Levitating sailboat race returns to Chicago in June: ‘Not your grandfather’s sailing’

SailGP kicks off its second year in the water off Navy Pier on Father’s Day weekend, racing 50-foot catamarans that reach highway speeds.

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A SailGP boat races near Navy Pier on June 18, 2022. The race returns to Chicago over Father’s Day weekend in 2023.

A SailGP boat races near Navy Pier on June 18, 2022. The race returns to Chicago on Father’s Day weekend this year, with nine boats from different countries competing.

Bob Martin for SailGP

A high-speed race is coming to Chicago’s downtown lakefront in the next few weeks, but it’s not NASCAR’s Street Race.

This one is happening on Lake Michigan.

SailGP, short for Sail Grand Prix, kicks off its second year in the water by Navy Pier on Father’s Day weekend, racing 50-foot catamarans that appear to float above water.

They’re not levitating — just balancing on a below-boat foil, like an airplane wing, that reduces drag and allows them to reach 60 mph.

“This is not your grandfather’s sailing,” said Tod Reynolds, event director for SailGP in Chicago.

Nine boats, each representing a different country, will zoom across the lake from the pier to the Adler Planetarium in SailGP’s fourth season opener June 16 and 17. The race is officially called the Rolex United States Sail Grand Prix.

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Julie Giese, president of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race, and Cooper Dressler of SailGP’s USA Team, exchange helmets at a news conference at Navy Pier. NASCAR is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

SailGP publicized the race at a press event with NASCAR officials Wednesday at Navy Pier, challenging racers from each franchise to try each other’s sport.

Julie Giese, president of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race, exchanged racing helmets with SailGP USA team member Cooper Dressler.

Giese called the NASCAR race, set for July 1-2 around Grant Park, NASCAR’s “boldest initiative” in its 75-year history.

Dressler said the high speeds of the SailGP-style boats can be dangerous for crew members, but that there are extensive safety training and measures to account for that: safety knives, tethers and oxygen bottles in case crew members get stuck under wreckage.

The Chicago race is unique to sailboaters because it’s the only freshwater course in SailGP’s international circuit. The boats can go quicker in fresh water because there’s less drag than in salt water. But freshwater is also less buoyant, so the boats must reach higher speeds to rise up on their foils.

SailGP’s season 4 calendar

SailGP’s season 4 calendar

Chicago’s weather is less predictable than in ocean-side races. Last year, racers had to move farther out onto the lake because the lake breeze wasn’t reaching the shores.

“Chicago is very unpredictable — which makes it actually really interesting,” Dressler said.

Reynolds said the race weekend was moved a day earlier on the weekend, over Friday and Saturday, so it wouldn’t interfere with Father’s Day, as it had during the Chicago race last year.

The race was also pushed later into the afternoon, starting at 4 p.m., when winds are expected to be stronger along the shore, he said.

A SailGP boat races near Navy Pier on June 18, 2022. The race returns to Chicago over Father’s Day weekend in 2023.

A SailGP boat races near Navy Pier on June 18, 2022. The race returns to Chicago over Father’s Day weekend this year.

Jon Buckle for SailGP

SailGP’s Chicago race map

SailGP’s Chicago race map

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