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America's Cup: Tough decisions ahead for Burling and Tuke

by Richard Gladwell/ 15 Oct 03:53 PDT 15 October 2021
Pete Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL) in the Men's 49er on Tokyo 2020 Olympic Sailing Competition Day 6 © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Peter Burling and Blair Tuke announced their return to New Zealand this week, with a media release making it clear the duo had not re-signed with Emirates Team New Zealand.

Once regarded as the hottest property in sailing, they have struggled at times in a competitive season punctuated by COVID.

The timing of the statement marks their entry into Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) in New Zealand, where they will be under military supervision for the next fortnight and exiting just two weeks before the Protocol's announcement governing the 37th America's Cup on November 17.

The pair, who have been sailing as a crew for a decade, have been away from Aotearoa for five months on a regatta circuit that has included the Olympics in Japan and SailGP events in France and Spain. Those were preceded by SailGP events in Bermuda and Italy in April and June, followed by two weeks in New Zealand's MIQ, before heading to Australia for a training regatta in Queensland in the 49er.

The advance of COVID into the Eastern States of Australia cut short their 49er training camp. They scurried back to New Zealand just ahead of the closure of the Trans-Tasman travel "bubble" and before flying to Japan and another two weeks in a restricted quarantine before the Olympic Regatta.

"It's been a busy year. Since AC36, we've been overseas dedicated to representing New Zealand at the Olympic Games and a big European leg with the NZL SailGP Team, as well as continuing our work with Live Ocean," they said in the written statement.

To recap, after winning the 36th America's Cup in mid-March, their SailGP season got off to a difficult start, with their new F50 not being complete on arrival in Bermuda at the end of April. But they competed anyway before heading for Spain for a 49er training regatta, ahead of a second SailGP regatta in Italy in early June. There were still teething issues with the AC50 - mainly in onboard electronic systems.

Aside from fellow Kiwis Andy Maloney and Josh Junior - who were coach and sailor in the Olympic Finn class, only one other sailor attempted to compete in the America's Cup, SailGP and Tokyo2020.

Giles Scott (GBR) won his second Gold medal at Enoshima in the Finn class, winning six of the ten races sailed. As part of the Great Britain SailGP Team, Scott sits just one place ahead of the Kiwis on the SailGP leaderboard, with two events remaining in Sydney and San Francisco.

Scott was part of the INEOS Team UK crew who picked themselves up after an indifferent start in the America's Cup World Series, going straight through to the Challenger Finals in the Prada Cup but were convincingly beaten by a fast-improving Luna Rossa.

Changes required

After the announcement of the Protocol on November 17, and the strong likelihood that the next America's Cup will not be held in New Zealand, some hard decisions will have to be made.

One of the lessons from the last America's Cup, for ETNZ, is that it is probably not sufficient to go out and use a team chase boat to pick up match racing practise, or indeed any contested sailing practice. The simulator is good but not a substitute for on the water training.

As the most accomplished match racer in the 2021 America's Cup, Jimmy Spithill was able to get an advantage for the Italian team in the pre-start, including hitting the brakes on the AC75 at a critical moment.

With more Challengers in the next America's Cup than the last, and with the teams being on an easier learning curve than in AC36, there will be much harder racing in the Challenger series. As Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand have to match or better that level of racecraft.

Although there has been no announcement of a venue for the 37th America's Cup, it is hard to see how Burling and Tuke (and others of their ilk) can squeeze an Olympic campaign, sail in SailGP and compete in the America's Cup - all in the European summer of 2024. That's not to mention the training, testing and competition associated with the

For Giles Scott, Andy Maloney (NZL) and Josh Junior (NZL), the situation is more straightforward now that the Finn has been dropped from the 2024 Olympics, and there is no event for men weighing more than 85kgs.

Several America's Cup sailors compete in SailGP, which remains an excellent short sharp reality check for Cup crews, racing one-design versions of the AC50's they raced in the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda.

"We're supportive of Team New Zealand management's efforts to ensure a successful defence of the America's Cup and respect the complexities the next event will bring in a post-Covid world," Tuke and Burling continued in their media statement.

"As you can appreciate, we'd like clarity on the fundamentals of the event before we commit. We're in regular conversation with the team as the process is worked through," they concluded.

Emergent teams

While some have speculated that the double America's Cup champions could become sailors of fortune and join another America's Cup team, it is hard to see how that can be possible if the Protocol for the next America's Cup reflects the joint statement issued on March 19, 2021, by the two Royals (RNZYS and RYS).

"A new Crew Nationality Rule will require 100% of the race crew for each competitor to either be a passport holder of the country the team's yacht club as at March 19 2021, or to have been physically present in that country (or, acting on behalf of such yacht club in Auckland, the venue of the AC36 Events) for two of the previous three years before March 18 2021. As an exception to this requirement, there will be a discretionary provision allowing a quota of non-nationals on the race crew for competitors from "Emerging Nations".

For Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa, sailors like Glenn Ashby (AUS) and Jimmy Spithill (USA) can still sail for New Zealand and Italy, respectively.

The only way a sailor of fortune can shift to a foreign team is under the Emerging Nations category. Only when the new Protocol is announced can it precisely determined what constitutes an "Emerging Nation." The matter is likely to be determined on a case by case basis, with the two Royals or ETNZ reserving the right to accept an Entry/Challenge from an "Emerging" team.

The Kiwis harbour long and dark memories of the departure of six crew from the champion team of the 2000 America's Cup to join the "emerging" Swiss team of Alinghi in April/May 2000. With only one Swiss national aboard, they became the only challenger in America's Cup history to win the trophy on their first attempt.

Emirates Team NZ are unlikely to leave the classification of an Emerging Nation matter open to the deliberations of a yet to be appointed Arbitration Panel to interpret the Emerging Nations Protocol rule.

A more straightforward approach is to reserve for themselves the right to accept/ decline entries, not in compliance with the 100% nationality requirement for sailing crew, or set conditions on their entry.

That would seem to limit the ability of the professional sailors to create an open market for their talents, as happened in the 2003-2017 period when grinders were paid salaries of NZ40,000 a month.

The ripple effect of those salary costs across a 120 strong America's Cup team drives up the team budget to an unsustainable level with current sponsorship and income streams.

In common with their new best friends in the Formula One racing scene, the next America's Cup event will attempt to once again lower costs to a sustainable level in reaction to the commercial reality of the post-COVID sponsorship market.

Peter Burling and Blair Tuke are amongst a very select group of sailors, if not the only ones, who have managed to develop a portfolio of high profile activities over the last four years - covering America's Cup, SailGP, Volvo Ocean Race, and Olympics, along with their Live Ocean Trust which is getting significant cut-through.

Their task is to make that portfolio work, with all the training required, until August 2024 against some very demanding time conflicts.

But the sting in the tail of the new Protocol is that under the new nationality clause only a few top sailors will have the option of sailing for a country other than their home, unless they can persuade the Defenders that they should allowed to sail for one of the Emerging teams.

Top sailors have been forced to sit out previous America's Cups, and as in life, no-one is irreplaceable.

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