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Phil Robertson, driver of Canada SailGP Team, and his crew celebrate winning the New Zealand Sail Grand Prix I in Christchurch on March 19.The Canadian Press

Billy Gooderham’s grandfather competed in two Olympics as a sailor and once served as president of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. Billy’s dad is a former world champion and worked for Canada’s True North America’s Cup team during the 1980s. Other ancestors were also commodores and members of the Toronto club.

“Sailing is kind of the family business,” says Gooderham, who is a former member of the Canadian national team and who also won individual national championships. “I wouldn’t remember it but I think I was on a boat within six months of being born.

“I guess I followed in the footsteps of what Gooderham males do.”

Gooderham, 34, is a member of Canada’s first fully professional sailing team. Last Sunday in New Zealand he and his teammates beat the Kiwis in the finals and captured their first event in 10 tries this season on the SailGP circuit.

“To try to be a professional sailor and being Canadian is a bit like trying to be a professional hockey player from New Zealand,” Gooderham says. “There have been a lot of ups and downs and a lot of blood, sweat and tears that has gone into my career.”

A sports league with teams from nine countries, SailGP was founded in 2019 by billionaire and technology giant Larry Ellison. Races are contested in identical 50-foot winged catamarans that are so fast that they fly on foils above the water. It is yachting’s answer to Formula 1.

During the final against New Zealand, the Canadians reached a top speed of 88 kilometres an hour. That is faster than you can drive on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway on any given day.

“It starts to feel scary when you get above 80 and into the 90s,” says Tom Ramshaw, a grinder from Toronto. “The boat starts to vibrate. I am not sure anybody in the world is capable of making that comfortable. But it’s exhilarating.”

The yachts carry a crew of six. Everyone is paid, with salaries ranging from US$77,000 to US$103,000. Previous venues this season have included Bermuda, Copenhagen, Saint-Tropez, Singapore, Spain and Sydney. The last of 11 events will be in San Francisco on May 6 and 7. Three 10-minute races are held each day. This is a sprint, not hand-on-the-tiller racing.

Ramshaw, who was chosen as the 2022 Sail Canada male sailor of the year, wears a heart monitor. During Sunday’s winner-take-all race, his heartbeat approached 200 beats a minute.

“It was pretty exhausting,” he says.

Gooderham serves as the flight controller. The last time I checked those weren’t necessary on dinghies.

“It’s horribly stressful,” Gooderham says. “I have to be so focused on flying the boat that I have no idea what goes on on the course around us.

“I almost always don’t know how we have done in the races and about half the time I don’t even know we have finished until the boys and girls tell me.”

Isabella Bertold, 32, of Vancouver occupied the role of strategist during Sunday’s victory. She will skipper a women’s team for Canada at the America’s Cup next year in Barcelona. It is the first time that there will be a women’s regatta.

Bertold was a member of the Canadian national team for 15 years, won two World Cup medals and reached a career-high world ranking of No. 2 in the women’s single-handed Olympic dinghy.

“I’ve sailed in other classes where the top speed might have been 14 knots and when I surfed down a wave it felt really out of control,” she says. “Going from that to feeling like 30 knots is a slow day out on the water is a really big jump.”

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The SailGP F50 catamaran fleet in action on Race Day 2 of the ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix.BOB MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Bertold is also a professional cyclist. After a SailGP event in Saint-Tropez she pedalled 1,100 kilometres to another in Cadiz, Spain, to raise awareness of ocean pollution and funds for an ocean conservation organization called Ocean Wise.

This is the Canadian team’s first season in SailGP. It was founded by Fred Pye, a digital entrepreneur from Montreal with a passion for creating opportunities in sailing for future generations of Canadians.

The team is sixth among the nine in the points standing through 10 events. The total prize purse offered on the circuit is US$1-million.

At their next-to-last event in Australia, hurricane-force winds picked up the Canadians’ wing as it was being lifted by a crane and turned it into a wrecking ball. Sailors, spectators and workers scrambled to safety.

Bertold was training in Florida at the time but received videos as it happened.

“My heart basically stopped,” she said. “All I could think of was that I hoped everyone would be okay. Forget about the equipment. Honestly that is the scariest thing I have ever witnessed.

“I can’t even imagine what it would have felt like to see it in person.”

Ramshaw, who completed at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics in the Finn Class, watched as it happened. He was holding onto a line attached to the wing to help steady it when it was caught by a wind gust.

“I was one of the last people holding on and got a bit of a rope burn,” he says. “It was a scary moment, an intense situation where everything happened very fast.

“It was definitely a crazy experience.”

The team was uncertain its yacht would be repaired in time for last weekend’s event in Christchurch.

“The team has been on quite a roller-coaster ride after Sydney, wondering if we were even going to be able to line up and race,” Bertold says. “For us to go out and win is a testament to how adversity can bring people together.”

They raced, and afterward sprayed Champagne.

“It’s a huge honour,” Gooderham says. “I don’t know that it has actually fully sunk in.”

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