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Gladwell's Line: Defender marching to the beat of different development drum

by Richard Gladwell, 29 Jan 2020 02:59 PST 29 January 2020
Intent looks from a packed chase boat indicate that Te Kahu is more than just a training boat for Emirates Team New Zealand - Waitemata Harbour - January 29, 2020 © Richard Gladwell /

Over the past ten days, New Zealand's America's Cup Defence passed a couple of significant milestones with the wind-down of the four and a half month workup of the AC75 Te Aihe, and the roll-out of a 38ft test-boat Te Kahu.

Te Aihe was the first launched AC75 in the world but was the second to sail - beaten to this achievement by New York Yacht Club's American Magic.

They were followed a month later by INEOS Team UK and Italy's Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. A fifth AC75 for Stars + Stripes Team USA is still a work in progress.

Four of the teams at least will go head to head for the first time in a four day fleet racing series in Cagliari, Sardinia starting April 23, 2020, and followed by a second series in Portsmouth, the UK beginning on June 4, 2020.

Quite what happens from there remains to be seen.

All teams are running short on time - the most vital commodity in the America's Cup.

That situation was triggered by the delay in the supply of one-design carbon foil arms onto which the teams attach their own designed and built wings. They were not delivered to the teams until late July/early August. The earliest an AC75 could have been launched was April 1, 2019 - teams were not expected to have launched (all going well) until June/July. The reality is a couple of months or so were lost through the late delivery of foil arms.

That delay probably had a more significant impact on some teams than others. For two of the northern hemisphere teams, it dragged them into the northern winter, and they were forced to relocate to southern climes. Luna Rossa was unaffected as their base in Cagliari, Sardinia allows year-round sailing.

Emirates Team New Zealand was expected to have a workup period that extended further into the Kiwi summer, rather than packing up just six weeks after the official start of the season. Their build-up has been marked by inclement weather - consecutive days of gales interspersed by the occasional period of light winds. Those sailing days have been mostly at the fresh end of the scale - winds in excess of 20kts. Or, they have been on days when it has been light in the morning and then with a building breeze in the afternoon. The former have done them no harm, the latter have been frustrating.

For weather watchers, it has been crystal clear that the decision to start America's Cup racing at 4.00 pm in the afternoon is the right one. It has been interesting to see the number of days that the wind has settled by the late afternoon - and offering ideal conditions for racing.

This AC cycle, the Kiwi team have been able to stretch their on the water time to get some long days - with four hours being the minimum and mostly seven to nine hours on the water. This week it emerged that the shipping time to Cagliari is 60 days from Auckland - about ten days longer than the 50 days expected. Subject to shipping schedules it is likely that the return will also take 60 days and Te Aihe can look forward to spending three months on the water to compete in two four day regattas plus practice time.

The team have opted not to incur the cost of airfreighting the AC75 and associated gear to Europe and return.

Read into that what you will - but the answer is probably two-fold: (a) they don't believe the cost is worth the gain and (b) they are relatively happy with their progress with Te Aihe. The Kiwis also have the opportunity to try out some more extreme ideas on the newly launched test boat (don't read too much into the hull shape), and then have time to either fly those across to Cagliari or Portsmouth or put them onto Boat 2.

What happens next we think will look something like this - Te Aihe leaves shortly for Cagliari and the campaign shifts into a testing and development phase which will run until the first week or so of April. Key crew members Peter Burling and Blair Tuke will be away defending their 49er World title in Geelong in mid-February. On the basis that they win the NZ Olympic nomination in the 49er, they will be engaged in other preliminary regattas as they build into Enoshima in late July. Ditto for Josh Junior and Andy Maloney in the Finn class with their Worlds in mid-May and Olympic preparation - for whoever is nominated.

Emirates Team NZ does regain some time by being the only team allowed under the Protocol to construct their hull at the America's Cup venue. The others will likely be forced to fly their completed second hull to New Zealand and complete their race boats in their new bases which should be ready for occupancy in late July.

The Challengers skirt the Protocol's 'Constructed in Country' rule as they are allowed to have all other components of their boat manufactured in a location of their choice - including New Zealand.

Whether Emirates Team New Zealand can steal a development march on the other teams through the use of a test boat mid-campaign will be watched with interest. Certainly, there is no lack of enthusiasm, ahead of a long holiday weekend, with a few members of the team working on the rigged boat most of Friday afternoon and finally hauling her out in the late evening around 8.00 pm.

In the sailing this week, Te Kahu looked very good, straight out of the box and it would seem that the team are going to use here as a serious development platform, and not just for crew training and familiarisation.

Emirates Team New Zealand is in quite a different place from the rest of the America's Cup teams with their need and timing of the introduction of a test boat.

The New York Yacht Club's American Magic had to make a cold start into foiling - and this America's Cup, given they are a startup team.

Of course, as well as picking up a sailing team, New York also had to develop bases, systems, design teams, simulators, and get a building facility staffed and running.

Their move with a prototype was to opt for a mini-AC75. American Magic wasn't the first to sail their test boat - but of the four Challengers, they have probably got the most benefit, and still have a useful test platform for sailing while their AC75's are in transit to Cagliari, Portsmouth and Auckland.

Luna Rossa has been sailing as a team since the 2000 America's Cup (which was their best performance to date. They came late to the 2013 America's Cup, building a boat that was to an ETNZ supplied design - but never looked to be on pace with the Kiwis.

They made a good early start for 2017 and were the first to hire a full team of around 80 designers, engineers and sailors and set up a base in Cagliari. They also turned two AC45's into foilers.

One assumes in that process that they got their various software systems built, before pulling the pin on that campaign after the change from the AC62 to an AC50, nine months after entries opened. Luna Rossa also has to play catchup with the foiling world and it was surprising that they were last to launch a test boat. On the plus side, Max Sirena and several Luna Rossa team members were embedded into ETNZ for 2017 and should have a good idea of the direction of travel by the Kiwi team.

Luna Rossa's prototype was the last seen and shortest-lived as they switched to the AC75 program. That seemed to be travelling well, until the dismasting in the weekend. Quite what impact that has on their campaign remains to be seen and whether the dame extends to the hull as well as the spars and sails. No significant damage was visible in the images released by the team - who have commendably been quite open about the incident.

INEOS Team UK were set to continue post-Bermuda with their sponsors from 2017, signed on for 2021. However they believed they didn't have sufficient budget, and in the search for another sponsor to take up the funding gap, managed to sign up the biggest ever single sponsorship in sailing - and only took a month to put the deal in place.

However they were well off the pace in Bermuda, and only got through to the Semi-Finals thanks to a last-placed French team that was even further off the pace than the Brits. The loss of two semi-final race in one day through a breakdown issue with their wingsail was the killer blow for their campaign.

Ben Ainslie's incredible sailing ability under pressure gave them the leg-up of two points after winning the America's Cup World Series in AC45 one-designs. They won another couple of races against top teams when Ainslie was able to exercise his match racing skills and prevailed by keeping a very tight cover on his faster competitor.

Land Rover BAR built several test boats in the build-up to the 2017 Cup, so it was no surprise to see INEOS Team UK the first to launch a 28ft long prototype foiling monohull. T5 was flighty and skitterish - characteristics Ainslie claimed were deliberate - as they wished to learn as much as possible, and weren't going to do that sailing a foiling armchair comfortably around the Solent.

The key with this campaign for the Brits will be to learn from the mistakes of their last one.

Then came the Kiwis, with a test boat which is clearly in the mini-AC75 camp. Whether it is a masterstroke remains to be seen. In the 2017 Cup, the Kiwis were the last to launch a test AC50, the last to arrive in Bermuda, and won the Cup in an event where the Challenger Final was the most competitive series.

Quite how the next six months shake-out will be viewed with great interest, as the various elements of markedly different starting points, simulators, AC75 designs and now test boats, come into play.

First signs will come in August/September when the second generation of AC75s are revealed and we see whether the teams stay with their first launched skiff or scow hull concept, or make the switch.

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