To the victor goes the toil: Grant Dalton’s daily grind

Following today's report into Team New Zealand's quality problem, boss Grant Dalton must balance the responsibilities of both successfully hosting and defending the America's Cup. He talks to Suzanne McFadden. 

In the wake of an America’s Cup victory, Grant Dalton’s day begins religiously at 4.15am.

He’s hoisting iron in the weight room by 5am, before pounding the streets with his long-time sailing mate Tony Rae.

“I made my Christmas run this morning,” the 60-year-old says proudly, from behind the desk of his Auckland waterfront office. “Every year I set end-of-year targets for my bench press, squat and deadlift, and then my running distance. Over the last week I hit all the numbers.” He won’t reveal what they are: “They’re nothing special.”

But that is Dalton in a nutshell. Setting goals, hitting the numbers. Not overtly bragging about them. He’s been doing it in the sailing realm for near on half a century.

And now he’s attempting to put those skills to a new test – organising an event. Arguably the biggest event in world sailing, for the world’s oldest sporting trophy. And six months into the process, Dalton – wearing his sunglasses on his head indoors – looks remarkably calm and almost laid-back.

His daily schedule might reveal otherwise. The CEO of Emirates Team New Zealand, Dalton is primarily focused on getting the 2021 America’s Cup event up and running. He’s negotiating with local and central governments here at home, flying to Europe to work with Italian partners, and drumming up sponsorship deals – his forte. But at the same time, he also has an eye on the rebuilding of his team and the creation of a new boat, the radical AC75.

Since he came on board in 2003, and up until winning the Auld Mug in Bermuda last June, Dalton had been able to concentrate on running a team. But when you take hold of the silverware, it comes with the responsibility of arranging a grand show to contest it. Successfully defending the Cup AND running a world-class regatta requires a nimble balancing act, he’s discovering.

“The danger is we have a good event and we lose the Cup. Or we have a great team and we don’t have a good Cup. It’s a balance, and I guess because we have good people and we’ve been competing in the Cup for a while, we can share the responsibilities,” he says.

“I’m basically the fire fighter now. Lately we’ve had a few scrub fires to contend with – not so much in the team, but in the event world.”

While the spotlight has been on the ongoing arbitration over where to put the America’s Cup teams, there’s a constant buzz of activity behind the wire fence of the defender’s base at 168 Beaumont Street.

Right now, there are at most a dozen people – depending on the day of the week – rattling around in the two-story building on the Site 18 marine precinct, that Team NZ has occupied for the past two years.

“To the people who say it’s out of control cost-wise, they are uneducated – they have no idea what’s going on here."

- Grant Dalton

Cup veteran Kevin Shoebridge, two offices along from Dalton, is running the team. “Shoeb and I talk every day, five times a day, on different aspects of the team,” Dalton says. “It tends to be impromptu chats – we’ve never had formal meetings in 25 years.

“He just tells me what’s going on, we exchange views, and then he carries on. He is certainly more than capable of running the team, while I’ll supply the money to run it.”

Most of the victorious sailing team have been retained. “And those that aren’t, bless their cotton socks, are working their arses off to become grinders and give themselves a chance of getting back in,” Dalton says. “Good on them for that. There’s a grinder here to train on, and they pop in all the time. They’re always welcome here.”

Dalton is thrilled that two of his top sailors – Peter Burling and Blair Tuke – are now crashing their way through the Southern Ocean in the Volvo Ocean Race.

“I’m on the website 12 times a day checking how they’re going,” says the veteran of seven round-the-world races. “I think they’ll come back a little more appreciative of a team environment. Most teams will be under quite a bit of stress in this race, so they’ll see the good and the bad in people. I’m really pleased they’re doing it.”

Burling will be back in the Team NZ office in January, stepping off the Team Brunel boat for one leg of the race.

While Dalton would love to have a full team on board, he says he couldn’t afford to keep everyone on at this stage of the campaign. The National Government gave the team $5million to retain key players back in July. But eventually Team NZ will be “slightly bigger” than the 90-strong it was in Bermuda. “Because it’s at home, we won’t have the accommodation issue this time, which is a killer financially.”

Dalton continues to talk as if the Cup will be raced in Auckland, even though there is still no binding host city agreement. He makes it clear that this is where he wants it to be.

The designers Team NZ needs have been signed up; most are working part-time, under the guidance of technical director Dan Bernasconi, to refine the rule for the AC72 foiling monohull.

While the lion’s share of the design is fine tuned in Auckland, there is constant consultation with the design team of Luna Rossa, the Challenger of Record, in Milan. The two teams are determined to make the boat as cost effective as possible for the challengers, incorporating one-design elements and sponsored supplied parts.

Some Cup commentators have criticised the new boat as being too complex and too expensive; legend Dennis Conner reckoned it would hike the cost of a competitive challenge up to $200 million.

“To the people who say it’s out of control cost-wise, they are uneducated – they have no idea what’s going on here,” Dalton fires back. He gives an example of the control system for the boat’s foils – which will be an electric motor. “If I got a sponsor to supply that part to you, you wouldn’t have to pay for it. You can whittle away the cost of the boat that way.”

Sean Regan, the shore crew co-ordinator, is working on where and how Team NZ will construct their initial boat, which Dalton says will be in the water by April 1, 2019. The team’s logistics manager, Andy Nottage, is working his way through the 60 shipping containers that were brought home from Bermuda. Some are outside the window of Dalton’s office, almost forming their own town.

The event team for the 2021 America’s Cup so far comprises of Dalton, and a consultant. A UK-based agency, Influence Sport & Media, has been appointed as the commercial agency to help run the event. Heading the agency is Alistair Watkins, a former marketing director of Cup team Alinghi, and the Honda Formula One team.

As the Cup draws closer, Dalton will appoint someone else to run the Cup event. He hasn’t decided who yet, but says it will probably be a Kiwi. “I will always stay involved. But I will move between the two [the event and the team].”

Despite being pulled two ways, Dalton says this isn’t the busiest time in his life. He routinely finishes work early, won’t take phone calls after 7.30pm, and is in bed before 9pm.

“It’s probably playing out as I expected. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating. Having won it you realise it’s the only event that New Zealand has had that we haven’t bid for. If you want the Rugby World Cup, the Masters Games, or the Commonwealth Games, you actually set up a process so that you’re ready for it if it happens. But I don’t think they expected us to win,” he says.

Bringing home the America’s Cup was right up there for career highlights, Dalton admits, but not his “bestest and most fun” campaign. That award goes to his record-breaking non-stop circumnavigation of the globe on the 125ft catamaran, Club Med. “That was the campaign where they said no-one was coming back - we were all going to die,” he recalls.

“But, of course, the America’s Cup is the pinnacle of the sport, and we achieved it with a really good bunch of people.”

Dalton is reminded daily of the effect that victory had on every-day Kiwis. The only thing hanging on the white walls of his office is a framed photo of himself lifting up the Cup. Beneath it is a caption: ‘A Portrait of a Happy Man’.

“A bloke named Barry Hatch came in off the street, bing-bonged the doorbell, and said he had a picture for me. I’d said in an article that I worked in a spartan office with no pictures, and then he did that out of the blue. So I wrote him a note and gave him a shirt. It was lovely,” Dalton says.

His wish for 2018 is this: “A successful conclusion of negotiations around Auckland hosting the America’s Cup, to fund the team, and by this time next year to be well advanced in building our first boat and the wharf for the bases.

“And that I’m still able to do the same totals in the gym that I did this morning. I’m not going to get any stronger.”

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