NEWPORT — Rome Kirby started sailing at the age of 7 at Sail Newport; now he’s at the forefront of the new SailGP races, leading the U.S. team as helmsman in a new nation-versus-nation format.
“I’m driving the boat and am CEO of the team,” he said Tuesday night in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where the next regatta will take place May 4-5.
The boat is a 50-foot foiling catamaran, meaning it rises into the air and sails on small hydrofoils attached to thin legs at speeds of up to 57 mph.
“All the boats are one design,” Kirby said. “They have been redesigned so we have new foils and a new control system. They are faster and more difficult to sail. It’s pretty crazy, this evolution of sailing.”
“I just got off the water,” he said. “It was our second practice day here and a really good day.”
The team will only have a total of five practice days in San Francisco before the races begin.
“We’ll make the most of the practices and then let it rip,” he said.
Each of the races takes around 20 minutes and there will be three fleet races on Saturday, May 4, and two fleet races on Sunday, May 5. The six boats represent Australia, China, France, Great Britain and Japan, besides the U.S.
A final race on Sunday will be a match race between the top two teams from the previous five races.
“That race decides who is first and second,” Kirby said.
He has been welcomed in San Francisco, where he threw the opening pitch for the San Francisco Giants. The throw was high and outside, but at least close to the plate.
“I got a lot of grief from my teammates,” Kirby said.
As an America’s Cup victor in 2013, he was asked to throw an opening pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 2016, when his pitch was too high but strong.
“It was the day after Tom Brady threw the opening pitch,” Kirby said. “He gets paid millions of dollars to throw a ball and he threw it in the dirt, so I don’t feel bad.”
The opening SailGP regatta took place in Sydney, Australia, on Feb. 15-16, when the U.S. team finished last.
"It’s a very tough event, and we had only four days of practice before it began,” Kirby said when asked about that showing. “Our group had never sailed together. Still, we were in contention in the last race of the regatta. Now, we are coming together and getting better and better. We hope to move forward in the upcoming races.”
SailGP was founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle Corp., and New Zealander Russell Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner. They took three catamarans from the 2017 America’s Cup and redesigned and re-engineered them, then built three new ones.
Kirby has experience racing the catamarans from the 2013 America’s Cup, when he was the only American on the Oracle team that won that year in San Francisco. For the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda, won by Emirates New Zealand, he was the first backup tactician for Oracle.
“I dressed up for every race and was ready to go,” he said.
But he was not needed to step in.
Kirby most recently placed third in the 2018 Moth World Championships. The moths are single-handed foil sailboats and are a class seen as leading the way in the development of foiling sailing.
Still, with all that experience on foiling catamarans, these new boats are something else, Kirby said.
“The boat is harder to sail mechanically, but overall not as hard physically,” he said. “But it is still hard for the front crew member who is grinding.”
One big change in the new catamarans is that batteries are used to raise and lower the daggerboards, which take a lot of energy, and grinders now are used only to trim the sail.
“Instead of four grinders, we now have two,” Kirby said.
Daggerboards, instead of fixed keels, enable the skipper to adjust the balance of his catamaran by raising and lowering the boards on each of the two hulls.
Dan Morris, a Newport resident, is one of Kirby’s grinders.
“He’s originally from Minnesota — he’s a transplant,” Kirby said.
Morris rotates the front grinder position with two other crew members. There are six crew members, but five are on the boat for each race.
“I have one spare,” Kirby said.
Added to the traditional roles on the crew like helmsman, tactician, trimmer and grinder is now a “flight controller,” according to many articles about the race, but Kirby didn’t seem to go for that.
“One crew member flies the boat through the maneuvers, but is more of a tactician,” he said.
There will be five SailGP regattas this season. After Sydney and San Francisco, they will take place in New York City; Cowes, England; and Marseille, France.
While there are five this year, the plan is to have around eight next year and continue to expand in following years, Kirby said.
“I’m committed for the next four years,” he said. “This will be a sustainable professional sailing tour. That’s the goal.”
Kirby began participating in the Sail Newport sailing and racing program as a young boy.
“I was fortunate to have Sail Newport just down the road,” he said. “That’s where it all started.”
His father, Jerry Kirby, sailed in six America’s Cups and three editions of the Volvo Ocean Race. Rome Kirby sailed in the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race with the Puma Racing Team and one leg of the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race with Team Brunel.
The family has deep Newport roots. Rome Kirby was named for his great-grandfather, Jerome Kirby, who was known as “Rome,” and who ran the former Newport Oil Co. as general manager until his death in 1970. The company diversified and became Newport Harbor Corp.
“My dad grew up with him and he was a pretty cool guy from everything I’ve heard,” he said. “My dad loved his grandfather and always spoke highly of him.”
Rome Kirby would love to bring the newest class of elite racing to his hometown.
“Potentially there will be an opportunity to get SailGP to Newport for a future series,” he said.