New HOME for the AULD MUG
Over the years, I’ve witnessed and covered a lot of America’s Cups. I was on the water in 1983 in Newport, Rhode Island, when an upstart crew of Australians knocked off the American boat skippered by Dennis Conner, thereby ending the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year winning streak, the longest in sporting history. Four years later, I watched as Conner’s Stars & Stripes exacted revenge off wild Western Australia, wrestling the Auld Mug back from the Aussies in what many still consider the greatest regatta ever sailed. Years later, I flew to Auckland, New Zealand, in 2000 for the Kiwis’ successful defense of the trophy, led by local hero Russell Coutts, and was back three years later when Coutts won it again – only this time as the skipper of the Swiss boat Alinghi, which many angry New Zealanders viewed as no less than an act of treason.
In 2013, Coutts was still at it, this time as the syndicate chief of software billionaire Larry Ellison’s Oracle team, skippered by a young Aussie called Jimmy Spithill. I was there in San Francisco that year when more history was made, as Spithill and his mates, down 8-1 to another spirited Kiwi squad — who needed only one more victory to bring the Cup back to the Southern Hemisphere — mounted a ridiculous comeback, reeling off eight consecutive wins to defend the trophy by a score of 9-8.
As far as the Cup was concerned, I thought I’d seen
everything. But nothing had quite prepared me for the spectacle last June on Bermuda’s Great Sound, where a pair of 50-foot flying, hydrofoiling water bugs replete with high-tech, highly adjustable daggerboards and solid wing sails matched up in the 35th running of the America’s Cup. What’s more, the contest between these remarkable craft, easily capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots, was an epic rematch between Oracle Team USA, with Spithill still at the wheel, and Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), now helmed by a 26-year-old prodigal Kiwi son named Peter Burling. The boats, if you could call them that, were incredibly wild, and the talent driving them was unmistakable.
As more than one commentator noted, it wasn’t your grandfather’s America’s Cup. But before all was said and done, it did make for some compelling drama, not to mention a very worthy winner.
From the outset, however, all else aside, it was definitely controversial. Coutts and Ellison’s vision for the Cup was highly commercial, and not unlike the Formula One race-car circuit. The idea was to transform the Cup into a made-for-tv spectacle utilizing state-of-the-art foiling catamarans zipping around a closed course in 20-minute races, ideal for television. After San Francisco showed little interest in helping to fund a second Cup following 2013, Coutts brought the show to Bermuda, at least partly because its mid-atlantic time zone was advantageous to both American and European broadcast audiences.
As far as the racing format was concerned, changes were also in the works. Traditionally, the America’s Cup defender and challengers were treated as church and state, never racing against one another until the actual America’s Cup match. Oracle changed that format too, allowing the defender to compete in early Challenger Trials (which also allowed them to gauge the performance of the competition, which drove Cup purists crazy).
Finally, there were the boats themselves, the AC 50 catamarans (see Off Watch, July 2017).
The goal here was to create vessels that actually fly, on foils, with six-man crews, four of whom were basically hamsters in a cage, spinning handles to create the hydraulic pressure and juice necessary to control the daggerboards, rudders and wing sail, a three-part airborne foil that works much like an airplane wing. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like them, this next generation of foiling AC cats, and they were undoubtedly spectacular. But were the majority of people operating them even sailors? (Unlike all the other Cup boats, which utilized coffee-grinder winches spun by hand, the Kiwis employed bicycle-style winches operated by “cyclors,” one of whom was an actual Olympic bicyclist.) For that matter, were these flying machines even sailboats?
Then there was the matter of the crews themselves. On the “American” boat, Oracle Team USA, not one member of the on-water sailing team hailed from the States, Spithill having stacked the deck with his Aussie mates. This made longtime Cup followers question whether there should be some nationality requirement. What made the lauded 1987 Cup so special was that the 16 competing boats were all crewed by sailors racing for their own country. That said, the Kiwi crew racing in Bermuda, naturally, was composed almost entirely of Kiwis, widely recognized as some of the world’s top sailors; skipper Glenn Ashby, an Aussie, was the sole non-kiwi.
The last unusual matter was the framework agreement signed earlier in 2017 between five of the six competing teams (Oracle Team USA, Artemis Racing from Sweden, Team France, Land Rover BAR from England, and Softbank Team Japan), a document that laid out the basic parameters for the next two editions of the Cup, in 2019 and 2021. It signaled a previously unimaginably cozy relationship between the defender and challengers, and in many ways was a renunciation of the Deed of Gift that had governed Cup racing since it began in 1851. After all, if the challenger won, historically, they could basically make up the rules regarding boats and venue going forward. The framework eliminated that right. In fact, the only way the framework, again patterned around Formula One with a dedicated circuit leading up to the actual Cup matches, would not go forward would be if the lone team that failed to sign it actually won the America’s Cup: Emirates Team New Zealand.
The Kiwis were bound and determined to do everything a bit differently. When it came to generating the power necessary to operate a foiling cat, they’d assumed, correctly, that legs are stronger than
THE KIWIS ALSO HAD A NOT-SO-SECRET WEAPON, A HOMEGROWN WHEELSMAN AND OLYMPIC MEDALIST WITH ICE WATER COURSING THROUGH HIS VEINS: PETER BURLING.
arms, and the extra oil in the tank gave them an edge in performing quick and multiple maneuvers. One of the ways that manifested itself was in wing-trimmer Ashby’s ability to constantly shape the wing sail, which he did with an Xbox-type control console; he was the lone sailor in the fleet with such a device, and it appeared to give him infinitely more options in trimming the intricate wing. The America’s Cup has always been a technology game, and at first glance it appeared the Kiwis were winning it. Finally, when the rest of the fleet decamped to Bermuda for training, the Kiwis were content to practice at home in Auckland on the Hauraki Gulf. Oracle Team USA dispatched a crew of spies to watch the New Zealanders train, but that was largely a symbolic exercise.
The Kiwis also had a not-sosecret weapon, a homegrown wheelsman with ice water coursing through his veins: Peter Burling.
Burling had a classic Kiwi water-rat upbringing, starting off sailing Optimist prams, graduating to the local P-class dinghies, then moving on to 420s (at 15, he was a world champion in the class) and 470s (at 17, he was on the New Zealand boat at the Beijing Olympic games). At every stop, in every boat, he just killed it. The pinnacle was winning the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 with Blair Tuke (his teammate and foil trimmer on the ETNZ cat) in the high-performance 49er skiff class (the pair also won the silver medal in 2012). So it was little surprise when longtime Team NZ syndicate chief Grant Dalton chose Burling to replace skipper Dean Barker, who’d been at the helm in San Francisco for the meltdown in 2013. What was amazing was how seamlessly Burling took command of the Cup cat; during races, he not only drove the boat but called his own
tactics. The onboard footage taken during Kiwi races was notable for how little conversation took place, and Burling was rarely much more talkative during post-race press conferences. The man was born to sail, not speak.
By comparison, Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill — also known as “James Pitbull” for his aggressive nature on the racecourse — was downright loquacious. He is, wrote New Zealand journalist Dana Johannsen, “a proven winner who loves to run off at the mouth, take potshots at Team NZ and, to top it all off, is brother-in-arms with our America’s Cup villain Sir Russell Coutts.” At one time he was the Cup’s young buck, like Burling, taking command of his first America’s Cup racer at the tender age of 19, for an Australian syndicate in Auckland in 2000. Later, he won the Cup for Larry Ellison’s group in 2010 and in the comeback year of 2013. That’s when he truly got under the Kiwis’ collective skin, taunting the New Zealanders after they’d opened up their big lead (“I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be.”). Johannsen’s conclusion: “He’s arguably the Aussie that Kiwis love to hate the most.”
Spithill and Oracle Team USA continued their winning ways in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifying Series that took place from May 26 to June 3, beating the New Zealanders twice en route to an overall victory in the tuneup regatta. Just to confuse matters, Oracle earned a single point for their efforts, meaning they’d take a one-point advantage into the subsequent America’s Cup finals.
Before that, however, there was the matter of sorting out the challenger, which was determined during the America’s Cup Challenger Playoffs in early June. Despite a rather harrowing capsize in a race against Land Rover BAR, the Kiwis managed to keep their boat together and dispatched with both the Brits and later Artemis Racing to advance to the America’s Cup Match against Oracle Team USA. In hindsight, a rematch between Ellison’s Oracle crew and the New Zealanders seemed inevitable. There was just too much history — and more than a little bad blood — between them.
The opening weekend of the America’s Cup finals, on June 17 and 18, did not go well for Oracle Team USA. Despite losing to the so-called American boat twice in preliminary trials less than a month earlier, the Kiwis shocked Oracle by winning all four races to take a commanding 3-0 lead; the first boat to score seven points would be victorious. (As a reminder, the New Zealand boat started the event at a negative-one deficit since Oracle carried a point forward from the Louis Vuitton Qualifying Series. Only in the America’s Cup can a team record a score of negative one.) In both tactics and boat speed, the Kiwis were clearly the superior boat. Oracle looked lost at sea.
Then again, Oracle was getting smoked in the previous America’s Cup before waging a comeback for the ages. It raised the question: What, if anything, could they do to their boat, or their crew, over the next five days to get them back in the game?
Unlike 2013, there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. For this Cup, the boats and wings were identical; the only differences were in the foils and the operating systems, the latter of which took months, not days,
to refine. That left the foils and rudders, and the dockside rumor mill had it that the team shaved 100 kilograms of weight from the boat in an effort to get faster. The first two days of racing had been in relatively light airs of 10 knots, which purportedly played to the Kiwis’ strengths. Would a lighter Oracle boat translate into a decidedly faster one? And would the loss of weight make the boat twitchy and more difficult to sail? These were the open-ended questions leading to the second weekend of racing on June 24.
I arrived in Bermuda just in time for it, and before the first race of the day had concluded, was immediately struck by two things. The event organizers had taken plenty of flak about both Bermuda as a venue and the radical boats that had been developed. But the Cup racecourse on Great Sound was simply magnificent, an ideal place to stage a regatta with relatively steady if shifty breeze and great spectating areas both ashore and on the water. And the AC 50 cats were marvels of technology, with the ability to fly around the racecourse on their foils nearly 100 percent of the time, through tacks and jibes, upwind and down. They were incredible.
The fifth contest of the series ended just as the previous four had: with the Kiwis charging across the finish line ahead of Oracle to record the victory. This time, Spithill had nobody to blame but himself; he was over the starting line a split second early and was later penalized for failing to stay sufficiently clear of the New Zealand boat in a close crossing situation, two unforced errors that proved to be too costly to overcome.
But Oracle Team USA showed some spunk in the day’s second race, the best of the Cup finals, taking the lead right off the start and maintaining it for the first three of the seven legs, covering the Kiwis in classic match-racing form. ETNZ briefly recovered to take the lead, but Oracle regained it by finding better breeze and holding on for the victory to make the score 4-1. Afterward, taking a page from Spithill’s book, Burling tweaked his opponents, saying, “It was great to see a little fight out of these boys.” For his part, Spithill said Oracle would go back out for a sail to eke out even more speed. “We’re going back on the water [after this press conference] to try something else to change,” he said. “The important thing is the boat is faster. And we think there’s more speed in the tank.” Perhaps. But not enough. The first of two races on June 25 was basically over at the start when Spithill bore away just before the gun — perhaps mindful of being over early the day before — and allowed the Kiwis to break away unchallenged for a wire-to-wire 12-second victory. The day’s second race also hinged on a pre-start maneuver, this one executed to precision by Burling, who got to leeward of Oracle and took them head to wind. When Oracle stalled, Burling bore away and easily won the start, waving at his rivals as he sped past as if to say, “See ya.” The Kiwis continued on basically unchallenged to take a 6 -1 lead. Match point.
Oracle was in a deep hole, with two more races (if necessary) scheduled for June 26, both of which they needed to win. “The plan wasn’t to be in this situation again,” said Spithill. “But here we are.” Could they pull off another miracle like 2013?
Back in the sailing-crazed country of New Zealand, the nation was transfixed by what was unfolding in Bermuda. It had been 13 long years since they lost the Cup, and in the intervening time, they’d come up short on multiple occasions to regain it. But now everyone could nearly taste it. At 4 a.m. in Auckland, the traffic had come to a standstill so residents could get to work in time to watch the racing live from the other side of the planet. The early risers would be rewarded.
The deciding race was yet another clinical performance by the Kiwis. Both boats hit the starting line at speed, and Oracle actually led at the first mark. But early in the second leg, the Kiwis executed a flawless jibe — Oracle was a tad slow and a tad late — and took the lead. They would never look back, eventually opening a 300-meter lead and cruising around the racecourse for a decisive 55-second victory.
The Cup was bound for New Zealand, and a series of parades from Auckland on the North Island to Dunedin on the South Island, with numerous stops in between.
Now the Cup’s future is once again in the hands of the Kiwis, and after Oracle’s rather dominating control over it, sailors around the world couldn’t be happier or more optimistic. “Rest assured, we’ll do the right thing,” said ETNZ CEO Dalton shortly after being presented with the trophy. “It’s a privilege to hold the America’s Cup, not a right.”
Dalton said that Italy’s Luna Rossa syndicate – a previous Cup contender who ultimately sat this one out – had already filed the paperwork to be the next Challenger of Record, meaning they will work in tandem with the defending Kiwis to hammer out what sort of boats will be sailed, when the regatta will take place and other logistical matters. Many Cup aficionados are hoping for a return to monohulls, perhaps a large skiff, which will put more of a premium on traditional sailing skills and match-racing tactics. And most everyone wants a nationality clause of some sort that would return the Cup to an event where at least a majority of sailors and designers on each team actually hail from the country they represent.
But that’s all in the future. For now, clearly, as proved in Bermuda, there’s just one thing everyone can agree on. When it comes to sailing prowess, nobody beats tiny New Zealand.
GOING FORWARD, ALMOST EVERYONE WANTS A NATIONALITY CLAUSE SO THE MAJORITY OF CUP SAILORS ACTUALLY HAIL FROM THE COUNTRY THEY REPRESENT.
Emirates Team New Zealand (foreground) crosses Oracle Team USA in action during the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda.
The Kiwi skipper, Peter Burling (above), was low key and laid back compared to his counterpart, Oracle Team USA’S Jimmy Spithill.
When it came to generating the juice to control the systems on their AC 50 cat, the Kiwis used pedal power from a team of “cyclors.”
Despite a harrowing capsize during early challenger trials, the Kiwis managed to keep their boat together and advance to the America’s Cup finals.