Nova Scotia

After making its first splash in Halifax, will SailGP come back?

An international sailing competition made its Canadian debut in Halifax this weekend, drawing thousands of people to both sides of the harbour and shutting down marine and air traffic in an unprecedented fashion.

Will it be a one-time event, or the first of a recurring series?

The Rockwool Sail Grand Prix, or Sail GP, signed an agreement with Sail Nova Scotia for three consecutive years of races in Halifax, but coming back is not a guarantee.

Frank Denis, Sail Nova Scotia’s executive director, called the event “a resounding success,” thanks to a massive turnout and winds that had boats topping 90 kilometres per hour.

He said he hopes it will return, but the final decision involves many stakeholders, including the municipal and provincial governments, Build Nova Scotia, Discover Halifax and the Port of Halifax. Not to mention SailGP, which is not obligated to come back, and has historically been courted by more cities than it can visit in any given season.

Paul MacKinnon, CEO of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, is keen to have the race back. 

“This event really hits on a whole bunch of things that are great for downtown. It’s still a little bit of a shoulder season. I mean, summer really kind of kicks off July and August,” he said.

“Having events like this that are outside, that are happening in June, are great. They bring extra business that we wouldn’t normally have.” 

He said the event likely brought tens of millions of dollars of economic spinoff into the city. 

Emirates Great Britain SailGP team, helmed by Giles Scott, heads toward the finish line to win the Canada Sail Grand Prix on the second day of racing, Sunday, June 2. (Andrew Baker/SailGP via AP)

But it also brought logistical challenges, including shutting down the harbour.

SailGP is frequently compared to Formula 1 car racing because of its high speeds, international circuit and intense competition.

The 15-metre-long foiling catamarans are propelled by rigid wing sails, made of carbon fibre, that catch the wind like airplane wings, and can reach speeds of up to 100 km/h as they manoeuvre around courses. 

WATCH | SailGP races put a spotlight on foiling, where sailboats lift out of the water 

This reporter learned how sailboats fly

In anticipation of SailGP races in Halifax, coaches from across Canada are working on their foiling skills in the city’s harbour. CBC reporter Elizabeth McMillan stopped by to learn more about foiling, the type of sailing that sees boats rise into the air. If a sailor has enough skill that is.

Each race, or fleet, lasts about 15 minutes. On a typical race weekend there are six fleets over two days.

The course in Halifax covered a large swath of the harbour between George’s Island and the Macdonald Bridge. The Halifax Port Authority agreed to shut down marine traffic for four hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

That means no Halifax Transit ferries, cargo ships, navy vessels or recreational boats, except those who paid SailGP for “bring your own boat” tickets to watch the race from the sidelines. 

Harbourmaster Adam Parsons said it’s the only time a sporting event has commandeered the harbour to this extent. But he wouldn’t call it a disruption.

“No, not really, and I think that’s some of the value that the Port of Halifax has, is that our stakeholders and commercial partners are very happy to work with us and support these types of events,” Parsons said in a recent interview.

He said Halifax Harbour is used to having “diverse” traffic, with massive cargo vessels sailing next to small recreational boats.

“We take quite a bit of pride in making sure those activities can happen together, safely.”

The traffic stoppage this weekend required 40 volunteer course marshals from Sail Nova Scotia and 12 enforcement boats staffed with members of Halifax Regional Police, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of National Defence.

SailGP also took over the airspace above the harbour so its five helicopters could fly unimpeded to capture video footage of the race.

Jennifer Hall, the manager of SailGP’s Team Canada, said Halifax was an ideal venue because of the natural stadium created by the Halifax and Dartmouth waterfronts, because of Halifax’s strong winds, and, for her team, the supportive crowd.

But Hall said there were drawbacks, too. She said cold temperatures, gusty winds and a narrow course presented challenges to sailors.

The winds were so gusty on Sunday that the races were delayed while crews struggled to lift the boats from the dock into the water with cranes.

One tight turn near the Halifax waterfront had boats coming so close to spectators that there were collective gasps from the crowd each time a team sailed by.

“They definitely came close,” said Hall. “I knew they wouldn’t crash because I have full confidence in our sailors out there.”

Denis, of Sail Nova Scotia, said he expects a decision by Labour Day on whether SailGP returns to Halifax next year.

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