New Zealand Phil Robertson, now 32, has just won 10 days ago the World Match Race Championship for a second time, adding to that famous 2016 world title which brought with it a $1m prize. He is now skipper helm of the China SailGP Team which is complemented by GC32 Tour events with the CHINAOne NINGBO team, the emphasis being to help train up a top echelon of Chinese sailors. Tip & Shaft caught up with Robertson as he relaxed at home in Sweden after winning in magical Marstrand and before he heads to Cowes for the next SailGP event.
A second World Championship win Phil, what were your expectations going into the event, did you figure you were among the favourites?
We’re thrilled to win the title again. It was quite windy for most of it which suited us well. My team did a fantastic job of keeping us fast around the track. We actually haven’t sailed the boat very much since the start of 2017, we’ve only done a couple of events since then, a few of the teams have done a lot of training and M32 series events so I didn’t have very high expectations. But in saying that we’ve done a lot of sailing this year and it’s seemed to have paid off in different cats. I can’t speak highly enough of my team, they do well in these boats and that makes my job a lot easier. So we’ve done really well.
So I think this is your tenth year since you set out to chase a pro career, it has been a bumpy ride at times but you have done well?
Yes, I’ve been doing match racing for 10 years and I’m at the top level. But to be honest my career has been a bit of a challenge for me. The goal posts have shifted so much in terms of different boats and events and styles of match racing and we’ve just had to adapt and learn to sail cats, that was the biggest shift. Now I’m obviously going foiling so again you’ve got to learn. And I’ve got to adapt and shift to that style of sailing. I’m doing my best to keep up with the whole thing and the way that the sport is going. That’s just how I do it: moving goal posts all the time and trying to keep up.
Who would have thought when you left NZ this is the way it would go?
The original goal was to be sailing Version 5s in the America’s Cup and that shifted pretty quickly after ’09. I never would have imagined the sport to be where it is today and on the other side of that I have to say it’s absolutely fantastic and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I think it’s got much more exciting, so far from where it was. You’re at the forefront of technology now. And speed, so fast. It’s fantastic to be a part of it.
And SailGP with the Chinese team, there are challenges and rewards I would imagine?
It’s a completely different game again. I’ve done a lot of learning this year, that’s for sure. The level in this SailGP is the best of the best. The very top. You’ve got guys with experience in those boats and you’ve just got to buy and you don’t have time to catch up, so we’re on a pretty steep learning curve in terms of trying to match the top teams there and get to their level, just purely based off their experience. I think it’s phenomenal, what’s happening and the boats at the forefront of technology. I would say that it’s the best sailing series in the world right now.
What is your pathway to close the gap on the top Sail GP guys?
It’s really difficult to be honest, we’ve got quite a task on our hand being a Chinese team with the goal of making it fully Chinese in four years’ time. That’s the root of everything we’ve done there, to try and teach the Chinese team and get them up to speed. On the other side of that we’re also trying to learn these boats and get up to speed with the top teams, so it’s quite a hard environment to be doing what we’re doing there. It is definitely a challenge that’s going to be hard to make a success It is thoroughly enjoyable. You just cannot beat a day out on those boats. So it is enjoyable but an extremely challenging task.
But with limited time on the boats how can you hope to close the gap, the hierarchy might not change?
I guess the way we try to improve is basically all based off data. We don’t have much time on the water. You have to maximise all your other resources. One of them is all of the data, the open data of all the teams is available. That means we can dig into the other teams’ strengths and weaknesses and look at what they’ve been doing. It’s a fantastic tool and we use that pretty vigorously. Also, the simulator in London. That’s another tool that’s a pretty incredible piece of tech. We’re going there for a few days before each event. To be honest we’d probably be in there every day if we could but it’s not easy to get in there and get training but that’s one tool that we’re using a lot of to get our sailors up to speed as much as we can and spending as much time as we can in the simulator.
And are you happy with your progress so far?
We are making a lot of progress I don’t think New York was really a key indicator, because of the conditions quite puffy and shifty and up and down in the gusts. We are really looking forward to Cowes and showing what we have learned season already and trying to mix it with the top couple of teams.
You talk of the goalposts moving all the time. In terms of events and boats where would you like it to stop, what would should Phil Robertson and your team best?
I don’t really mind if the goalposts keep shifting, as long as they keep going in a way that’s based on speed. The boats are getting faster and they’re pushing the boundaries of physics. I don’t mind if it keeps going that way. I think the Americas Cup boats are going to be a different game again and that’s the fantastic thing about our sport. We are in such a development stage and its awesome to be a part of it. I think my strengths are probably in match racing and that style of sailing so if I can line myself up with that style of sailing and keep doing that, that’s probably not a bad thing.
Do you have any particular America’s Cup goals, you are still quite young, presumably the Cup figures somewhere on your career ambitions?
I think my goals will always be the same- I want to be racing at the top of the sport against the best guys in the world and if I can do that in whatever series it is then I’m loving it. Whether it’s Sail GP or anything along those lines it’s a great place to be. I still believe this is the best yachting in the world at the moment, in the best place to be and maybe when the Americas Cup comes along and gains a bit of traction that will take some of the spotlight, but for sure SailGP is definitely this is the place to be right now.
And you are doing the GC32 circuit too….
They’re really cool boats. It’s a great little series going on and there’s some good teams on it. But it’s kind of a series that you really need to campaign for and have your own boat. It is not a cheap thing to do. It is a great series. I guess we’ll see in the next half of this year how it survives and what happens in that area. But right now I think there’s some pretty cool IMOCAs coming out right now and the more the world goes foiling, and the boats go foiling then in my eyes the better it is for the sport. As long as we’re pushing the boundaries, it’s going to keep the popularity of the sport up.
You have said several times you want to race round the world, what’s your timeline and what race?
I would love to race round the world, 100%. The more those boats go foiling the more enticing it is to try and get involved. Looking at some of those Ultime tris are pretty impressive machines so I’m definitely keeping my eye on it all and seeing where it goes and if I can be involved one day, I’d love to be. I’ve got no timeline on things. Right now I am in a good space.
What do you see as the future of the World Match Racing Tour?
It’s in a bit of a difficult spot right now. But I can see it going back to where it came from, with yacht clubs running events and a bit slower monohulls, but I do hope there are some higher performance monohulls and foiling boats involved as well. I’m sure they’re looking to keep up with the sport and keep at the fine edge of it. That’s where these guys need to come from as well, to get into these bigger boats and sail the Americas Cp and the Sail GPs. There needs to be a breeding ground and if the World Match Racing Tour can provide some boats to breed some good talent on then for sure it would be strong.
Would you be back almost regardless of the boat?
It would be boat dependent for me to be honest. The boat and the people are what matters. If there are good guys racing cool boats I am interested. But going back to an IOD or Catalina 37 is not so exciting anymore.
You would imagine that there will be an offshoot from the new Cup boats which will develop and fit the Tour?
Definitely. Look at all these little development boats that the Cup teams are building and how cool they look and fun. There has to be a foiling monohull on the World Match Racing Tour in the future. If there is, I am there. I’d be pretty interested in getting involved. My ambition is to be racing the fastest boats in the world against the best guys in the world.
Could you, would you like to be starting out again considering where the sport is now?
I don’t think I could start out again. It’s a different sport to when I started out and I think that the pathway that I’ve taken doesn’t exist anymore. That is a bit of a shame. The guys are coming from different areas in the sport now just purely based on the boats that we’re racing, rather than through match racing skills.
How hard was it to get on the road and get going in the beginning?
I really enjoyed how we started out. But it wasn’t exactly pretty. I got a team together of some really good mates and we packed our bags and set out for Europe for six months with a little plan and kind of just made it up as we went. We probably went with enough money for one month. We managed to last for six months. We did that for the first four years. We just set out to get known and to get out there and it seemed to pay off. There’s definitely a lot of sacrifice involved if you want to get to the top.
What about that million dollar prize purse, it’s all spent?
(Laughs) I don’t think the team is that stupid! Most of them bought a house with it, so that was a nice way to make some money. We had not made much until then. It go everyone grounded and set up for life, so it was definitely nice. It is shame it is not round every year but hopefully it will be around another time.
We are setting up for the next GP event in Cowes. After that I think I might take on the A-Class World Champs as well. I can’t say enough about sailing in as many different classes and events as you can when you are young.
Photo: World Match Racing Tour