Competitive yacht sailing has always been a small market, big prestige sport. That is to say it gets more coverage in the society pages than in the sports pages.
While the sport isn’t a platform for messaging like media mainstays football or basketball, it has put to use its most powerful tools. International sailing is using its clubby clout to rally politics and money in a push for marine life protection, clean oceans, and environmental stewardship.
In a recent summit organised by The Ocean Race – a round the world yacht race which takes place every 3-4 years – the event employed its connections with leadership to push its central green message. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen appeared, calling for ‘an ocean that is healthy and full of life’.
The Summit started as a small discussion during a stopover in the 2014 edition of the race, but has evolved into a regular meeting of minds, from sailors and activists to leading decision-makers. That leading global politicians like Ursula von der Leyen are weighing in is surely a testament to the work of sailors around the world in creating and maintaining a dialogue about the need to protect the environment and ecosystems in which they work.
Of course, sailors alone cannot reverse the tremendous damage being done to the oceans by microplastics, oil spills, litter, and harmful industrial practices. But as governments and businesses strive to meet the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the role which international sailing competitions are taking upon themselves as promoters of ocean health will be an invaluable one.
Perhaps sailors are so invested in marine stewardship because they are in a position to see first-hand the damage wrought on oceans by humans. It was after they sailed around the world in The Ocean Race that New Zealand Olympic sailors Pete Burling and Blair Tuke founded the charity Live Ocean. Burling and Tuke pushed the message continuously in their title defense at the prestigious America’s Cup earlier this year. The event was backed heavily by billionaire fashion mogul Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of the Prada empire and husband to Miuccia Prada.
Live Ocean’s one-step-at-a-time approach lies in the intersection of action and communication, using the sportsmen’s prestige and platforms to spread the message while targeting specific marine ecosystems. Their projects include protection of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, funding research into the population recovery of the Southern Right Whale as well as the antipodean Albatross.
Meanwhile, Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder of Oracle, branched off from the America’s Cup with his own project, SailGP, which is sailing’s answer to Formula One motor racing. The event’s website proclaims that its goal is to ‘accelerate the transition to clean energy’.
SailGP’s vast foiling catamarans have the words ‘Powered by Nature’ emblazoned in a prominent position on their hulls. The slogan, a shot at auto racing, is typical of Ellison’s none-too-subtle approach.
SailGP remains, essentially, only in its second year of action and continues to pare back much of the tradition associated with yacht racing. The event uses kilometers-per-hour as opposed to knots to measure boat speed, as well as opting for reaching starts instead of the customary upwind starts, with the intention of creating a more dramatic race off the mark.
SailGP pledges to be powered by renewable sources both on and off the water by 2025, but it also sees a key part of its role in the transition to clean energy as conveying a climate positive message to fans and viewers. After all, who could be better positioned than sailors to appreciate the potential of natural energy sources like wind and tide?
While sailing may be prone to using personal clout rather than media exposure as the main lever for activism, it appears that changes are afoot.
This year’s America’s Cup used social media and free live streaming to become the most viewed cup ever, despite New Zealand’s small market position and time zone differences. Organisers say that viewing impressions tripled that of the previous event in Bermuda.
All of this indicates that the norms in sailing are undergoing a significant shift. An emphasis on exclusivity is being replaced by a drive to extend outreach, coupled with a renewed focus on promoting cleaner seas. The precedent set by sailing in the fight to turn the tide on damage to marine environments is a valuable example for other competitive sports.