Team NZ redefines the daily grind

The test version of Team New Zealand's AC50, seen here before Christmas 2016, did not feature the team's new "pedalstals." Photo: Emirates Team New Zealand
The test version of Team New Zealand's AC50, seen here before Christmas 2016, did not feature the team's new "pedalstals." Photo: Emirates Team New Zealand

Suzanne McFadden sees Team New Zealand showing a little leg before the public launch of their America’s Cup boat.

Although Emirates Team New Zealand officially reveal their one and only boat for the 2017 America’s Cup in Auckland this afternoon, they’ve already seductively shown their rivals a little leg.

On-the-water spies have already identified at least one radical revolution on Team NZ’s 50-footer, after it snuck out for an early sail this week.  The boat boasts cycle grinding “pedalstals” – where grinders use their legs to power the boat – replacing the traditional arm-driven handles.

Former Team NZ skipper Dean Barker barely raised an eyebrow at the innovation, telling Radio Sport both his Japan team and Cup holders Oracle had already rejected the idea.  But surely, it must have the rest of the America’s Cup fleet wondering what other tricks the always-trailblazing New Zealanders have up their sleeve?

They’re going to need something, possibly outrageous, to win back the Auld Mug. Emirates Team New Zealand were slow out of the blocks in their ninth Cup quest. Denied hosting rights to a qualifier series in Auckland meant the Government wasn’t prepared to stump up with the taxpayer funding they’ve long depended on. They made significant slashes to their programme and lost vital time on the water.

And after the Fiasco of San Francisco, they also need something to win back the fans.

But the fact that this is the America’s Cup, with its magical spell that it casts over Kiwis, may be enough. A jam-packed month of racing kicks off on Bermuda’s stunning Great Sound on May 27, 2017, and again, it will be a boat race like none we’ve seen before.

For one thing, the 35th America’s Cup will be raced in the mouth of a volcano. For the first time in 166 years, quelle horreur, the defender will race the challengers before the Cup match. Six teams will battle in smaller, swifter, more complex foiling catamarans than those that flew across San Francisco Bay four years ago; so scientifically advanced, they could sail an entire race without their hulls touching the water.

So can New Zealand bring back the silverware? Newsroom asked the burning question – and others – of Team NZ to try to keep pace with what’s been unfurling over the last few years.

Why Bermuda?

It’s one of those odd traditions of the America’s Cup, where the defender chooses where to sail it, and in late 2014, the Atlantic archipelago of Bermuda – the fifth smallest country in the world – was selected by the regatta’s head honchos, the America’s Cup Event Authority.

It’s the first time the Americans have defended the world’s oldest sporting trophy outside of America. Bermuda clinched the deal, ahead of San Diego and Chicago, with its near-perfect sailing conditions, picture-postcard backdrop and agreeable television time zone. But it also wooed Sir Russell Coutts and his band of Cup planners with a $US77 million package.

“Sure, the money might have had something to do with it,” says Kevin Shoebridge, America’s Cup veteran and Emirates Team New Zealand’s chief operating officer. “But it’s a beautiful place and as a sailing venue, its untouchable. For us personally, we would have preferred a bigger city.”

While it maybe a little too close to the Bermuda Triangle, racing is safely tucked inside the Great Sound – a volcanic caldera filled with crystal-clear waters, inside the “fish hook” of the main island.  It’s a nature-made stadium. The average wind speed in June is 11-13 knots, ideal for the new America’s Cup Class boats.

If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, good luck. Bermuda is roughly the length of Waiheke Island, and about half the size, so accommodation is stretched. Even Team NZ, with its 80-plus families, are still looking for beds. There are no rental cars in Bermuda, so visitors make their way by scooter, taxi or ferry. And prices are steep – $US5 for a packet of potato chips. Best to watch it on the telly, then.

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(Gallery) ETNZ’s test boat on the Hauraki Gulf before Christmas 2016. Photos: Emirates Team New Zealand

A new boat – how radical is it?

We won’t forget those crazy cats of 2013 on San Francisco Bay – the spectacular acrobatics of one hull flying, nose diving and capsizing (and a tragic flip that claimed the life of Artemis sailor Bart Simpson).  But the magnificent behemoth, the AC72, is already a relic, replaced by a significantly smaller 15m catamaran – the AC50. “The boats in San Fran were never designed to be foiling catamarans, but these boats, from day one, have been tailored to foil,” says Shoebridge.

The AC50 is faster, nimbler and at least twice as complicated as its predecessor. In a bid to cut team costs, 80% of the boat is one-design, with identical platforms and wing-sail shape. The technology that controls these flying machines – in the hydrofoils, rudders and wing – is conceived by each team.

Of the 30 designers at Team NZ, few specialise in boat design. They’re focused on intricate areas like the hydraulics and electronics; developments so sophisticated they leave the old Cup monohulls dead in the water. In fact, with their incredible lift out of the water, they are more aeroplane than yacht.

They promise to do things the AC72 could never do – like tacking from foil to foil, keeping both hulls high and dry right around the racecourse. No wonder Coutts claims these boats will break 50 knots.

Sir Ben Ainslie’s British team were the first to launch their AC50 – named Rita – in Bermuda last week, and defenders Oracle (who built most of their boat in Warkworth, north of Auckland) unveiled their racing machine, “17”, yesterday. While they’ve been testing in AC45 “turbos”, the challengers can only build one race boat for Bermuda. Oracle, bless them, can build two.

Why are there fewer bodies on board to tame these beasts?

Back in 2000, Team New Zealand needed 17 men to push NZL60 around the Hauraki Gulf. Today, the crew has been sliced to six. “It’s a totally different dynamic,” Shoebridge says. “It’s basically three guys sailing the boat around the course, and three guys providing the power.”

A troika of grinders give the raw grunt on “the slave ship” – on Team NZ they’ll be pumping their legs on the “pedalstals” nonstop for 25 minutes from pre-start to finish line.  A helmsman, tactician and wing trimmer sensitively guide it around the course. Sailing these boats can be more about agility and survival, than tactics.

Will Peter Burling be the Young Messiah?

Newly-crowned Olympic gold medallist Peter Burling turned 26 on New Year’s Day. His predecessor at the wheel, the ousted Dean Barker, was 29 when he steered Team NZ in the ill-fated 2003 regatta in Auckland.

Burling has been likened to five-time Cup winner Russell Coutts – with their irrefutable sailing talent, engineering nous, mental resilience and focus. But does the fledgling Burling have the experience to win sailing’s Holy Grail this time?

For one thing, he can solely concentrate on the job of driving, with the skipper’s role designated to catamaran veteran, Australian Glenn Ashby. And Burling’s Olympic right-hand-man, Blair Tuke, will be alongside him on the race boat.

“It’s easy to focus on one person. There are a lot of people sitting in that room out there who will play just as big a part in our success as Peter driving,” says Shoebridge, pointing to his design team. “But for a young guy, he’s really tough mentally. And we are a much younger team.”

But regardless of who’s at the wheel, it’s pretty much America’s Cup law that the fastest boat will win.

Blink and you’ll miss it: The team in full flight. (From ETNZ’s video Christmas card.)

What does Grant Dalton do now?

Lambasted after Team NZ’s excruciating loss in 2013, Grant Dalton has stayed on as CEO and the team’s principal fundraiser, but has kept a lower profile. While Shoebridge has taken up more of the operations tasks, Dalton is still very hands-on.

“On a daily basis, Dalts is still involved in the small detail; he goes out on the water every day,” Shoebridge says. “He’s very clearly connected to this campaign.”

Who’s paying the bills?

It’s no secret that Team NZ has faced a hard grind on the budget front, particularly without the government sponsorship they relied on in the past ($36m for 2013), withdrawn when Auckland missed out on the America’s Cup qualifier series it had been promised.

Shoebridge says they’ve survived with the ongoing support of long-time sponsors like Emirates, Omega and Toyota, and some loyal private backers. Earlier this year, the team received a government contribution in the form of a Callaghan Innovation Growth Grant, to help with R&D.

Although the one-design rule was meant to help reduce costs, Shoebridge reckons the budget isn’t far off the last campaign.

Just a month of racing? Doesn’t the America’s Cup drag on for longer than that?

No, the racing schedule really is that compact, and Bermuda is apparently guaranteed to deliver good wind “90% of the time” in June.

All six teams – including Oracle – will face-off in a double round-robin qualifier series. “But the danger is, after eight days, one team is going home,” Shoebridge says. “After another four, we’ll be down to two challenger finalists. You really have to be on your game from Day One.”

It’s an unprecedented move for the American defender to sail against each challenger, twice; gaining valuable intelligence on their future Cup rival.

They could also have a head-start when the Cup match gets underway on June 25. The winner of the qualifier round-robins – be it challenger or defender – will take a bonus point into the best-of-13 match. British team Land Rover BAR already have a two-point advantage (and Oracle one) into the qualifiers, carried over from the America’s Cup World Series raced over the past two years. Team NZ finished without a point, in third.

“With these new boats, we don’t know if races will be won by boat-lengths or by minutes. There’s still a lot of development and speed on the table,” says Shoebridge. “But it will be a lot more intense than in San Francisco, so it will be a great event to watch on television.”

How will Team NZ exorcise the ghost of 2013?

The spectre of losing the America’s Cup, from 8-1 up, hung over Team NZ for a year after they returned home, Shoebridge reckons. But now: “We don’t even talk about it anymore. We all understand what happened, although it took a long time to figure out why we lost it.” (He could not be drawn to share those conclusions). “We made a 20-point plan for the future which drove how we set up this campaign.”

One of the biggest lessons learned, though, was that Team NZ was guilty of being “over-organised” – when they reached the start-line for the first race of the 34th America’s Cup, their boat was “completely tapped out at its best – where Oracle had a boat which, in the end, had a lot more potential.”  Team NZ reckon they will now be open to development up until the final race, and be sharper at reacting to change.

Can New Zealand finally win the Auld Mug back?

“Absolutely we can,” says Shoebridge, who wouldn’t get out of bed each day for a lost cause.

“People-wise, there’s no team stronger. We have a fantastic group of people, from our designers to a sailing team that everyone would want to have.”

He doesn’t believe they’re at a disadvantage not being in Bermuda yet, with the British, Japanese, Swedes and Americans. The Kiwis have their spies on Great Sound reporting back daily (yes, reconnaissance is legal), as they are also shadowed in Auckland. They will sail their new boat on the Hauraki Gulf until transporting it to Bermuda, arriving with five weeks to go.

Their competition may well be the strongest yet. The well-heeled Artemis have been sailing out of Bermuda since May 2015; Sir Ben Ainslie’s Brits have the deepest coffers at £80m ($143m) and were the top team in the World Series. Softbank Japan, with Barker at the helm and countless Kiwis among their number, are a subset of Oracle. And although they have been tardy, Groupama Team France have a wealth of multihull experience.

Team NZ’s chances of being the Cup challenger could come down to being smart, and different. “If we play the game exactly how everyone else plays it, we will get beaten. We can’t outmuscle Oracle or Artemis – bigger teams with more resources – but we can beat them with smart decisions,” says Shoebridge.

“What people don’t see is the inside of a campaign; that a lot of America’s Cups are decided a long time before racing begins. The decisions and directions you choose early on play out in the end. We’ve thought pretty long and hard about how it will play out, what direction to spend our efforts. And we’ve got to have the conviction that we are right.”

Note: This story updates elements from Suzanne McFadden’s original America’s Cup scene-setter, published on December 24 2016.

* Suzanne McFadden (Twitter: @NZdiva) is an award-winning journalist and celebrated author who has covered the America’s Cup extensively in the nation’s media. Her last story for Newsroom was about Olympic champion and Mangere College principal Mohan Patel.

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