The final phase of the Star Sailors League Gold Cup pits 40 countries against each other in the Canaries, from this Friday until 3 December. We take a look at this ‘Sailing World Cup’ with Xavier Rohart and Michel Niklaus, who initiated the project, and Loïck Peyron and Stéphane Christidis, respectively captain and tactician of the French team.
It all began in 2012. Following the withdrawal of the Star from the Olympic programme after the London Games, “a dozen or so sailors got together to think about how to continue sailing, with the aim of promoting pure sporting skills and securing the professional careers of athletes on a stable circuit, hence the creation of the Star Sailors League“, explains Xavier Rohart, bronze medallist at the Athens Olympics in the Star class, who was assisting Swiss Michel Niklaus, himself a ‘starist’, in this project.
The initial project was to“a professional circuit with a final at the end of each season, but also a world inshore ranking inspired by the ATP model in tennis, which today includes 113,000 sailors”, adds Xavier Rohart, who today combines the presidency of the SSL with a dual role as a sailor (mainsail trimmer) and manager of the French team.
“This circuit lacked visibility,“ continues Michel Niklaus. “We needed to find a bigger boat to showcase the sailors and change the formula, hence the idea of moving towards this Gold Cup concept. In other words, a championship between nations with a simplified regatta format, similar to the Football World Cup, to make the event more attractive and accessible to the general public”. The boat in question? The SSL47, a modified RC44, without electronics and ultra-simplified, in order to level the playing field between nations. There are currently ten boats dedicated to this circuit. As for the event itself, the aim is to organise this Gold Cup every four years, as well as continental championships every two years.
The first edition of the SSL Gold Cup Final Series kicks off this Friday 10 November with the round of 32 and will conclude with a final four-nation match on 3 December. Of the 40 teams taking part, the top 24 in the SSL rankings have qualified directly for this final phase, with 16 securing their ticket during the qualifiers held between 19 May and 17 July on Lake Neuchâtel
Comprising eleven sailors (nine on board), the national teams will compete in four-boat matches off Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. The SSL, which wanted to bring together the big names in sailing, from the Olympics to ocean racing, via the America’s Cup and match racing, has managed to convince sailing stars such as Brazil’s Robert Scheidt, Great Britain’s Ian Williams and Australia’s John Bertrand to take on the role of captain, as well as American Paul Cayard, Italian Vasco Vascotto, New Zealander Rod Davis, Spaniard Luis Doreste, Swiss Eric Monnin and Argentine Santiago Lange!
On the French side, Loïck Peyron is the captain for Les Bleus. “I accepted the offer because I thought the idea of comparing national talents, on equal terms, as a crew and wearing your country’s colours was a great one,“ says Peyron, who will be staying ashore or on a chase boat to support and coach the crew. “It’s also great to see so many nations involved [56 countries, editor’s note] since the start of this adventure and to give everyone a chance.” Peyron put together his team in consultation with Xavier Rohart: “It wasn’t easy, because with the Paris Olympics and the America’s Cup coming up, a lot of sailors weren’t available,” Rohart explains.
No prize money, but
teams are supported
Stéphane Christidis, a former 49er specialist (two Olympic Games in 2004 and 2012) and the onboard tactician, joined the project just a month ago: “I was contacted at the same time as François Brenac (as helmsman) to replace Jean-Baptiste Bernaz and Mathieu Richard, who were finally unavailable. Our duo works well together, as we’ve done a lot of sailing together in the J70s.” Edouard Masse, Eliott Michal, Bruno Jeanjean, Antony Munos, Hugo Studler, Emeric Michel and Nicolas Kroll complete the crew, who had time to train for four days on the SSL47 in Switzerland.
Although only ten days of training per year are authorised on the SSL47s, in the interests of equal opportunities, “it’s up to each team to find the means to train at home,” explains Xavier Rohart. “For our part, we sailed a similar boat in Marseille, the Ker 46 Tonnerre de Glen.” Given its SSL ranking, France will go straight into the last eight on 21 November against Sweden and two teams qualified after the round of 16. What are France’s ambitions? “To win, of course!” smiles Xavier Rohart. “But at least five countries are going to be very hard to beat, like Italy, who have managed to motivate a lot of America’s Cup sailors, Germany, who are very strong in this type of event, and the United States and England.”
So many nations racing for glory, since there is no prize money at stake. “But that’s the medium-term objective,” says Xavier Rohart. The organisation of this event, which costs between 2.5 and 3 million euros (all the teams’ expenses are covered: registration, plane tickets, meals, hotel nights, etc.), as well as the SSL’s annual operating budget (over 2 million euros), are fully funded by the Sailors Athletes Foundation (supported by around fifteen patrons).
The SSL has no sponsors, and that’s a choice, explains Michel Niklaus: “Above all, we want to prove that this project is sustainable because of its quality and not because it is supported by sponsors. Once that has been proven, we’ll be able to conclude partnerships, and we’ve already got a few interested sponsors.”
Photo: Felix Diemer / SSL Gold Cup