Kiwis resurgent in this year's America's Cup
Had hit rock bottom in San Francisco '13
Aggressive design means quick boat
Pedal power and youth policy also credited
It was an overcast April day in Bermuda as Emirates Team New Zealand lowered its America’s Cup boat into the Great Sound for the first time.
Tellingly, members from other teams gathered from vantage points at their team bases across the water to get a first glimpse of what had been an impressively secret design process.
Before a wing had been trimmed in anger, the Kiwis, four years on from nursing their wounds on the receiving end of Oracle Team USA’s great sporting comeback, had won the early psychological battle.
And now the team finds itself on the precipice of victory in the America’s Cup.
New Zealand holds a 3-0 advantage with racing set to resume Saturday. If it wins this weekend’s four races, sport’s oldest trophy will be heading home with them.
Its quite a turnaround. Few teams have endured a more tumultuous four-year lead-in to the America’s Cup.
Reflecting on his team’s 2013 collapse on the waters of San Francisco Bay, CEO Grant Dalton says: “I don’t think you ever get over that.”
In the wake of a now infamous choke, the team were met with recriminations having lost an 8-1 lead. in part down, this was due to the fact the team were part-funded by government money.
Simon van Velthooven, then an Olympic cyclist and now one of the cyclists on board, likened it “to a nation in mourning, it was that bad.”
The races in the US took place at around 7am New Zealand time, meaning a fervent sailing nation was glued to the television before its morning commute.
Dalton copped the majority of the flak, which he says was fair to a certain degree “because there was government money involved, it was everyone’s business.”
Giving youth a chance
And then he was very nearly toppled from his position in charge, an internal coup was only headed off thanks to the backing of the team’s chief patron Matteo de Nora – as well as other key backers.
But shoring up his own position was only half of the battle. The government pulled its funding, leaving a monstrous black hole in the team’s budget.
It meant 50% of the budget from the last America’s Cup and a drop in salary for some on the team. But it also meant Dalton was freed to a adopt a more novel approach to setting up a sailing team.
Out went Barker to Softbank Team Japan – much to the initial chagrin of the wider Kiwi public – and in came Peter Burling, the up-and-coming young star of New Zealand sailing.
It is Burling who has been at the helm for each of the team’s races in Bermuda, seemingly unflappable against far more experienced and aggressive sailors in Ben Ainslie and now Jimmy Spithill.
But Burling is just part of the youth policy, joined on the team by Blair Tuke, with whom he won Olympic gold in the 49er class in Rio de Janeiro.
In fact, it has led to an average age on board of under 30.
Key to that is Burling, hailed by former Team New Zealand boss Sir Russell Coutts as an “incredible talent”, while 1983 cup-winning skipper John Bertrand has described him as “a phenomenon” with “the X factor.”
School friends with explosive New Zealand cricketer Kane Williamson at Tauranga Boys College, Burling’s teachers said he was always destined for the top.
Occasionally, his inexperience has shown with the odd faulty start, not to mention the dramatic capsize against Land Rover BAR.
But the Kiwi lad, who first sailed aged six in a $200 wooden boat bought by his parents, has embraced his “pistol” nickname.
Simon van Velthooven: Pedal power on the high seas
For his part, Dalton has remained behind the scenes, hoping to avoid putting additional pressure on his sailors.
He has also placed emphasis on the importance of the crew, rather than praises individuals such as Burling.
The sole survivor from the 2013 team, Glenn Ashby, explains: “Everyone on this team is as important as the next guy. It’s a whole team policy where we have a belief in the collective power as a whole and not any one individual to get the job done.”
When it comes to the design of their vessel, technical director Dan Bernasconi – who spent six years with the McLaren F1 team – has been credited with the approach which has made them so quick.
It led to praise from rival skipper Ben Ainslie, who told CNN: “The Kiwis have been very aggressive with their design philosophy and that’s really paid off. It’s been great to watch.”
The most notable manifestation of that approach is the team opting for pedal power on board over the traditional hand-grinding approach.
Mechanical engineer Tim Meldrum said conservatism among other teams had seen them opt against cycling on board.
New Zealand managed to keep its radical approach secret until February, while suggesting rival “sailors felt threatened by such change.”
But the team’s research found that it created roughly 10% more power and the sailors’ position on board was also much more aerodynamic.
As a result of such innovations, other teams have reportedly been looking to sign Bernasconi and members of his design team with one eye on the 2019 America’s Cup.
‘Rivals want us dead’
The team has been described as “a lone wolf” on account of them being the only one not to sign up to the framework agreement for the next America’s Cup and beyond.
That agreement paved the way for the loss of government funding to the team – partly down to an America’s Cup World Series event scheduled for Auckland being shelved.
It is thought the team have been rewarded by the America’s Cup arbitration panel to the tune of $10m.
Of that framework, Dalton says, “We fundamentally don’t agree with it,” while prior to the event he claimed their five rivals “want us dead now.”
Should the Kiwis add to their Cup victories in 1995 and 2000, it would be in their hands to decide the future of the America’s Cup.
What is clear is Dalton and co. have made a habit of doing things differently, saying “we’re not here to play happy families”.
But the threat of another Oracle comeback remains.
Will Bermuda be a repeat of San Francisco or will this America’s Cup mean a happy ending in New Zealand?