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America's Cup: Team USA 21 - second US Challenger emerges

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 11 May 21:44 PDT 12 May 2018
Mike Buckley (Second from the left) Final Day, 2018 Congressional Cup, Long Beach, April 22, 2018 © Bronny Daniels

A second US team for the America's Cup has been working on a challenge for over a year - predating Emirates Team New Zealand's win in Bermuda on June 26, 2017.

"About a year ago, or maybe a little more, Taylor Canfield and I were approached and told that if another team won the America's Cup, then you guys should put together a Challenge. That put the idea in our heads, and when Team New Zealand won in Bermuda, it opened the door to mount a Challenge of our own."

"The hardest thing obviously is raising money," explains Mike Buckley one of Taylor Canfield's crew - now one of two crews who are four-time winners of the Congressional Cup, one of the most prestigious trophies in match racing.

Buckley is an American professional sailor competing in a variety of keelboats ranging from Melges 24's to TP52's in Match and Fleet racing. This year he joined Taylor Canfield's team on the World Match Racing Tour. " I studied business at university, and have a passion for business and marketing as well as a passion for high-end sailing."

Taylor Canfield (29) is the hottest property in match racing on a global basis, being the winner of two World Match Racing Tours and finishing runner-up in two others in a four year period - sailing keelboats and the M32 multihulls. Add to that four Congressional Cup wins and there's a record that few if any can match.

Publicly Canfield's star has not been directly attached to the new America's Cup challenger. "That was me keeping his options open," Buckley laughs. "He's one of my best friends, and I wasn't in a position to out him in one way or another, and we've kept him neutral for the time being. We started this together a long time ago. In my eyes, he is the best American helmsman out there, and our intention is to work together - but he has to answer the tough questions himself."

While Buckley describes Team USA 21 as a startup group, he is quick to point out that they haven't started an empty tank. "Our goal is to build a group of diverse, passionate individuals who are all-American, including sailors, engineers and innovators and bring our country to the America's Cup to compete and make them proud.

"To me the draw of the America's Cup is to watch a country of sailors, compete against another countries sailors. That it is was designed to do - that's what Team NZ does, as does Luna Rossa, and Ben Ainslie's team. I think all the sailors on those teams really identify strongly with the countries they represent. They are all team guys and they all fight for each other.

Challenge building for 12 months

"We've had feelers out for eight months for funding partners and to be able to put the right people together for the design team. We also need to find the right yacht club and the right location," he adds.

They've been talking to Emirates Team New Zealand and Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron for a similar period. Having been in the Cup market for 12 months, Buckley says he has tripped over several unannounced teams - a northern European team, an Italian team and a Chinese team. "I haven't spoken to anyone involved in those teams, but I have heard from our contacts, that they are, like us, trying to secure funding. I think it would be great if we can get eight teams to Auckland - the more, the merrier."

Buckey describes Team USA 21 as a grass-roots US effort that will be modelled along the lines of Team New Zealand, now a three times America's Cup champion.

People are interested in what we are selling, he adds - noting that they are not loaded up with management, marketing and communications staffers. "We have a story, which people want to hear right now, and that is incredibly humbling for us."

"Our story is that we are a group of sailors, innovators, technology leaders who want to make sure America is out in front in the world of sports technology and sport. It comes at a perfect time in our country where we are very pro-America and trying to compete with the world on technology.

"Obviously the world has caught up to America, and that is great for the world. We have seen some re-organisation in America over the past few years - how do we get car manufacturing back here? How do we get aircraft manufacture back here? How do we get the tech back here? This challenge fits into that story and discussion."

Taylor Canfield and his crew staged a come from behind win to take the prestigious trophy which really marks the beginning of match racing as a mainstream sailing activity. The New York Yacht Clubs shadow America's Cup team had dominated the event for the first four days and looked set to win the trophy almost as a formality on the final day.

Sailing against former Team New Zealand and Softbank Team Japan skipper, Dean Barker, a veteran of five America's Cups, Taylor Canfield took out the final in three straight races.

"When we won the Congressional Cup, it was the first time in at least 15 years that the Cup had been won by an all-American team, " Buckley points out. (He believes Ed Baird in 2003 was the last Con Cup winner with an all-America's crew).

"I've been on the phone since we won with people calling me saying "that was really incredible - it was fun to see a group of Americans come together and get better and better every day and show the world that America can compete on the world stage again."

Flexible on team location in USA

The Team USA 21 (as in 2021) Challenge hasn't settled on a base location in the USA - waiting to see how the backers shape up, with the flexibility to go where it suits sponsors and works for the team.

Locations under consideration include southern Florida, the West Coast and Chicago.

"There are different options with different yacht clubs. Groups have come to us in each of those regions, but it is going to come down to what our sponsors want.

"If you pick where you are going to be based before you have a partner, you limit yourself right there," he adds. "If New York is your location, your sponsors are only going to be companies interested in New York - and maybe you can't find any that are interested in sailing and the America's Cup.

"So we are doing the opposite. We've identified a few areas from which we can run a successful campaign and which do have the facilities and infrastructure for training, and which also have the right wind and depth of water.

"Now we are going after investors and brand partners to show them the options and let them know we'd love to have them involved - and ask which area works for you? It's a different approach."

Eight figures committed privately to our group right now

Team USA 21 is relatively well advanced with, to quote Dennis Conner "getting commitment to the commitment."

"We need one or two more partners. We believe we have enough backing to get started, but we don't have all we need.

"We do have some very committed investors who have given us the green light to buy a simulator and start employing designers - and have people working on this project full time - which is what a group of us are doing."

Buckley is not comfortable " putting a number" on the backing they to date. "But certainly we do have eight figures committed privately to our group right now."

He is coy about who encouraged the team to form, other than to say it was an America's Cup professional who was involved with the America's Cup Authority last time around - but no longer associated with a team.

"From there we pitched to a couple of different yacht clubs and different people we had worked for in the past - team owners, sports professionals and business professionals. We checked whether we had a viable story with them. They all told us it was going to be hard raising money.

"But the response we have had from the general sailing public in America's has been tremendous. At the Con Cup alone, people were so excited to see a group of US sailors come together and represent the "red white and blue" - just as Emirates Team New Zealand represents the Kiwis, and Ben Ainslie Racing (now INEOS) represents the Brits.

"To us, that is the model - its why Team New Zealand has been so good for so long. New Zealand is a fraction of the size and with a fraction of the resources of the USA and they get all New Zealand behind them.

"It's fantastic what Grant and those before him have done there, and that's what we are after. It's definitely feasible to do the same with Team USA."

Part of the Team New Zealand culture that Buckley is not yet prepared to embrace is a high-risk jump into the deep end of the America's Cup pool with the level of financial commitment Team USA 21 has to date, make an entry, and then worry about how they are going to raise the rest.

"We certainly don't want to over-promise and under-perform," says Buckley. "We will not challenge if we do not believe with 100% certainty that we can make it to the finish line in a very respectable manner. In our mind, we have to be in genuine contention to win the America's Cup. We know that is a high bar.

"Everyone involved in our campaign are incredibly competitive people, and if we didn't believe we could mount a strong Challenge, we wouldn't be doing it. But we will be fundraising to the end of the Cup - that is the nature of the beast - as we assume Team NZ does.

"It's not realistic for us to expect a company or individual to come along and write you a cheque to cover the whole budget - it's just too much money.

"We have a figure in mind to be sustainable, and we are not too far off that right now."

Two boat campaign

Buckley says they have done their budgets around a two AC-75 campaign and not just a single boat for the 36th America's Cup.

He adds that the team is not fazed by the AC75 and that in their view it evens the game, as no-one has sailed a boat of that type before and there is no advantage.

"Every sailor has their opinion of what is right and wrong about the America's Cup. Some miss the traditional boats, some love the foiling catamarans, and others love/hate these boats (AC75). But there is nothing we can do about that. Team New Zealand and Luna Ross earned the right to choose this boat - and that part of it is out of our hands."

"From what all the designers are saying and Emirates Team New Zealand are telling us, the AC75 should perform as well or better than the AC50.

"It provides a monohull appeal to the more traditional sailors, and at the same time, it allows you to foil at incredibly high speeds. It's a little outside the box, to say the least, and it is going to be a big challenge."

Buckley says the team has already engaged a Chief Technology Officer who has been involved in many America's Cups. He adds that they are interviewing designers and have also had some designers make contact with the team. But as yet they have not yet hired a design group but expects to do so within the next month.

"I expect we will talk to all of those Americans who are left from Oracle Team USA from the last Cup. It would be silly not to do so.

"Some of the guys were are talking with were designers in the last Cup and others have done well in the Moth class quite recently."

A formal challenge has not yet been issued, and the team intends to make that move before the close of entries (rather than wait for a few months and lodge a late entry).

"We are in full fundraising mode now and are just finalising some aspects of the Challenge and are actively seeking one of two new private partners or corporate sponsors."

All US-Nationals in sailing crew

Buckley is certain that they can recruit a 100% USA national sailing crew, and don't see the need to buy-in other nationalities, as two of the other Challengers have done.

"We have some great sailors here in America. Taylor Canfield has been the #1 helmsman on the Match Racing Tour for three years in a row. We proved last week that we are well placed in the mix. We have a lot of work to do - but everybody does."

"Our door is going to be open, and we want to be a very inclusive campaign that benefits American sailing from Youth sailing to the Olympics and everything in between - and we are going to give people to try out and be part of our initiative. Hopefully, we can all push each other and show the world that we are in this.

At this stage of the 36th America's Cup, Team US 21 is definitely starting on the back row of the grid relative to INEOS Team GB and Luna Rossa who have challenged previously and have good infrastructure and experience. The New York Yacht Club entry American Magic would also be ahead - on the basis of committed funding, but they were also the team that Team USA 21 beat on the water to win the recent Congressional Cup.

Buckley is not too fazed by his team's situation. "I don't feel like we are behind yet. But we are very much aware that time is of the essence - and time is not on anybody's side, at present.

"Obviously raising money is hard, but you can't get time back, but we need to get fully operational in the next month or so."

He notes that the class rule has been out publicly for just over a month and that most teams will have their design offices working from scratch with a new concept rather than updating for an AC50 type concept.

"I would think that most teams are working hard on their new design (with the first launch permitted in just over ten months time on March 31, 2019), and I don't think we are too far behind, yet - but time waits for nobody."

Buckley says the next month is extremely critical for the new team. "We' been fielding calls from people pledging their support whether it is financial or helping us reach out to others who can help financially.

"The level of support we have now is extremely humbling, but the next month is critical to sign some up some of these potential partners."

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