, he’ll continue to thrive. Catch him if you can.


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