The contest is 160 years old and in contention is the world’s oldest international sporting trophy, the America’s Cup, which will be hosted in San Francisco in 2013. Dean Barker, Skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand's challenger speaks with Jeni Bone about the brave new multi-hull world of the America's Cup.
Organisers and teams have been warming up since last year, with regattas in significant cities in USA and Europe as part of the America’s Cup World Series. Each regatta comprises four days of racing, with the objective of drumming up media attention, public interest, and flying the sponsors’ flags.
Emirates Team New Zealand, twice winner of the America’s Cup, has shifted to the brave new world of multihulls. Led by managing director Grant Dalton and skipper Dean Barker, in September 2013, Emirates Team New Zealand will once again carry the hopes of their small island nation into battle in the America’s Cup.
For the 34th America’s Cup, there are currently three challengers and one defender, the mighty Oracle Racing. Final entries close on 1 June 2012.
In San Francisco, crews will take the action right up to the viewing public in stadium style racing in the enclosed harbour, with cutting edge broadcast coverage to broaden the appeal of competitive sailing beyond its traditional market.
'It’s the F1 of sailing, for certain,' says ETNZ skipper, Dean Barker. 'It is an interesting event,' he adds, referring to the allure of the America’s Cup among the sailing fraternity and the general public. 'It has a great name, the brand is strong. The appeal lies in the uncertainty of who might have the speed advantage and come out on top.'
Barker continues: 'America’s Cup is the pinnacle of the sport involving three things: people and people management; R&D, technology, design and engineering; and sailing well on the day. The challenge is balancing all three to come out on top.'
As to whether or not there are too few boats involved in the race, Barker is philosophical. 'In 2007, there were 11 challengers and defender in Valencia. Obviously, the global downturn has impacted on teams and sponsors. There is still time for other entrants, but as 2013 approaches, it becomes increasingly unlikely.
'As competitors, we would rather have a smaller number of top quality, well prepared teams than lots of weak teams, but the lack of take up of the new format is a concern.'
It’s ETNZ’s first foray into multihulls, a new set of challenges the team has embraced, but is reluctant to predict the success of this far out. Barker admits, it will broaden the appeal.
'This is entirely new territory,' Barker admits. 'It has taken the America’s Cup to an extreme-type sport. There’s a lot of action. It’s very lively and the public will love that. We are learning how to harness that power, the finesse. The boats are spectacular, big, powerful, with a lot of sail area with that wing – they are hard to sail. So for us, that’s the challenge.'
The media has pledged coverage that will convey the action in all its colour and conflict for TV and the new generation of mobile and tablet, considered in media jargon the 'second screen'.
'There will be some adjustment for course boundaries,' says Barker. 'We have been racing the same way for 20-odd years, so it will be quite different in 2013.'
Will there be a multihull future for ETNZ? 'We will reserve that judgement until after the event,' Barker says matter of fact.
Winning, he adds, is everything at this elite level. In terms of ROI, if the challenge is successful, 'there’s a huge upside if we win', says Barker.
'Obviously, for all of us involved, the sponsors, supporters and New Zealand, it’s important. Sponsorship has become more focused and brands are leveraging off fewer properties. It’s very competitive out there.' Loyal sponsors include Emirates, Toyota, Omega, Nespresso, Camper and the latest recruit announced in Naples, Skyy Vodka.
As a highly visible, national team, ETNZ is promoting New Zealand wherever it sails. 'If we win, it pays for itself. There are good returns for the various sponsors and the New Zealand Government has been a strong supporter of three campaigns now, backed by Tourism & Trade New Zealand.'
But there are no certainties in this game, as Barker well knows. 'We are in a good position, we’re a strong team and we are going to keep working hard. But we are up against the resources and expertise of Oracle.'
In a sport where a campaign that can cost in excess of $100 million, the 'Coutts Model' was introduced to put a cap on costs and make the proposition more accessible to challengers, imposing limits on the number of boats, sails, equipment and support boats which can used by each team.
In practice, these measures have resulted in an escalation of costs, according to Barker, who says 'despite their initial intention, the 72ft boats are an engineering nightmare!'
'There are so many completely new, complex parts that take so many man hours to build and repair, the costs are up. That’s the risk of a new concept. In hindsight, we could have built something smaller, but it’s proven to be an enormous commitment.'
Along with becoming the scenic backdrop of a globally significant event and attracting high-nett worth tourists that are the dream market for any Tourism Board, host cities stand to gain from the investment in infrastructure, a boost to hospitality and tourism and months of related coverage extolling the attributes of the city.
'The backdrop is important,' agrees Barker. 'In San Francisco we will be racing close to shore and the San Francisco Bay is as good as Auckland,' says the proud Kiwi.
'The host city needs to create the infrastructure, hospitality and public arena – the ‘pit lane’ – that offers great access to the public and good vantage points, to justify the budgets pumped in to being there.'
Last week America's Cup Regatta Director Iain Murray told an international media conference his organisation had offered to stage an informal series between the three America's Cup teams that would be sailing AC72's in New Zealand, next summer.
'We have offered to go to New Zealand and provide a three day series', he said.
The regatta would provide all involved parties with a vital insight into the match racing capability of the AC72, for both teams and officials. Between them the three teams will have five of the new AC72 catamarans sailing in New Zealand in the three months between February and April 2013.
Another twist for an already complex event as sinews are strained to deliver value for sponsors.