Five-ring Circus

The Super Fast, Very Fun Olympics Sailing Event You Should Be Watching

If you’re curious about sailing but worried you’ll be bored, trust me, this is your best choice.

Two women in American jerseys lean off the sides of a small boat with a big sail in the ocean, mountains visible behind them and a big buoy at their backs
Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea compete during the Women’s Skiff - 49er FX class race at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Enoshima Yacht Harbour on Tuesday, in Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan. Phil Walter/Getty Images

Two women are striding, together, across the deck of a small boat blazing through the ocean. They leap over a mounted GoPro and clip into trapeze harnesses in perfect synchronization, suspended out over the water. There are waves flying everywhere, and the competition is barreling down behind them. They want to harness the wind and move fast, but they also need to maintain enough control to prevent their boat from yanking them over into the water. They look around, calculating their next move—before at last speeding away.

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American sailing enthusiasts have very few opportunities to watch the sport they love from home—which is one reason why I so look forward to the Summer Olympics. But even for me, a lifelong sailor, watching boats maneuver around a racecourse can be pretty dull. Singlehanded events can leave the commentators with little more to talk about than why that French laser sailor keeps putting his mainsheet in his mouth. (Stop putting the mainsheet in your mouth is practically the first thing you tell every child not to do when they’re learning to sail.). Windsurfing might seem like it would be exciting—it’s got surfing right there in the name—but watch it and you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s so imprecise that competitors can apparently bump into the course markers without penalty, and the pumping motion required to propel the boats forward looks downright awkward. In all sailing events, if there’s not a lot of wind, or if the courses are very long, or if there isn’t a lot of interaction between participants, watching it can be as mind-numbingly slow, as slow as it sounds to watch boats sit largely still in the water with lone, largely inactive human beings on them for hours.

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Luckily there’s an antidote this year: the women’s 49er FX competition. In this event, two-person teams, like the one described above, perform near-acrobatic feats on literal trapezes to zoom around a racecourse, almost like wind-powered NASCAR. Their boats look less like boats and more like 16-foot paper airplanes with sails on top, cutting through the water and built for speed. These boats’ only purpose is to move fast—they’re not even fully stable when they’re sitting still. Their name comes from their length (4.99 meters), and this is only the second time we’ve seen women sail them at the Olympics. (Men have been sailing 49ers at the Olympics since 2000, butand women sail a slightly adjusted “FX” design better suited to their body size.). It’s the best, and if you watch one sailing event at the Olympics this year, even if you’ve never sailed, it should be this one.

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In 49er FX—as with all the sailing events at the Olympics and beyond—the objective is to circle around a course marked by large, inflatable buoys, again, like NASCAR. But since boats can’t start, stop, or maneuver like cars do, there are some tricky tactics involved. For instance, the competitors have to jockey for the most advantageous spot on the starting line and sit under it without crossing early or hitting any other boats, for nearly four minutes. Then, they have to power up and zoom away at the exact moment the countdown finishes. The racecourse itself tests the competitors’ tactical and physical skills at different points of sail; the best strategies vary depending on what direction the boats are headed relative to what direction the wind is coming from. Each boat will cross the finish line several times over the course of one day of competition and will be assigned points: 1 point for first place, 2 points for second. After several days of these heats, the team with the lowest point total will win the gold.

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What sets the 49er events apart from the other fleets is just how quickly the action unfolds. Watching each boat accelerate around the first mark, with their big, balloon-like spinnaker sails emblazoned with an oversized print of each team’s flag, is a tiny thrill, as you can see at around the 65-minute mark on NBC’s stream.

But in less coordinated moments, you’ll see these boats tip over or, in at least one cringe-worthy circumstance so far (at 83:22 above) even make contact with each other.

The 49er FX class started on Tuesday under really finicky conditions. Gusty winds meant more room for error, but fortunately for viewers, this made watching sailing more tolerable, and even—trust me!—fun. At one point the Brazilian team (which took home the gold in Rio) had the lead, only to get held up by a mechanical error that forced them to let almost all their competitors pass them by. At another point, the U.S. team was in the lead—but then missed a change in the wind that sent them plunging into the water. Great Britain wound up atop the field.

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Two women falling into the water from the back of their boat
Shea and Roble. Peter Parks/Getty Images
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Another exciting thing about this division? Despite that dive into the sea, the U.S. team is very good. (The women are anyway; the American men’s 49er team did not qualify for Tokyo.) Longtime friends and first-time Olympians Maggie Shea and Stephanie Roble are in the running for a medal. But after two days of this event, Great Britain is still the team to beat (which is becoming something of a trend this year in sailing overall). Shea and Roble will get their next chance to up their standings on Friday, when the competition resumes, and the fleet will sail again on Saturday before the medal round on Monday. In that final round, the stakes will be high; the point totals will double, potentially shaking up the entire competition. If you’re curious about what sailing in this Olympics is all about but worried that it will bore you, I promise you, this is the one to watch.

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