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Gladwell's Line- Slingsby re-sign a tip-off for next America's Cup?

by Richard Gladwell on 14 Nov 2013
A portent of things to come? Tom Slingsby on the wheel of Oracle Team USA, Day 8 America’s Cup 34 © Richard Gladwell

Australian Olympic Gold Medalist, Tom Slingsby, told Sail-World that he will stay with America’s Cup Defenders Oracle Team USA has implications in a number of areas for the 35th America’s Cup.

The Protocol has not yet been published for the trophy which was defended earlier this year, in the tightest contest ever for the Cup.

Currently the Defenders are supposed to be in a consultation process with other teams, and the Challenger of Record, Hamilton Island Yacht Club.

The signing of Slingsby might be considered the strongest indication yet that there will be at best only a very weak nationality clause in the new Protocol, not withstanding the fact that Slingsby holds dual AUS and USA passports, however he has represented Australia in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and in many world championships.

It seems that Oracle Team USA will most likely continue where they left off in terms of sailing team composition from the 34th America’s Cup which finished just under two months ago.

Cup watchers had expected that Slingsby would been a target to sail for the Hamilton Island Yacht Club, who were a surprise choice for the role of Challenger of Record for next America’s Cup, expected to be sailed in 2017. The fact that the Defenders are taking about five months to announce a Protocol points to a four year gap between America's Cups, rather than the more usual three years for a successive Defence.

Regardless of how many passports he has and whether or not he also has/qualifies for dual US Citizenship, the significant issue is that Slingsby has elected not to sail for Australia, a team in which he would have been expected to have had a major role.

Olympic team backers
Bob and Sandy Oatley, and the Hamilton Island YC have been strong supporters of the Australian Sailing Team, of which Slingsby was one of the poster-boys, after his Gold Medal win in the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth. Slingsby, a five times World Champion in the Mens Laser Class, and 2012 Olympic Gold medalist in the Mens Singlehander was also expected to line up again for the 2016 Olympics, his third, probably in the Mens Heavyweight Dinghy event sailed in Finn class. It seems he will not now do so, which is a double-blow for Australia.

Slingsby has told Sail-World he is not ready to hit the 2016 Olympic campaign trail, opting in favour of a spot on the Defender – guaranteed a place in the final for the America’s Cup Match. The next match is expected to be sailed in August or September. If it were sailed at just a three year gap in 2016, there would be a direct clash with the 2016 Olympics set down for August 2016 in Brazil.

A 2017 America's Cup on the back of an Olympics is quite do-able as Ben Ainslie (GBR) showed in 2012/13, and Slingsby's decision to sit out the 2016 Olympics is a little surprising - but for the time being Slingsby says he wishes to concentrate on the America's Cup.

Slingsby is likely to helm one of Oracle Team USA’s AC 45’s in the America’s Cup World Series,and then either helm their second AC72, or concertina back into the afterguard of the Oracle afterguard where he sailed the 34th America’s Cup as a strategist working closely with Briton Ben Ainslie and fellow Australian Jimmy Spithill (helmsman).

Of that trio, Spithill is also expected to stay with Oracle – having been their winning helmsman for the last two America’s Cups.

That then leaves a question mark over the future of five times Olympic medalist, Ben Ainslie, currently trying to take his Ben Ainslie Racing team into a position being a viable America’s Cup Challenger, with British Pounds replacing the US Dollars of his former backer, Larry Ellison.

Ainslie had given himself until the end of October to get that British funding line in place. To date there has been no announcement.

If that bid fell over Ainslie could re-join the Ellison camp, sailing much as he did in 2012 with a mix of Ellison backing, with some support from his long time Olympic sponsor JP Morgan. However in reality the only pressure on Ainslie to make a decision is self-imposed, and he still has plenty of time to run-down and sign backers, and at this stage is in nor different situation than most would be Challengers.

Ainslie’s other option is to be a Challenger helmsman for another team – a decision made much easier for all concerned if there is no nationality requirement in the Protocol for the 35th America’s Cup.

Oracle would appear to have stolen a march on the Challengers, and the Challenger of Record in particular, with the signing of Slingsby. While both Slingsby and Spithill have both said they would like to sail for Australia, in reality that would only appear to be an option if USA loses the America’s Cup in the next decade or so.

Australians made up the majority of the seven nation, 11 man crew aboard the US Defender for the 34th America’s Cup. The other two Kyle Langford (wingsail trimmer) and Joe Newton (trimmer) have not announced their future intentions. However if offered a place back on the Oracle boat, then a ride with a team that is guaranteed of competing in the America’s Cup Match for the third time, in a very well backed team, must be a lot more attractive than joining a first time Challenger from their own country.

Nationality clause in or out?
The call for a nationality clause in the new Protocol was widely backed by America’s Cup fan polls – with some recording 70-80% in favour of the clause – which would return the America’s Cup to the situation which existed in the 1980’s. The clause was ripped out of the America’s Cup rulebook in 2007 by Ernesto Bertarelli, who was the sole Swiss sailor on the Swiss America’s Cup Defender in Valencia.

To be effective such a nationality clause would have to be in the range of 75-80% of the crew to nationals of the Challenging/Defending Club, as otherwise the middle of the boat would comprise nationals to keep the numbers up, with a multinational afterguard. The sad fact of America’s Cup life is that media attention and team profile revolves around the afterguard, and with it comprising non-nationals, little would be perceived to have changed.

The signing of Slingsby is an indicator that little will change in the next Protocol to weaken the US team. In terms of sailing talent, relevant to the next America's Cup, USA is extremely weak. The Star crew (7th) were the only US crew to finish in the top 10 in the Mens events at the 2012 Olympics. A far cry from the 1984 Olympics when US crews were dominant winning Gold or Silver medals in all seven events.

There are no US crews ranked in the top ten in the World Match Racing Tour, save for US Virgin Island's Taylor Cranfield. US crews did not make the podium in the Red Bull Youth America's Cup. Only one of the 11 crew aboard the 2013 America's Cup Defender was was a US national after the early-series dismissal of tactician John Kostecki. The rest were imports.

The fact that in 2017, many of the Oracle USA team, will have been with the team for almost ten years, and by most criteria would qualify under a nationality clause regardless of their passport colour. The Slingsby signing points to the likelihood that the next America's Cup will see National teams pitted against the rainbow, all of the world, crew of the US Defender. The fact that the Oracle Team USA crew of 2013 was quite a young crew at an average age of 32 years points to there being little need to replace retiring crew members.

That will be the case with Emirates Team New Zealand, if they Challenge, who will have to replace several crew, but have a young, highly accomplished, domestic talent pool to drool for, from which to draw - underlined by the Kiwis crews taking first and second place in the ten boat Red Bull Youth America's Cup, while the US teams placed fifth and tenth in the ten entry, nationally crewed fleet.

In 2013 America’s Cup Oracle Team USA's advantages lay in the team size (over 200 compared to the 120 of the Challenger). Oracle were believed to have a substantially greater spend – never really published – however even just on personnel which comprise 60-65% of the cost of a campaign, the team would have spend at least a third more than the Challenger who was reputed to have spent $120million – a 20% jump on the 2007 campaign.

Oracle CEO, Russell Coutts, seems to be well embedded in the Defence team, despite some rumours to the contrary.

Other key members would also appear to be so, or unlikely to move. Slingsby’s lead in re-signing indicates that the Oracle team is tight. That then begs the question as to where the key personnel for the HIYC Challenge would be acquired – the obvious answer being from the Challenger ranks, rather than the Defender.

A similar Cup to 2013?
The team’s other major advantage - the technology resources of Oracle Corporation, could not be addressed in a Protocol.

As it did in both 2010 and 2013, the Defender will again stay with a multihull. With an arsenal of design know-how from two multihull campaigns it is unlikely that the Defender would sign a document which limited the use of this knowledge.

The rationale for a smaller boat seems a little flawed in that it comprises such a relatively small part of the total campaign budget. The biggest negative with the AC72 being its launching and support/maintenance. That issue may be resolved somewhat with a smaller boat, but at the trade-off of spectacle which pulls the fans and potential TV audience.

Cost reduction measures tried in both the 2007 and 2013 America’s Cup Protocols largely failed. Few would have any faith in any new so-called cost reduction measure - unless it attacked the heart of the cost issue - which is team size and salaries.

Making parts of the boat a one-design are a dubious gain, in terms of cost reduction.

While the use of a one-design wingsail may reduce the cost by a million or two, it opens a complete new set of issues in terms of measurement and compliance – remembering that the kingpost issue in the America’s Cup World Series was discovered by chance, by a member of a combined boat support team, and not by the measurers - who had cleared the tampered boats to race in four events in the America’s Cup World Series.

While one design may have attractions in some areas, it opens up a whole new area for protest and innuendo in an event which is perceived as already being overly litigious. A better way out of that corner would be a relaxing and opening of the rules to permit simpler engineering solutions, rather than the complex and expensive work-arounds that were a hallmark of the 34th America’s Cup.

For would-be Challengers, the signing of Slingsby is a signal that the America’s Cup mountain won’t get any less steep in 2017 than it was in 2013, and that the regatta will continue to be stacked in such a way that it will be extremely difficult to win.

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