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America's Cup poaching season is in full swing, with better funded teams out headhunting

by Richard Gladwell, 29 Jun 2021 21:08 PDT 30 June 2021
American Magic's afterguard - Round Robin 1- Day 2 Prada Cup - Course C - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell / / nz

While American Magic may have been the first to exit the 36th America's Cup regatta, they will be remaining in Auckland for a few more months at least.

With the AC37 venue expected to be announced on September 17, and the Protocol a couple of months later, Executive Director Terry Hutchinson says that outwardly the team are in hibernation mode.

The reality is that the poaching season is in full swing, as the teams with at least some of their funding in place go head-hunting.

"We have had some of our design team poached while not under contract they have a first right of refusal that is hard to match with so much uncertainty," Hutchinson admits. "We know that the Challenger of Record is also doing the same. And we know for a fact that the Defender has retained their designers."

"My big concern is that TNZ may already know what is happening with the next Cup, and they just aren't telling us - which is a massive leg-up in the competition.”

Hutchinson echoed one of the catch-cries from AC36, where it was regularly claimed that pre-announcement knowledge of the AC75 rule, by the Defender and Challenger of Record, gave them a head start in the design race for AC36.

"When we find out about the next competition, we need to understand what the rules are going to be, how they are going to be executed, and then build a team that can come up with a winnable solution."

Despite Emirates Team New Zealand's "thanks but no thanks" response to the NZ Government offer on Hosting the next America's Cup, several of the various AC team insiders spoken to by Sail-World expect Auckland to named as the next venue, however there is believed to be at least one other very strong front-runner.

"We're slowly chipping away at what AC37 could look like through the lens of Auckland being the venue in 2024," Hutchinson explains. "At the same time, we can also plan for a couple of the other places that have been mentioned in recent media reports,"

"We're also going through the budgeting process and understanding the potential financial cost - which takes a lot of time because we're critiquing things that we did well, and what we did poorly."

"Today, we are going through the possible pack out of the Wynyard Point base and what that looks like. There are not a high volume of ships leaving Auckland - we suspect we still have a bit of time to do that. But it still feels premature to rush to any conclusions."

While Kiwiland took Emirates Team NZ's decline of the NZ Govt's $99million offer in cash and kind, as a rejection of Auckland as venue for the next America's Cup, American Magic and the other teams don't see it that way.

'My understanding is that the only thing that has happened (after the June 17 announcement) is that the Defender has opened up the venue to other bids. That doesn't exclude Auckland from still being the venue."

Asked what his preference would be for the next Cup, Hutchinson quips, "Newport, Rhode Island!"

On a more serious note he says that by leaving most of their assets in Auckland, American Magic was certainly "hedged in that direction" [for an Auckland venue].

While New York Yacht Club are second in line to be Challenger of Record, they currently have no input into the options and running of the next event.

"We have to revert back to what we do know, which is that we are an America's Cup team that waiting for details on the venue and the rules, and where we get to go racing."

"It's hard to speculate too much beyond that. There are absolutely very few people that actually know what is going on, and until we get clear direction, it is probably best not to speculate."

Quickie unlikely

Within hours of the conclusion of the 36th America's Cup, mainstream media in NZ began running the storyline of a so-called "Deed of Gift" challenge between the Defender and just announced Challenger of Record, the Royal Yacht Squadron, based on Cowes IOW.

Anyone with a modicum of understanding of the America's Cup knows that such a short-term event couldn't wash its face financially, and would do substantial damage in the short to medium term to the event. Besides which all America’s Cups are conducted under the Deed of the Gift, the 19th century document that governs the conduct of the competition for the now 170 year old, £100 Victorian ewer.

Sail-World's sources indicate that the next America's Cup will be a conventional regatta with a Challenger Selection Series and Match.

After being asked for his reaction to the prospect of a one on one match between the two Royal Yacht Squadrons, Hutchinson emits a long sigh and says it would "be a hard pill to swallow."

"Neither Team New Zealand or Team INEOS seem to be the type of teams that would shy away from competition. We would be disappointed if it went that way, and if they mutually agreed to exclude other competitors."

"That would be very disappointing," he iterated.

Hutchinson says that have given no consideration as to what they might do between themselves and Luna Rossa if there was indeed a "Quickie" Match between the RNZYS and RYS, using their two existing AC75's. But he chuckles at the suggestion that if two Royals did have an exclusive Match for the Cup, then the New York Yacht Club team could do something similar, or run an extended, out of Cup cycle, two boat test program with Luna Rossa.

"Eventually we are going to have to consider some of these plans - but it hasn't got that far, because I struggle to see the point of an America's Cup sailed in the same boats as AC36, with the other challengers excluded."

"We have to wait to see what is factual, what is going to happen, and make decisions from there."

Few new teams appearing

Aside from potentially Alinghi, Hutchinson says they haven't seen any new teams emerge yet. American Magic's first AC75, Defiant is still for sale - which would be a useful immediate starting point, for a new team to build some momentum.

"Ernesto [Bertarelli] is a great competitor, and has a great history with the event, and you'd welcome a team like that, because they will be well-funded and they will be smart, and are good sailors."

"It would be very cool to see a Swiss team racing. As we saw briefly in the Italian SailGP regatta, those guys are very good sailors. Potentially this is right in their wheelhouse. And what a great opportunity."

Alinghi's GC32 team are the current world champions, and with a team that would probably fit America's Cup nationality requirements.

Lease extensions

The Italian team Luna Rossa were believed to be on a different, more temporary lease agreement than the other two challengers, and have literally packed their tent-bases and left Auckland.

Hutchinson says his team are navigating through the longer-term lease possibility with Auckland Council's development arm Panuku Developments. "When we get to a spot when we know exactly what is going to happen with the next Cup, we will have a couple of different scenarios. And, if we owe rent, on Wynyard Point, then we will have to take that on when the time comes."

"We know that getting on a ship out of New Zealand, in the next six to eight weeks, probably isn't going to happen - so we will be in a spot at some stage where Panuku becomes our landlord, and we will have to compensate them for what is a reasonable amount of rent to charge."

"Wynyard Point is not an operational base for us at this stage - it's just a storage facility. Under the terms of the lease, we don't have the ability to even sub-let the hospitality area."

"But we do have the responsibility to return the area in good working order. If the venue does move then we will decommission the base and we'll ship our boats and equipment home."

Win or lose, the Review points are similar

As previously reported American Magic did a full and independent review of their 36th America's Cup campaign, facilitated by an ex-ETNZ high-performance coach.

"He did an anonymous survey where team members could speak freely and openly to allow the opportunity to communicate without any real consequences. It was really eye-opening, and was a very positive process because team members were honest and put a lot of time into it, and over 85% of the team responded."

"Obviously when you went through an experience like we did, it is hard not to judge the program on one moment. But it is incredibly unfair to do that because over the course of four years we were a startup team. We built an incredible amount of infrastructure - three boats; two AC75 rigs; we built two Mule [12 metre long test boat] rigs; got a sailing operation going; and the team did a very good job there."

"Most importantly when our backs were against the wall, the team responded in the way we knew we would. It was an incredible team execution to get Patriot back on the water."

"The beauty of the debrief is that no matter if you win the regatta, or get kicked in the teeth, the points should all be the same."

"That was the really interesting part of it. It was critical. It was fair. And, regardless of if we won or lost, I think everyone here today had optimism about where we were, and where we were going. But I also think we recognised our weaknesses - and came out of the debrief."

"All teams had unique challenges. American Magic's were that we were a startup, we operated on a couple of different continents, and we moved a lot. Those three points can't be overlooked.

"The decisions to move between Newport RI and Pensacola involved a lot of downtime - that's expensive."

Hutchinson says that there are knock-on effects from those relocation decisions, in terms of how the team interacts, and how much they get to know and learn from each other.

The team's northern hemisphere club location meant American Magic had to run a summer base in Bristol RI, and then have a winter base in Pensacola Fl.

In March 2020 to avoid COVID-19 lockdowns, and cancellation of two America's Cup World Series regattas in UK and Italy, the team made the decision to relocate from Pensacola to Auckland, on a chartered ship. The lockdowns and relocations meant the team went for five months without sailing an AC75, but with an intensive program in Auckland were able to catch up. Their second boat, Patriot was also a big step up from their first, Defiant.

"The separation across a couple of different continents made it very difficult, Hutchinson recalled. "But that was a decision made to get going as fast as we could. If we had to do it over again, in the same manner, we'd probably take the same decisions, in terms of a start-up.

"But now, being a bit more mature, we know we want to consolidate the operation, make it US based, and insist that team members live and operate under the same roof. "

"The value of us all being in New Zealand from July 1 of last year, was incredible. A lot of value came out of that interaction because we were all together."

Emirates Team New Zealand and American Magic were the only two teams to develop test boats under the 39ft (12metre) long limit allowed by the 2021 Protocol. Both boats were scaled versions derived from the AC75 class rule.

"Collectively as a team, The Mule (AM's test boat) was a really good resource for the team and we invested heavily in that scaled-down development. The development of the simulator coupled with mule was of great benefit and validation of the science. As we go forward we have to use historical data from Patriot, and the fleet, and we have to use science to develop more.

"In the broadbrush strokes, those things don't speak to the performance on the water, and yet in some ways they speak directly to the performance on the water, because of the lack of interaction that we had with the other teams, had consequences."

"In saying all of that, we were all incredibly proud of the work that Marcelino Botin and the designers did with all of our equipment."

Kiwi's edge apparent early on

Looking at the big picture, Hutchinson says the most impressive point of the regatta was how the four design teams, in a relatively short cycle, all came up with boats that were so similar in speed.

But he qualified that statement saying: "clearly the Defender's boat was a step beyond, and good step beyond."

Hutchinson says he first picked up on the Kiwis speed edge on the first day of the Christmas Cup. "We had a 400 metre lead on them, and that got chewed up pretty quickly. I knew then that we had to get a lot better - even though we actually sailed a pretty good race. We made a couple of mistakes up the last beat - but they chewed into us really quickly, and we were performing well - so I thought "we're going to have some work here".

That race was the only time in the 12 races sailed in the America's Cup World Series, where any of the Challengers beat Team New Zealand - who were on the backfoot after some technical issues at the start, where American Magic led at the first mark by 15 seconds, extending out to 26 seconds on the run. The boats were equal around the top mark at the end of Leg 5, but after splitting gybes, American Magic found more pressure, and went on to win by an impressive 12 seconds.

For all the shortcomings highlighted by Hutchinson, American Magic did emerge from the ACWS as the top Challenger. But a much improved Team INEOS UK, plus a couple of own goals in the light-airs foiling department on Days 1 & 2, and then the Day 3 capsize, when leading, put paid to American Magic's AC36 hopes.

Small foils

When pressed Hutchinson says, several months earlier, in July/August when they were interacting together, American Magic's surveillance alerted them to the advantage Emirates Team New Zealand enjoyed - with their first AC75 Te Aihe.

"We saw the way they were sailing the boat, and they were training in a different manner to us, and at different speeds. We could see from the size of their foils that they were training to be sailing at faster speeds."

Hutchinson says both American Magic and Team New Zealand were in the same design corner with their small foil size.

"In the foils, they were only 0.1sq metre smaller than Patriot. And on the rudder elevator they were on 0.31sq metres and we were on 0.33sq metres. So both American Magic and Team New Zealand were in the small foil design box".

Looking at the points of design difference between the two US and Kiwi programs, both had small foils. But as others have noted, the Kiwis had done a very good job with their aero package.

"They launched with a main boom, and then evolved through their test-boat. We all saw Luna Rossa go boom-less [or rather ran a conventional boom below deck-level on both their AC75's].

"The Kiwis tested the boom-less concept and clearly developed something there, which was a step above what the rest of the fleet had."

"Then they launched with it and made it even better," he added.

Treading bravely into the virtual world

"There's also a lot of speculation about how Team New Zealand developed their boat in a virtual world. But we don't know completely about that because none of us were inside the team," Hutchinson says.

"When we hear about artificial intelligence being used in their design component, then that's where all the other teams know where they have to get to. If you believe the rumour mill there was some component of AI in the latter stages of the Kiwi program."

When questioned as to whether he has a software team using the present hibernation period to develop simulators and the like - as Team New Zealand did after the 2013 America's Cup.

Hutchinson's unedifying response is "it's probably a pretty smart move! I'll leave that one with you!"

"What I will say is that out of the debrief we know that the Mule was a really valuable tool. We also know to develop at the speed we need to go, we need to have a virtual boat that is exceptionally accurate and reliable.

"Prior to the start of this program we didn't have any of that, as rightfully you point out, that is a logical area of development."

"It would be a mistake not to develop the virtual boat, and to take everything we know from the last experience and build it into a more evolved way to develop. That feels like the right pathway forward.

Backers yet to commit

The uncertainty over the future shape of the 37th America’s Cup means American Magic’s backers are not in a position, in Dennis Conner’s words, “to make a commitment to the commitment.”

"We're working through that now. It would be premature to say one way or the other."

"We've been really fortunate to have Doug, Hap, Roger and the New York Yacht Club. As you know it is a monumental commitment, and they were incredibly generous to all of us in this program."

"From my perspective, I want to make sure that whatever we do is the right decision for them. That makes it really easy to keep going forward. They have invested a lot in the cost of the startup. I think we can operate in a much different way, and be a team that would be difficult to beat."

"The areas that we are focusing on now is how can reduce our financial spend, and still be regatta winning?"

"I'm not sure what the solution is. If we continue to race in the AC75's, the boats are exciting, but they are also expensive boats. It's not a cheap proposition."

"It's a circular problem because on one hand, you have a boat that is very expensive, but on the other and you have one, that is very cool to race.

"If the decision was made that the America's Cup was a lot more sustainable with a boat like the Maxi 72, then you probably have a lot more teams at a fraction of the cost.

"But that's not the playing field that we are on. How do you solve that problem?"

It’s an issue, along with several others, that’s exercising the minds of those waiting in the wings waiting for AC37 to return to centrestage.

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