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Canadian entrepreneur Fred Pye hopes his SailGP entry will help grow the sport

A longtime sailing enthusiast, Canadian entrepreneur Fred Pye is looking to grow the sport by having a Canada entry make its mark on water.

A longtime sailing enthusiast, Canadian entrepreneur Fred Pye is looking to grow the sport by having a Canada entry make its mark on water.

Canada and Switzerland join the SailGP circuit next year, with 10 teams competing around the globe in one-design F50 catamarans flying at speeds approaching 100 km/h. They are equipped with hydrofoils, which lift the boat out of the water, reducing drag from the hull and allowing tremendous speeds.

Pye, 61, compares it to Formula One racing, but with a twist.

"If you're in a Formula One car, you've got one driver who has the gas (pedal), the brake, the steering wheel, the suspension and all the electronics," said Pye. "Well on a sailboat, you've got one guy steering, one guy on the gas pedal, one guy on the brake, different people on the wing-trimmers. All of these five people or six people have to work in complete unison or else these things flip over.

"It really is something to see a sailboat going at 100 kilometres per hour. Most motorboats can't even go anywhere close to that."

Launched in October 2018, SailGP's first season featured five races and six teams with top honours eventually going to Australia.

SailGP suspended its second season in 2020 due to the pandemic. It started up again in April this year in Bermuda with subsequent races in Italy, Britain, Denmark, France and Spain. The next event is scheduled for Dec. 17-18 in Australia with the season finale next March in the San Francisco Bay.

The winner takes home US$1 million. Australia currently tops the standings, by one point over the U.S. and Japan.

SailGP was founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, founder of the Oracle computer technology company, and champion yachtsman Sir Russell Coutts, who has won both Olympic gold and the America’s Cup. Up until recently, Ellison owned all the teams.

Races are short, with three in a two-hour period, and are usually filled with lead changes. And they are contested close to shore for viewers to watch, played out against iconic backdrops from the beauty of Bermuda to the majesty of Sydney Harbour and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

Pye was introduced to SailGP by former Canadian Olympic sailor Tyler Bjorn early this year after donating to charity to buy some Waszp sailboats in a bid to get kids involved in sailing.

Bjorn told him SailGP was doing the same thing with its SailGP Inspire program and suggested he take a look at the parent competition. After binge-watching race videos, he was hooked.

"I just got so excited," he said.

Pye, who lived on his 60-foot sailboat in Spain this summer, attended SailGP races in England (Plymouth), France (Saint-Tropez) and Spain (Cadiz).

He calls it a "very feel-good sport" that is entertaining while ticking off such boxes as powered by nature and environmentally sustainable.

Sailing is in Pye's blood. Both his father and grandfather were in the British navy. Born in Vancouver and raised in Montreal, Pye carries both British and Canadian passports.

Pye, who was five when he started sailing with his father, taught sailing and raced competitively in the J/24 class in the 1980s.

But Pye says he will leave his SailGP entry to the experts to crew.

Pye, who now calls Montreal home, plans to sail his own boat from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean starting later this week. It's business and pleasure, given the boat comes with a "nice office" complete with a sophisticated satellite system.

"With COVID, it really changed everybody's lives. Nobody knows or cares whether I'm in my office in Montreal, Toronto or in Mallorca, Spain," he said. "It has really allowed people like me, that are in the late stages of our careers, to start to enjoy the fruits of our labour and kind of live the dream."

This trip will be mostly holiday, however.

Pye describes his day job as investment industry entrepreneur. He is chairman and CEO of 3iQ Corp., which won a landmark decision from the Ontario Securities Commission in late 2019 approving the world’s first public investment fund devoted to Bitcoin.

"The way I describe it is very simple. Money is going digital in our lifetime. And Bitcoin was just the first step that showed people how it worked," said Pye. "The industry will grow and change but it's now a two-trillion-dollar industry from zero 12 years ago."

His 3iQ Corp. president, Robert Kidd, once sailed in the America's Cup.

The 2020 SailGP season will features teams from Canada, Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and the U.S.

Pye says he will soon announce the lineup of his sailing team with Bjorn in charge of sailing, recruiting and training. SailGP requires that the boat has to be staffed by Canadians with the exception of one.

"Some of Canada's best sailors over the last two decades have already reached out to us … No, we don't have any F50s in Canada yet but it's really going to change the sport and bring professional sailing to the forefront. And that gives all our youth something to look forward to on how to move up," said Pye.

At present, Pye is the sole investor in the Canadian team but he says he is open to bringing others on board.

"Obviously it's a big nut to chew," he said wryly.

"It's north of $10 million to probably run one program per year," he added. "So we have to get some very serious sponsors with this."

Anticipating the growth of SailGP, Pye says he expects his team to become "significantly more valuable" in the years ahead.

With Pye's team entering SailGP, Canada has the right to host an event.

"I think the harbour in downtown Toronto with 10 of these giants next summer would be extraordinary," said Pye. "We're definitely working with the city of Toronto but there are other venues, whether it's Mississauga or Hamilton or Kingston or Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Vancouver.

"We have to get the right formula and that formula will be based on city support and corporate support."

Pye's SailGP catamaran is currently being built in New Zealand. The league owns all of the boats, which are leased by the competing teams.

Pye's team will be able to use an F50 simulator to get ready.

"To put it bluntly, the other eight boats have a two-year head start on us," he said.

All the boats on the circuit are the same with teams provided the same information. Size of the crew and setup for all boats are dependent on the conditions.

The new season starts in May in Bermuda, with the full schedule to be released in the next few weeks. Pye expects the Canadian race to be around Canada Day.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press