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America's Cup: Six times Cup winner rates the helmsmen

by Suzanne McFadden 4 Mar 15:21 PST 5 March 2021
Jimmy Spithill, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli launch October 2020 - Auckland - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell /

With the America's Cup first-to-seven showdown about to begin, Suzanne McFadden asks a six-time winner how much could it come down to the helmsmen?

Murray Jones knows the exact essence of what makes an America's Cup helmsman great.

A phenomenal Kiwi sailor in his own right, Jones has worked alongside some of the most masterful drivers to have ever fought over the 170-year-old trophy.

Known as "Captain", Jones has won the Auld Mug six times. This is the first America's Cup since Team NZ's historic victory in 1995 he hasn't been caught up in a campaign. "I miss it a little bit," he admits.

He called tactics and helped spot the wind for Sir Russell Coutts in three victorious Cup campaigns - as Coutts set a record of 14 consecutive America's Cup race wins and finished his Cup sailing career unbeaten.

An America's Cup hall of famer, Jones worked with then Oracle helmsman Jimmy Spithill and helped mastermind the American team's come-from-behind slaying of Emirates Team NZ in San Francisco in 2013.

Then he was called into Team NZ for the final six months of their 2017 campaign, as the performance coach to helmsman Burling and his crew. Burling - who at 26 became the youngest helmsman to win the prized silver ewer - credited Jones as being crucial to New Zealand's success in Bermuda.

Jones rates all three helmsmen among the very best this competition for the world's oldest sporting trophy has seen. He's witnessed their genius, and their shortcomings too.

He ranks Coutts as the best helmsman he's ever sailed with, and sees many similarities in fellow Olympic gold medallist Burling (who in his fledgling Cup career has notched up eight wins and one loss).

There are parallels, he says, in the way they make quick decisions - and frequently the right calls - while still being able to see the bigger picture. There's their shared understanding of the mechanics and fluidity of a boat, borne out of their engineering backgrounds. And their vital ability to communicate with their crew.

His America's Cup record equals Coutts' 14 wins, but the Aussie battler has also suffered 16 race losses (remember the America's Cup matches are much longer these days). He's aggressive, fiercely competitive, yet cool and calm under pressure. He knows how to niggle off the water and he knows how to win on it.

But just how important is a helmsman's role in winning the America's Cup? Will a two-helmsman set-up be better than one in the first-to-seven match, slated to start on Wednesday?

"I think the helmsman is really important," Jones says. "But it comes down to their attitude and their communication. It's not just about driving a boat.

"When Russell was helming, we had an exceptional team that worked exceptionally well together and we developed fast boats. We had a package that was good in every respect.

"That's not to say it can't be done now. I believe Team New Zealand has the same formula."

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