Ahead of this weekend's Great Britain SailGP in Plymouth, British helmsman Paul Goodison shares what it's like to drive a foiling F50 catamaran

Paul Goodison is one of the most talented foiling sailors around – he’s a three-time International Moth World Champion and was mainsail trimmer on the American Magic AC75 in this year’s America’s Cup, doing the same role on the Artemis Racing foiling catamaran in the previous Cup. Oh and he’s also an Olympic Gold medallist. But until a few weeks ago, he’d never competed in the SailGP circuit – which makes taking over the wheel of the foiling F50 for Ben Ainslie for the Great Britain SailGP Team all the more challenging.

Having won the season opener in Bermuda, Ainslie stepped out of the circuit for two events (he recently announced the addition of their second child to the Ainslie family, congratulations to Ben and his wife Georgie), handing over to Goodison for the Italian stage of the tour.

We spoke to ‘Goody’, as he is widely known, just before the start of the third SailGP event in Plymouth, UK, which kicks off tomorrow.

“It’s very new,” he explains. “My my role with Artemis a long time ago was as the backup helmsman to start with and then I ended up being a wing trimmer when it came round to the 50.

“Then the last time round I did a reasonable amount of driving the AC75 early on when Dean [Barker] was away, we swapped in and out a little bit, then I was racing as the wing trimmer in the last America’s Cup. To be stepping into this kind of fleet racing with eight boats and reaching starts is all quite exciting and quite different from what I’m used to.

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“So it was a steep learning curve, I guess, in Taranto, but a good one.” The Brits squad finished 6th in Italy, with Nathan Outteridge sailing Team Japan to win, but a mixed series saw usual front runners Australia, with Tom Slingsby, finishing 8th.

Learning to sail the foiling F50

Previously, many of the SailGP teams were able to hone their skills on a highly sophisticated simulator at Artemis Techologies in the UK, but due to Goodison’s packed schedule he had to learn on the foiling F50 for real.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to go on the simulator! That would have been really nice, but it was just about being thrown in the deep end.

“But the other guys, the whole team from the shore team to the sailing team here is tremendous. So it was a lot easier than it would have been, I guess, if I’d been out there with a less experienced team.” 

One of the biggest challenges of racing in Taranto was that with light winds meant each crew was reduced from five to three (removing the grinders onboard) to allow the F50s to foil at a lower wind speed.

“Sailing with three [an option taken by the teams to reduce crew weight in very light winds] the first day last time was a real challenge and something I probably didn’t pick up as fast as I needed to. But there’s some good lessons out there. And if we get thrown in the deep end sailing with three again, we’ve got a much better idea on how we’d attack it this weekend. But hopefully the breeze will come and we’ll be up to full strength with the big guys up front.”

“It’s incredible when you think you are sailing a 50ft catamaran going at 25 knots upwind and 35, 40 knots downwind, with only three dudes. It’s actually really, really rewarding when you get it right – but really frustrating when it doesn’t. 

“I think as soon as the two big guys get off, you realise actually how much they do as well as just grinding the wing sheet in and out! They actually play a big role in flying the boat through the manoeuvres and trimming the jib. So then it just adds a lot more load onto the three guys who are left on board.”

“That’s when we need a couple of octopuses up in the front!”

“Looking back at the last event, it really rewarded the helmsmen that had spent a lot of time flying the boats at the America’s Cup in Bermuda. You could see how well Nathan and Jimmy were able to sail the boat and use a dedicated grinder, whereas all the other teams were sharing the role of the flight control between a flight controller and the helmsman, and switching around between grinding. And that transition is never easy, so the Japanese and the US guys had a little edge, I think. But again, it’s all down to practice.

Great Britain SailGP Team helmed by interim skipper Paul Goodison ahead of Italy SailGP, Event 2, Season 2 in Taranto, Italy. Photo: Bob Martin for SailGP

The foiling F50s are all identical, so coming from the America’s Cup – where each crew member had personalised controls – involved a quick adaptation for Goodison.

“In the flight control position, he has the ability to do both foils and the rudders, and then in the helmsman position on the steering wheel you have a rotating grip that flies the opposite board.

“You also have foot buttons in the cockpit where you press to add rudder lift or take off, as well as having buttons on the wheel to add differential or take away differential. 

So I guess the biggest challenge is I just spent to two or three years placing my buttons where I wanted to have them and getting used to them, to basically trying to learn it all again.

“When you find yourself looking to find a button rather than just moving your leg or your arm automatically is a very different feeling. It’s like trying to look for where the indicator stalk is or trying to find where the clutch is on a car – all the while you’re flying at 30 knots and getting water in your face!”

Fast learning curve

The foiling F50s also go through a series of continuous evolution to keep the development level in the fleet high – something that Paul Goodison found particularly marked since sailing the AC50s in their previous incarnation in Bermuda.

“The big thing is how much the boats have actually advanced since they were sailed in the America’s Cup. The performance is better. The control systems are a lot better. And with the dedicated flight controller the boats are more stable and they’re faster. So they are a real pleasure to drive, it’s great fun!”

There is speculation that new bigger wingsails could come out of the shed for this weekend in Plymouth, giving the F50s another power boost lower down the wind range.

Photo: Bob Martin for SailGP

Another element of SailGP’s development programme is that all data is shared across teams, another big change for Goodison after the cloak-and-dagger espionage world of Auckland.

“It’s just super interesting. You spend the last two or three years desperately trying to understand what the other boats are doing, to try and compare to what you’re doing, to see if you can fast track your learning. And then you arrive in the SailGP world from the America’s Cup world, and you can literally just look at the reports at the end of the day.

“There’s a nicely compiled report for each day, with all eight boats’ data. So it’s pretty easy to pick out the trends and see the differences. 

“I guess the big takeaway from the real light winds for us, looking at the data, was that we probably sailed a slightly slower, higher mode. Which meant that our VMG out of the tacks was probably not quite as good as, say, the Americans or the Australians who were sailing much faster through the water. But in some parts we did have better VMG, in some parts they’d make a gain. 

“So it’s just really interesting being able to piece it all together and realise what you can try new stuff. Although actually on the water there’s not a whole lot of time to put a lot of these ideas into practice, you just have to go with your gut!”

“Also having eight boats out there makes it super exciting. The race is never over, the race is never won. It makes it a little bit more like the Moth racing or I guess the Laser racing I did years ago. It’s great fun.”

The eight foiling F50s practising on Plymouth Sound ahead of the Great Britain Sail GP event on July 16-17

Looking ahead to this weekend’s Plymouth event, Goodison said: “I think it’s going to be awesome, it’s a very natural amphitheatre here, so you’re going to be able to get up high and have a good view of the racing. 

“Much the same, I guess, as it was in Auckland. So I think if you’re coming to watch, you’re going to have to get up really close and have a great view. 

“And for me, I think the sailing is going to be fantastic. We have a good forecast – maybe a touch lighter for the weekend, but the seabreeze will hopefully come in and we should have some good racing.”

Watch the Great Britain Sail GP online at Sky Sports or on YouTube from 1400 on Saturday, 17 July and 1430 on Sunday 18 July. Find out more at SailGP.com 

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