Team NZ’s secret cyclists slip past the spies

To his surprise, no one asked Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby why his crew made a habit of cycling from Auckland to Coromandel. Photo: Hamish Hooper/Emirates Team New Zealand
To his surprise, no one asked Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby why his crew made a habit of cycling from Auckland to Coromandel. Photo: Hamish Hooper/Emirates Team New Zealand

Somehow a bunch of burly sailors turning up to work in lycra didn’t give the game away, reports Suzanne McFadden.

Cameras flash across the water from a St Mary’s Bay mansion. Two or three men in rubber boats shadow every jibe and tack of the sleek black catamaran across the Hauraki Gulf. Emirates Team New Zealand are very aware they are under the constant surveillance of their rivals.

As they christened their provocative new America’s Cup boat, New Zealand Aotearoa, at their Beaumont St base in Auckland yesterday, a man walked back and forth along the roofline of a nearby boatshed. The sailors dismissed him as a painter. But it was raining.

Team boss Grant Dalton joked in his speech to the umbrella-shielded rabble of 500 that the rain would “keep the spies littered in the many apartment blocks from taking photos.” He was only kind-of jesting.

But espionage in the America’s Cup has been part of the game since 1851 (think frogmen, helicopters and dumpster divers) and in 2017, with the reconnaissance rules more relaxed than ever, legal spying has become a crucial tool in every team’s campaign.

Which makes Team New Zealand even more chuffed to have won their first minor battle of this America’s Cup – they’ve managed to keep a secret for two and a half years.

It’s no mystery now, of course, that the Kiwi race boat has pedal power. Everyone can see the four bicycle seats lined up along each hull of the AC50 cat; on the water, the grinders hunched over in team pursuit formation, pedalling furiously to feed energy to that ravenous boat. It’s a solution to the problem of these whizzing machines being seriously underpowered, with only six men on board.

But how they managed to keep that crank innovation under wraps, since coming up with the idea back in 2014, is seen by the team as a significant victory.

Helmsman Peter Burling points to a big black curtain at the back of the tent where the launch took place. “There’s a fair few things we’ve been trying to keep under wraps, as you can see by the wall over there,” he says. You can safely surmise that behind the screen is where the sailing and design teams spent the past 18 months developing the “pedalstal” system on land.

“It’s been a massive team effort to keep it a secret. It’s a tribute to the team how tight everyone is, and how committed we are to winning this thing.”

Rules around America’s Cup reconnaissance have changed dramatically for the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda. Especially now most of the six teams are training in close quarters on Great Sound, and Cup-holders Oracle and Team Japan are sharing information. Team NZ have their own reconnaissance agent following the other teams in Bermuda and reporting back daily.

Eavesdropping devices, overhead drones and satellites, and tapping into another team’s telemetry, are all still illegal. But the biggest threat to a team today is human intelligence – dockside scuttlebutt.

Olympic bronze medal-winning cyclist Simon van Velthooven was sworn to secrecy about where he went to work every day for the last year – heading down to the waterfront, to turn professional sailors into pro bike riders, and trying out for a position on the boat.

Keeping tight-lipped in tight bike pants was crucial. Skipper Glenn Ashby is still surprised no one questioned why the big men in the sailing crew turned up to work every morning in lycra. Or why they often cycled from Auckland to Coromandel then caught the ferry home.

Who knows whether their opponents got wind of the idea? Japan’s Dean Barker and Oracle’s Jimmy Spithill have both waved off the pedal technology, saying most teams thought about it but overrode it. They say the cons – windage and the inefficient transfer from one side of the boat to the other – outweigh the pros of having men on bike seats. Team NZ would argue otherwise.

Even with only 99 days until the first race of the Louis Vuitton Trophy, it might not be too late for other teams to copy-cat Team NZ. In fact, Ashby has laid down the gauntlet. “I’d encourage them to have a go, because it’s taken us two and a half years to get to here, so if they can do it in 100 days, then good luck to them I reckon.”

If Team NZ have to revert to the old-fashioned handle grinders before Race One, they still can. But the team speak confidently of having got the technology and on-deck choreography right. The figures, in terms of harnessing power, are looking good, Ashby says. “Some of the numbers the guys are putting out now are at Olympic cycling level,” he says.

But they would be fools to think eight pairs of pedals will win them back the Auld Mug. They admit the international media flurry over the pedalstals has been a “great distraction”, and they need a lot more ingenious technology to succeed on the Sound.

Spying, as Team New Zealand acknowledged as rain fell during its official boat launch, is an expected irritation for America's Cup syndicates. Photo: Suzanne McFadden
Spying, as Team New Zealand acknowledged as rain fell during its official boat launch, is an expected irritation for America’s Cup syndicates. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

America’s Cup commentator Peter Lester, who went out on his laser dinghy to watch the AC50 on one of its two sailings, agrees. “Change is good. But the pedals won’t be the difference between winning and losing,” he says. “It’s all the stuff we can’t see.”

Team NZ reckon they haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary on the two other AC50s launched so far – Sir Ben Ainslie’s British boat and defender Oracle’s first boat “17”. But a lot of development can happen in 99 days, and it’s something the New Zealanders won’t be caught out making the same mistake they did four years ago – having completely tapped out their boat when they reached the America’s Cup final in San Francisco.

They will sail their sole race boat in Auckland for the next month before flying it to Bermuda in March. And then watch the reconnaissance ramp up yet another notch

* 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 the official launch of Team New Zealand’s boat.

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