Emirates Team New Zealand has put in as much time on the water over the past few months as anyone since the last America’s Cup World Series event in San Diego. So that means the Kiwis should be hot favourites to win in Naples, right?
Not necessarily, says Dean Barker, the NZ skipper. 'We haven’t really been doing any race training. The boats aren’t very well set up for that at the moment, so it’s been very difficult to do any real [race] practice. Getting to sail the Luna Rossa AC45 was great. We do a bit of sailing with them which is really good - but we’re definitely relying on the time prior to Naples to get back into the racing. It feels like it’s been a long time since the last event, so we’re just looking forward to getting back on the water.'
The main focus for Team New Zealand over the past few months has been the technical development of the AC72 catamaran, due for launch later this year. The AC72 is a whole scale of magnitude more daunting and complex than the AC45 in every respect, but Barker says boathandling will be a critical element of the racing in San Francisco next year. So getting the race experience at the America's Cup World Series events is a vital part of the mix.
'What we see in the AC45s is that you make one little mistake with a furl or just the way you tack or gybe and it costs you a lot of distance. I’m sure in the AC72 there’ll be some good technical battles, but I think half the battle’s going to be within your own team to actually wrestle the beast round the course.'
This is where experience in the AC World Series is vital. 'Without a question it’s the biggest advantage, just doing so many races in the AC World Series,' says Barker. 'Everything’s very different from what we’ve ever experienced in the past, the reaching starts and the tight course boundaries, and so on. It’s the technical difference and the way you approach each race is quite different from anything we’ve done in the past. It’s a very unique challenge and we’re going to some pretty cool places - it was good last and we’re looking forward to the regattas this year.'
Barker predicts the events in Naples and Venice will be very competitive, even if some teams are less practised than others. 'I think with the light/medium conditions we’re expecting, a lot of the teams will be right in the hunt and I think it will be tougher than the regattas last year.'
Newest kids on the block, Luna Rossa, are a case in point. 'What we’ve seen of them so far is that that they've got some very, very good guys. They’ve got a lot of experience in the Extreme Sailing Series, and come from other competitive backgrounds as well and so they won't take long to get up to pace.'