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The wunderkind - an interview with Rome Kirby of Oracle Team USA

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 4 Apr 2016
Rome Kirby trimming to leeward. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Abu Dhabi, UAE to Sanya, China. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race) Amory Ross/Puma Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race http://www.puma.com/sailing
At the still-tender age of 26-almost 27-American Rome Kirby has racked up the sort of sailing resume that’s the stuff of dreams.

For starters, Kirby grew up in the sailing-obsessed Mecca of Newport, Rhode Island, where he quickly found his way onto performance-oriented dinghies, skiffs and-as he got a bit older-the Grand Prix maxi yacht. Moreover, Kirby also grew up around the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race, as his dad, the legendary Jerry Kirby (easily one of the nicest people you will ever meet in the sport of sailing), was actively campaigning and racing some of the world’s most advanced yachts in far-flung locations.

Not surprisingly, the younger Kirby quickly became obsessed with sailing but-unlike his legendary bowman father-Rome was always more at home closer to the afterguard, be it as a trimmer, tactician or helmsman. Kirby’s first shot at the Big Leagues came during the 2008/2009 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), where he served as an alternate for Kenny Read and his Puma Ocean Racing team, which finished in second place.

Next up was the 2011/2012 VOR, where Kirby served as a trimmer and completed his first lap of the planet. This round-the-world experience was quickly followed by his work with Oracle Team USA during the 34th America’s Cup, where he served as part of the comeback team that won the Cup despite facing a deep leaderboard deficit and sudden-death situation with Emirates Team New Zealand.

Kirby is working with Oracle Team USA again for “AC35” as a tactician, trimmer and grinder. I caught up with Kirby via a Skype call that stretched from Seattle to Bermuda to learn more about Kirby’s work with Oracle in this latest Cup campaign.



Can you talk to me a little bit about the current state of play with Oracle? What kind of sailing you've been doing and what kind of boats you've been training on?
We modified our old AC45s for testing, so they're pretty similar to what the 50 will be. Right now, we have two boats going, and we're just out training every day that's half decent.

Nice-sounds like a ton of sailing then.
Yeah, for the most part. The winter is kind of hit or miss with the weather [in Bermuda], it's a lot of frontal stuff coming through. So, you'll get two or three good days and then maybe five days where it's blown-out.

That's got to be kind of frustrating sometimes.
Yeah, but Bermuda's pretty good.

It's a beautiful place.
It is.

So, how many sailors are currently on the payroll at Oracle right now?
I think there are 14 sailors at the moment.

That’s plenty to do proper two-boat testing, isn't it?
Yeah, we have two full boats and then two spare.

Two spare boats, or two spare crew?
Two spare guys, because usually if you're sailing the boats all the time, someone's hurt or sick or whatever may be.



Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the stuff you're doing with two boat testing?
Right now, [we’re] trying to nail down our systems, because that's going to be a big one for the next Cup – how you control these boats. We're trying to really make some headway with perfecting our systems and figuring out how we want to sail these boats, so a lot [of our testing is] systems-driven. We're also trying to figure out the fastest set-up for [our] foil packages as you go through the range from light air to heavy air.

Can you describe your training regime?
We're in the gym by seven. Usually in the mornings we're lifting, and then during the day we're out on the water sailing, and then usually in the afternoon we do a pretty intense cardio session. We're twice a day in the gym, so we've had a pretty intense training schedule in terms of the physical side of things. We've all been partaking in outside training as well, so when we're not on the base, we have Ky Hurst who has joined our team and he is an Australian Ironman and an Olympic swimmer. He joined our sailing team as a grinder, and he's taken the fitness side of things to the next level in terms of being aerobically fit. We all thought we were fit until he came!

So for cardio, are you guys running, cycling, rowing machines?
You name it, we're doing it and lots of it. We've actually, this last kind of cycle of training – because we kind of go in five week cycles – he's had us at the pool twice a week for an hour, so a lot of swimming. Now we're getting beach training, so a lot of running and swimming and add that to our normal listing. We also do a lot of cardio like grinding on the grinding machines, running, rowing, the trainers try and mix it up for us and kind of keep it fresh – as fresh as it could be.

So are you pretty much exhausted when you hit the berth at night?
Yeah, pretty much. Usually I'm in bed, probably by 8:30.



Can you talk to me a little bit about the team's evolution since October of 2013 when you guys won the last Cup?
I think every team has evolved quite a bit. Obviously, initially the boats went from being 72 feet to 62 feet, and then we launched our training boats last year, the 45s, in San Francisco. Then [the boats that we will use for AC35] went from 62 feet to 50 feet. When all of us signed on, we initially signed on to sail 62s, but with the evolution and everything that has happened, we're now sailing 50s. Which is pretty cool, the boats are really cool, fast, and physical. The sailing teams have definitely changed since the last Cup. They're a lot smaller [in terms of numbers, and] the guys are physically probably a little bit smaller. It's definitely been a big change. You look at our team the last Cup, we had 24 sailors, now we're down to 14.

I'm gathering it's pretty competitive to get on the boats then? Are you guys competing a lot amongst each other?
No, not yet. Obviously, yeah, we're all competitive guys and the team's competitive, but everyone's just focused on trying to figure out and get the best race boats so we can win the cup at this point. Right now is a big push, we're trying to get the right boards and the right systems, you want the fastest boat. I think everyone's pretty focused on that at this point. I'm sure that will come into play soon enough.

What other teams are down there right now?
Artemis is here as well as SoftBank Team Japan. So we've been sailing with those guys quite a bit the last few weeks, which has been good.

I understand that you've been working as a caretaker helmsman-can you tell me about that job, and about your evolution from bow duties to more back of the boat stuff?
Well, I was never really a bowman, I don't think I've ever actually, properly done the bow. So I'll put it there, I was never a bowman like my dad. I was always kind of a trimmer and middle of the boat guy. I did the Volvo in the middle of the boat, and then kind of went from there and got signed with Oracle and was a trimmer all last Cup.

I got an opportunity to sail with Tom [Slingsby] in Naples. So they sent a bunch of young guys over and I sailed as tactician in Naples, then this Cup came around and the boat size changed, and the opportunity was presented to me about nine months ago to be a tactician here. The role means not only are you calling tactics on the boat, but you drive the boat through the maneuvers, which has been a big learning curve but it's also been a lot of fun. I've really enjoyed it, and [I’ve] learned a lot.

So in order to perform that job properly, do you get a lot of helm time?
We don't get tons of helm time. We've gotten a little more wheel time kind of the last month. With the boats kind of going more manual, you get a little more time, but not a ton. It's not like we're out there driving the boats every single day. I mean, we are in our roles, but we aren't driving the boats straight line that much.

What did you mean when you said that the boats were more manual?
Eventually the boats. . . we're going to have to pump oil to control the boats, so you're not going to be able to use an engine to move oil.



You've got an engine in there right now?
Just for testing. Pretty much every team does. It's a big step doing it manually, it's pretty tough. That's kind of what we're trying to figure out right now, and how we're going to sail the boats, and the systems we need to effectively sail the boats.

When you're not doing caretaker helm, are you doing tactics all the time at this point?
Yep. When you're a tactician, your primary role is a tactician, then on the maneuvers, your down there driving the boat for the maneuver.

When you're driving the maneuver, are you on foils the whole time?
[Yes], you're on foils. We're still foil gybing, so the foiling gybes, there's a fair bit going on…it’s a pretty crucial time to be driving a boat. That's the goal, to go out and foil gybe every single gybe.

We talked a little bit about the internal competition levels with the team, but how about for the America's Cup World Series? Is it a little bit harder to get selected for that, or is there a planned rotation?
We're rotating, but it's a lot different than the last Cup where we had two boats on tour and you weren't limited in the number of days you could practice. Basically right now, the way it works is we have pretty limited practice time with those boats, so it's really tough to kind of just rotate through the guys, through the crew. At this point, everyone's going to probably be able to sail.



Can you guys sail foiling Moths or other classes of catamarans that might replicate things, or do they have limits on that stuff as well?
We have Moths down here and all of us are training in the Moths and sailing all the time. Myself, Tom Slingsby and Kyle [Langford], were going to go to the Moth Worlds, but we're not anymore because our testing program's kind of ramping-up and we wouldn't get enough time to train properly.

What about other kinds of catamarans?
We have Phantoms here that are the little foiling cats, two-man foiling cats. We'll sail the Phantoms a bit, most of us sail the Moths as much as we can. We were in a phase for a while that we were sailing them pretty much every day. I'm sure we'll get back to that once the weather gets a bit better.

How does it translate from like a Moth to an AC45s?
To be honest, sailing is sailing. The fundamentals are the fundamentals, and you sail a Moth on foils, to foil tack is pretty much – or to foil gybe, it's very similar. The feel is similar, it's just the cat is a little more 3D, you just have a couple more foils added to that. It's different, but at the same time, it's pretty much the same. You've got a lot more systems, it's on a bigger scale, but the feel is pretty similar.

What's Great Sound like as a venue?
It's a pretty cool place. Initially, we thought it was pretty small, but now that we're able to kind of boat handle a bit more, it's not too bad. It's a small racetrack, really shifty, but Bermuda's such a beautiful place to sail. It's a pretty cool place.

How would you compare it to San Francisco?
San Francisco is pretty much the same wind direction, pretty much the same strength [everyday]; it just depends on if it's flood tide or ebbing. The only thing that changes in San Francisco is basically the tide. The breeze, everything's pretty similar day-to-day, whereas here, you get something different every day.



Great Sound looks like it's pretty enclosed.
It's pretty enclosed, it's kind of like a big lake almost. It's pretty cool. You've got the channel that kind of goes out towards St. George's, but the channel isn't massive. Once you're in the Sound, there's land all around you, there's no real open ocean anywhere.

Have you found one part on the track that's trickier because of environmental or geographical features?
For the most part, the track doesn't matter what direction, you're kind of dealing with the same stuff. Whether it's islands around you, reefs, breeze coming off certain parts of the land; doesn't matter what direction, you're kind of dealing with the same thing. Geographically, it's pretty similar. It's not like one direction, you're dealing with one massive mountain and then it's flat from another direction.

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