MAS­TER OF THE PLAYBOOK

Ex­plore the chal­lenges and high- pace men­tal gym­nas­tics of an Amer­ica’s Cup race through the mind of the Cup’s de­fend­ing tac­ti­cian.

Sailing World - - Contents - BY DAVID SCH­MIDT

Go in­side the head of Or­a­cle Team USA’S Tom Slingsby.

“I DO A LOT OF HOMEWORK an hour be­fore we hit the wa­ter, and then the last 35 min­utes are pretty re­laxed,” says Tom Slingsby, Or­a­cle Team USA’S helms­man, tac­ti­cian and sail­ing team man­ager for the 35th Amer­ica’s Cup de­fense, about his pre-sail­ing rou­tine. Slingsby de­scribes por­ing over weather charts and the lat­est me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal in­for­ma­tion dur­ing these homework ses­sions, con­ducted be­fore a full-crew meet­ing to dis­cuss the day’s big-pic­ture agenda. An in­ner quo­rum con­sist­ing of skip­per Jimmy Sp­ithill, coach Philippe Presti and Slingsby then as­sem­bles. “We come up with dif­fer­ent tac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions that we might en­counter and what we should ex­pect,” says Slingsby. “It’s a bit of a tech­ni­cal playbook.”

Men­tal de­caf­feina­tion comes next. “I don’t put on head­phones or sit in a cor­ner and men­tally pre­pare or any­thing like that,” says Slingsby, who holds Aus­tralian and U.S. pass­ports, an Olympic gold medal, an Amer­ica’s Cup win and eight world-cham­pi­onship ti­tles. “I like jok­ing with friends, play­ing ta­ble tennis or other games, and not re­ally think­ing of the race. I try to stay as loose as pos­si­ble, and as long as I’ve done my homework, I can get ready to get on the wa­ter and into that en­vi­ron­ment.”

Come dock-out time, how­ever, the highly pro­fes­sional 32-year-old knows that he’s play­ing with sharp edges. Af­ter all, Slingsby was aboard Or­a­cle Team USA’S 72-foot foil­ing cata­ma­ran on that fate­ful day in Oc­to­ber 2012 when the team de­stroyed their first-gen­er­a­tion boat just west of San Fran­cisco’s Golden Gate Bridge while prac­tic­ing for the 34th Amer­ica’s Cup, and his cur­rent job in­volves call­ing the tac­ti­cal shots aboard — and some­times driv­ing — one of the most out­ra­geous wind-driven ma­chines ever crafted.

Even though tag­ging speeds in the low-50s and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fright­en­ing G-forces while match rac­ing de­fines in­ten­sity, OTUSA’S skip­per and af­ter­guard rely on the team’s com­pre­hen­sive play­books, years of high­level sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and — in Slingsby’s case — all senses to en­able them to play grand­mas­ter-level chess while en­dur­ing fire-hose-like saline treat­ments and main­tain­ing a heart rate wor­thy of Tour de France con­tenders. Here he pro­vides us with a look at a hy­po­thet­i­cal race around the Ber­muda race­track from the back of USA 17.

The rules gov­ern­ing the new Amer­ica’s Cup Class boats permit the use of a hy­draulic ac­cu­mu­la­tor — an Amer­ica’s Cup first — that al­lows teams to tap stored en­ergy, rather than re­quir­ing peak mo­ments of grind­ing out­put. This gives Sp­ithill and Kyle Lang­ford, the team’s wing trim­mer, am­ple foil- and wing-trim­ming mus­cle power, but it cre­ates a pres­sure­hun­gry beast that’s sa­ti­ated only when four out of USA 17’ s six-strong crew are ham­mer­ing on their grind­ing pedestals. This high-rpm pow­eren­durance work­out be­gins the mo­ment USA 17 docks out, with Slingsby pulling dou­ble duty on the han­dles while fun­nel­ing crit­i­cal data to Sp­ithill.

“I pro­vide in­for­ma­tion to Jimmy for the start,” says Slingsby, cit­ing top-level data such as burn time, dis­tance to bound­aries and dis­tance to lay­lines as the most mis­sion-crit­i­cal bits of pass-through in­for­ma­tion. “That’s his area [of ex­per­tise]…. He’s go­ing to make the judg­ment calls [on] how we [ap­proach] the other boat — for ex­am­ple, do we back off or do we at­tack?”

When Sp­ithill’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally el­bows-out call comes to at­tack, the wheel spins and the tow­er­ing wing­sail loads up, ex­pos­ing the sailors sprint­ing across the nets to some of the sail­ing world’s high­est G-forces. Sp­ithill crosses first, let­ting Slingsby drive USA 17 out of the turn, and then im­me­di­ately as­sumes the new weather helm and foil con­trols.

“The amount of de­ci­sions that the guys have to take … the dif­fer­ent playbook com­bi­na­tions [we use], and the fact that they have to do it all at ex­haus­tion — that’s usu­ally when you’ll make a mis­take, when you’re ei­ther stressed or at ex­haus­tion, and that’s ex­actly what hap­pens sail­ing these boats,” says Sp­ithill. “It’s down to split sec­onds — you can’t just talk about it.”

The start­ing sig­nal flips a meta­phoric light switch aboard USA 17. “We roll into the next phase of the race,” says Slingsby, ex­plain­ing that leader-board po­si­tion of­ten comes down to a con­test of inches (or boatlengths), and that suc­cess­ful mod­ern Amer­ica’s Cup sail­ing is a mat­ter of tran­si­tion­ing be­tween two ob­jec­tives. “Are you at­tack­ing or are you de­fend­ing? We have a dif­fer­ent playbook for each of those sce­nar­ios. [We’re] con­stantly go­ing from one playbook to an­other.

Af­ter USA 17 clears the first turn­ing mark and bears away to­ward the lee­ward gate, the chess game set­tles into a new rhythm. “I try to

“WHEN YOU GO INTO A HIGH- SPEED BEAR- AWAY, IT ’ S L IKE A SL INGSHOT. YOU’RE H IT TING 42, 43 KNOTS ON THE REACH­ING LEG, AND THEN YOU MIGHT GET UP TO 46 KNOTS, AND [ WITH] THE AMOUNT OF CAVITATION AT THAT POINT — THE WHOL E BOAT IS SHAK­ING AND SHUDDERING — FOR SURE, YOU’RE ON EDGE, BE­CAUSE IF A FOIL BREAKS AT THAT SPEED, IT ’ S PRET TY CAT­A­STROPHIC.”

cut off my op­po­nent’s op­por­tu­nity to get some [sep­a­ra­tion from] us, to re­ally re­strict their maneuvers,” says Slingsby about times when USA 17 com­mands the lead. “If [we’re] be­hind, [I’m] ask­ing, ‘Where are my op­por­tu­ni­ties to over­take?’”

As Slingsby com­putes dif­fer­ent race­course per­mu­ta­tions while si­mul­ta­ne­ously spin­ning the grind­ing han­dles, Sp­ithill and Lang­ford fo­cus on flight. “Once the race starts, it’s about boat­speed,” says Slingsby. “Mak­ing sure the boat is al­ways go­ing at 100 per­cent of its ca­pac­ity. [Sp­ithill and I] talk with [Lang­ford] about hit­ting our tar­get speeds and what we can do to go faster, and if are we in the right [sail­ing] mode. [Jimmy’s] job is about mak­ing sure the boat is per­form­ing up to its ca­pac­ity. [I’m] pick­ing our course.”

As USA 17 screams to­ward the lee­ward gate, Slingsby calls the fa­vored round­ing side, cy­cling his eyes be­tween the wa­ter and the in­stru­ments as the boat be­gins the up­hill leg, while main­tain­ing a heart rate in the ball­park of 170 beats per minute. “The most im­por­tant [data in­volves] know­ing where you are on the race­course, dis­tance to the bound­aries, and time to the bound­aries so we know [when to tack] so we don’t go off the course,” says Slingsby. “I’m also look­ing at wind di­rec­tion, and I’m mon­i­tor­ing boat­speed, true-wind an­gles, and mak­ing sure the boat is sail­ing to its ex­pec­ta­tions.”

Blink­ing black boxes and data- rich screens are im­por­tant, says Slingsby, but these pieces of in­for­ma­tion are avail­able to all teams. “There’s a lot of in­tu­ition in­volved, [for ex­am­ple] with [a] weather pat­tern chang­ing or you might know the wind is about to change.”

He sub­jects his men­tal play­books to non­stop re­assess­ment. “If I see some­thing in the wa­ter, if I see more wind on one side or if I feel there’s go­ing to be a wind shift, I’m go­ing to go off the playbook.”

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters for Slingsby, of course, is his other full-time job. “The game has changed quite a bit now with the tac­ti­cian be­ing a grinder,” he says. “When I’m on the boat, I do as much as much as I can help­ing out the grinders with­out af­fect­ing my abil­ity to make de­ci­sions tac­ti­cally.”

Af­ter a fi­nal tack brings USA 17 around the star­board side of the weather gate, ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion is fo­cused on the bear-away.

“When you go into a high-speed bear-away, it’s like a sling­shot,” says Slingsby. “You’re hit­ting 42, 43 knots on the reach­ing leg, and then you might get up to 46 knots, and [with] the amount of cavitation at that point — the whole boat is shak­ing and shuddering — for sure, you’re on edge, be­cause if a foil breaks at that speed, it’s pretty cat­a­strophic.”

How­ever sketchy the sit­u­a­tion might be­come, Slingsby’s job is to al­ways think tac­ti­cally, both from the play­books and with­out a net — even at 45 knots. “You’re think­ing a few moves ahead,” he says. “You can out­run gusts, so it’s a mat­ter of link­ing it all to­gether. Can you make a few jibes to stay in it, or link to the next [gust] and con­tinue on? There’s a real art to it: Link a few gusts or shifts to­gether, and you’re go­ing to keep it go­ing.”

Back at the lee­ward gate, the team hits the re­peat but­ton, ri­fling off an­other lap around the course — full-tilt boo­gie — keen to stay aloft on their foils and tac­ti­cally en­gaged as they work to re­fine their play­books, their in­di­vid­ual roles and their chore­og­ra­phy. Come the fi­nal Amer­ica’s Cup Match, how­ever, even the most off-piste ma­neu­ver should come to­gether smoothly. “Once I de­cide that I need to do a jibe or ma­neu­ver, [I’m] just hit­ting mus­cle mem­ory from then on,” says Slingsby. “Once I make the call, [I’m just ex­e­cut­ing my jobs] with­out even think­ing about it.”

Twenty- five min­utes — the pro­jected length of a typ­i­cal AC35 race — isn’t a whole lot of time by any mea­sure. But given the re­al­i­ties of match rac­ing at light­ning- fast speeds around a beau­ti­ful but tricky race­course, AC35 will re­quire teams to com­press a lot of sail­ing into a tiny sea bag. Feed­ing the al­ways- hun­gry ac­cu­mu­la­tor while jug­gling mul­ti­ple mem­o­rized play and con­stantly re- eval­u­at­ing the rapidly chang­ing chess­board in real time re­quires an al­most un­fath­omable level of con­cen­tra­tion, pre­cise chore­og­ra­phy, com­pu­ta­tional horse­power and lung ca­pac­ity. But come June, if all goes ac­cord­ing to OTUSA’S mas­ter plan, this prepa­ra­tion — along with a mas­sive team ef­fort in­volv­ing world- class en­gi­neers, de­sign­ers, coaches, sailors, shore crew and train­ers — will trans­form a se­ries of these time- bend­ing, 20- minute sen­sory over­loads into an­other de­fense.

That’s the plan, at least, but Slingsby knows, it’s one race at a time. Q

“I TRY TO CUT OFF MY OP­PO­NENT ’ S OPPORTUNIT Y TO GET SOME SEP­A­RA­TION FROM US, TO RE­ALLY RE­STRICT THE IR MANEUVERS. IF WE’RE BE­HIND, I ’ M ASK­ING, ‘ WHERE ARE MY OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES TO OVER­TAKE?’ ”

Head on a swivel? You bet. Once a race starts, Or­a­cle Team USA’S Tom Slingsby has the en­vi­able task of serv­ing as both tac­ti­cian and helms­man, dart­ing his fo­cus be­tween sail­ing the boat and call­ing the race. PHOTO : PETER HUR­LEY

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.