Team NZ’s goose won’t be cooked by practice prang

With a little cooking and round-the-clock devotion, Emirates Team New Zealand’s injured race-boat will be back on Bermuda’s Great Sound this weekend.

The team have worked through the night at their Dockyards base to repair the metre-long dent left in the port hull of their gleaming America’s Cup catamaran, having been given a “love tap” by Sir Ben Ainslie’s boat Rita. (His words, not theirs).

A dedicated shore crew of 25 are still working in shifts to complete the repair - building a makeshift oven, with tents and heaters, to “cook” the composites used to patch up the gouge.

Of course, this is not what they had planned to be doing, nine days out from the start of the Louis Vuitton challenger series, where any time stolen out on the water is considered precious.

But it is a reminder that this is the America’s Cup, where nothing is easy, fair or assumed. As the stakes get higher in just over a week’s time, the smashes will only get harder. And the tension and exasperation will only become more intense.

The fender-bender which has put Aotearoa in the shed came on what was shaping up to be a great day of practice racing for Team NZ. They’d had two strong wins over Ainslie’s British team and Groupama France, before young helmsman Peter Burling had Ainslie on the ropes in the pre-start of their second clash.

Ainslie, a four-time Olympic champion renowned for his aggressive tactics, was late to the start-line, and ran into the back of the Kiwi cat. Rita, sporting a damaged bow, also headed home early.

Back in Auckland, Mark Hauser, a director of Southern Spars – the company that built the New Zealand boat – happened to be on the phone to a member of Team NZ when the two boats collided. “They’d pocket dialled me, and I called back just as it happened,” Hauser, an America’s Cup veteran, says.

"I don't think [the damage] is too bad. The nice thing about composites is that they can be repaired. It will probably add a little bit of weight to the boat, but nothing too serious. They have a very experienced shore crew, and very good boatbuilders in the team, so it will all be fine.”

The repair started as soon as the boat came off the water yesterday, beginning with a “large grinding job”, Hauser explains. Depending on how deep the gouge was, they may have to repair the aluminium honeycomb core - which can be a tricky business - and then laminate the skin back on to it.

A bit of Kiwi ingenuity was certain to have been put into action. Carbon composites need to be cooked to cure, and that’s a process usually carried out inside an autoclave – a large high-temperature, high-pressure chamber.

Without one, Hauser says, you have to create a makeshift oven - “you build tents over it and throw big heaters at it” – before finishing off the repairs with a repainting and fairing.

This morning, Sean Regan - Team NZ's shore crew co-ordinator - said the repairs were progressing well, and they were taking their time to do the job properly, rather than rushing to return to the water. The boat should be back sailing by Sunday (NZ time). 

That would give Team NZ the chance to take part in the last day of practice racing. Today's racing in Bermuda was called off because of light winds; tomorrow's forecast promises more of the same.

Then again, the team may well choose to steer clear of another incident (remember it was only 24 hours earlier that they busted a rudder in a nose dive).

Never afraid to speak his mind, Team NZ’s CEO Grant Dalton yesterday put the crash down to Ainslie’s frustration. The Brits have struggled to get up to speed with the fleet frontrunners since launching Rita in February.

Ben Ainslie: Dalton reckons he's seeing red

“We know Ben well; he is a good guy. But frustration is obviously getting to him and the red mist came down - and it’s a lot of damage in a time we can’t afford it,” Dalton said.

Ainslie has always been an aggressive sailor – it helped him to win an unprecedented four consecutive Olympic gold medals in the Finn dinghy. He was disqualified from the 2011 world Finn championships in Perth after his “camera rage” episode – diving out of his boat and climbing into a media boat he claimed had hindered his race, remonstrating with the camera crew, before jumping back into the sea. He was, however, later bestowed with a knighthood for his services to sailing.

While an obviously unhappy Burling viewed Ainslie’s actions as “just unnecessary a week out from the America's Cup” (no doubt further riled when Ainslie called it a “love tap” in his Twitter apology), a collision in the heat of racing – even if it was a rehearsal - was always a strong possibility.

“It will be annoying for them,” Hauser says of Team NZ. “It’s a bit of a setback, but they won’t be fazed by it. They are too battled-hardened for that. They’ve done a lot of sailing and they know this is all part of the game. And you know there will be plenty more of it as it gets more intense.”

That remains a real concern for Dalton and his team. This America’s Cup is more cut-throat than the last. One hard strike, and you’re out.

With each challenger only allowed one boat, and under a tight daily racing schedule, they can’t afford to miss too much time – if any – off the water. And after the first eight days of competition, one team will be going home.

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