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Gladwell's Line: What is being hatched at Emirates Team New Zealand ?

by Richard Gladwell/ 18 Mar 05:25 PDT 10 November 2021
Emirates Team New Zealand's Te Rehutai had several unusual design features © COR 36 | Studio Borlenghi

Last Thursday was the first anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron's defence of the 36th America's Cup.

Outwardly the past 12 months have been the most bizarre for any America's Cup Champion. After being spurned for a home waters defence, the 2024 America's Cup venue search has been dogged by the COVID virus, and now war. The team has three major design and build projects underway - two of which don't appear to have a much relevance to yacht racing. During what appeared to be a stand-off with two of the stars of the sailing world, ETNZ announced that it had hired one of their Olympic and SailGP rival skippers.

What is happening at Emirates Team New Zealand?

The Match will be remembered as being one of the closest in Cup history, with the scores tied at three wins each after three days of racing.

From there, Emirates Team New Zealand got out of first gear. They went on to win the next four races to complete their second successful defence of the America's Cup - repeating their achievement of 20 years previously in the 30th America's Cup. With four Cup wins, Team New Zealand, in its three renditions, is the most successful team in America's Cup history. However, the most successful Defender is the New York Yacht Club, which held the trophy for 132years - a record that will never be eclipsed.

Most pundits expected the Kiwi team to win in a canter, using their expected clear boat speed advantage which was only fully employed in the latter stages of the Match. At the end of the series, in their internal analysis, the Kiwis tagged themselves with a "can do better" comment on the performance from the sailing team. Many of their actions since the series have been geared around rectifying that perceived shortcoming, which was a long-predicted product of their pre-series gameplan. That point aside, the reality is that the “can do better” comment is the only acceptably useful one from the debrief. A self-congratulatory conclusion would not have worked within the ETNZ team culture, which is always to put themselves under pressure and to improve on everything, no matter how advanced, innovative or successful it is already.

Maintaining competitive tension within the Kiwi camp is the only way to keep the show moving ahead when you're are a Defender. Complacency is a sure-fire way to lose the Cup. As a Challenger, it is much easier to build that tension when the "enemy" is an Alinghi or Oracle - with unlimited budgets, and the only way for the Kiwis from Struggle Street to win, is to think and work smarter.

The last Match proved yet again the truism of the America's Cup, simply that the fastest boat always wins. After being technically bested in the previous three multi-challenger matches in 2003, 2007 and 2013, the Kiwis won the design and development contest in 2017 and 2021, for their second successive America's Cup win.

The self-critical Kiwi debrief conveniently overlooks the fact that the Challengers had a reasonable workup through the America's Cup World Series and the Prada Cup. Thanks to some generous race scheduling and COVID lockdowns, Luna Rossa and INEOS Team UK, got reasonable time between series to analyse their performance and effect changes that would not normally have been possible.

That is a reverse of the situation in Bermuda, where ETNZ did have the advantage of a Challenger Series to work up and get race sharp. The Challenger Final in Bermuda against Artemis Racing was more keenly contested than the America's Cup Match. The outcome could have gone the other way had Artemis not cracked under pressure at vital moments.

Pressure testing

Since the 36th America's Cup, the Kiwis have kept themselves under pressure with several projects - which are Cup relevant - and stop the team from becoming overly consumed with AC75 development. It is too easy having twice-written the AC75 Class Rule, and developed two very good boats, to get into a development rut. The Kiwis have to create fresh thinking and creatively challenge what has gone before. They won't achieve that by going into developing AC75 design myopia over the next couple of years.

Similarly, with ETNZ’s build teams, they too must put themselves under competitive pressure to streamline and improve their processes as much as possible. Their objective is to reduce build time- which translates into the ability to give extra design time for the raceboat.

That’s the significant advantage of running an in-house build team - the racing team has complete control over timing, process, and priority without having to work with an external builder and conflicting build projects. ETNZ and American Magic both ran in-house build teams in AC36. The US team built two boats before they started their first AC75, but they were the worst affected by the COVID disruptions.

The Protocol for the 37th America’s Cup contains the usual provisions about designing, building and sailing surrogate yachts – defined essentially any yacht longer than 12 metres, with an exception being made for class boats like a TP52 or a VO65, which ETNZ have previously campaigned. However there is not a lot that can be learned from those projects which is relevant to an America’s Cup program conducted in foiling, soft wing-sailed monohulls.

The Land Yacht Speed record project requires the design and build teams stay sharp on a new project, and improve communication between the two groups. Of course, rig design and drag reduction are the other learning areas for the AC75 raceboat project - remembering that only one new AC75 is allowed to be built for the next Cup.

ETNZ’s two meetings available on video show that there are some hard questions being asked, and there is concern about scope-creep impinging on the AC37 Defence program. With America's Cup looking to emulate F1's very raw Netflix series "Drive to Survive", it is hard to believe that the people involved are just acting out some script devised as a PR stunt with an eye to the next Oscars.

It is a similar but different situation with the hydrogen chase boat with a boat design, construction and foils. Again, it gets the team as close as possible to a real-life scenario, making mistakes/having learning experiences relevant to the AC75 - without infringing the surrogate boat rules - all while working under time, budget, and delivery pressure.

These projects also force innovation in a way that is not possible building one of the permitted one-design class yachts.

The AC40 project is similar but different to the other two in-house projects. ETNZ made the decision to progress their design thinking beyond their AC36 Defender, Te Rehutai - but not far enough for the other teams to pick up the direction of travel from the Kiwi's AC36 design post-mortem. While that is some benefit to the other teams, ETNZ also gets a bite of the design cherry that is not available to the Challengers.

The building side of that project is being handled by McConaghy Boats in China, with spars, sails and rigging coming from the North Technology Group.

The two projects also work for two of the team’s long time sponsors. It’s a fair bet that Omega will be the Official Timer for the Land Speed record exercise. Toyota has already declared their involvement with the hydrogen power unit for the foiling chase boat.

Sailing team sorted at last

Emirates Team New Zealand face a conundrum with their sailing team. For the past two America's Cup cycles, the athletes have come from Olympic programs in Sailing, Rowing and Cycling.

For the 2017 Cup, the Olympic sailors ran conjoint programs which worked alongside ETNZ's America's Cup requirements.

The advantage to the America's Cup team was that their sailors were kept race-sharp by sailing in 49er and Finn regattas. Plus, in all three sports, the discipline of the various Olympic programs easily crossed over into the ETNZ America's Cup effort. Several of the 2024 America’s Cup teams have announced core sailing teams. The tight nationality rules in the latest Protocol have meant that the sailors had little option but to sail for their national team.

For the 2024 America's Cup, it is not feasible for sailors to run a conjoint Olympic program with its pinnacle event about six weeks after the 37th Match. Plus there obvious time conflicts between an Olympic build up in Europe and ETNZ’s testing and development program in New Zealand.

While Burling and Tuke did conjoint Olympic and America's Cup campaigns in 2021, there was a four-month gap between the two regattas. It was planned for the 49er Olympic champions to follow a similar route to that in 2016/17 when the gap between Rio2016 and Bermuda's America's Cup was around 12 months. However, the COVID induced postponement of TOKYO2020 concertinaed the Olympics into the same year as the Olympics. Their only option was to run with the new calendar and get the best result possible in both regattas. They came close – winning the America’s Cup and tying on points for the 49er Gold medal.

They weren't the only sailors affected, with Finn sailors Josh Junior and Andy Maloney having a similar issue within Emirates Team NZ and defending Olympic Finn Champion Giles Scott with INEOS Team UK.

The bulk of Emirates Team NZ's sailing team will be sailing their third America's Cup campaign as a squad. They will be the most experienced team - and maybe one of the youngest in the 37th America's Cup.

In hiring former Artemis Racing and SailGP helmsman, Nathan Outteridge, the Kiwis have, for the first time in their 35 year history, got two world-class helmsmen in their squad. That gives them a selection choice, but more importantly, it provides cover against sickness or injury.

While the team has been through a protracted crew engagement process, they have emerged with a crew competing in the ten regatta SailGP circuit, through Burling and Tuke's NZ SailGP entry. While they too have had a testing 12 months, Season 3 should be a lot more settled. Importantly they will come up against many of their America's Cup rivals on the SailGP circuit, resolving the question of how to stay race sharp in fast foiling boats.

A lack of match racing experience remains their weak point. One of the objectives for Outteridge and Burling in the AC40s will be to work up a match-racing playbook suitable for the nuances of starting and sailing foiling monohulls.

One solution could be the involvement of Phil Robertson, a former World Match racing champion, and a hired gun for three start-up teams on the SailGP circuit. The Kiwi skipper has pulled some bold moves in the F50. Some have come off, and others need more refinement in the simulator. Another wild card is Tom Slingsby, arguably the top helmsman on the SailGP circuit. His options are to be part of an Australian team; use his joint nationality to join a US team; or work as a match racing opponent for any team.

An obvious takeaway from the 2021 Prada Cup and America’s Cup, is that big gains can be made in the pre-start, by a skilled, and intuitive match racer intent on disrupting any speed advantage of an opponent.

There are no obvious answers to crew structure/roles, with the latest AC75 Class Rule requiring crew numbers to drop from 11 to eight sailors.

One of the big questions will be whether they or any team can afford the luxury of running a split helming role in the way that Luna Rossa did with Francesco Bruni and Jimmy Spithill in the 2021 America’s Cup. It worked for the Italians when 11 crew were permitted, and Spithill - an intuitive match racer - could run the start from the starboard helming position.

The tradeoff in the new rules, for the split helming option, is a reduction in grinding power - which often manifests itself in race determining crashes off the foils at crucial moments.

Venue still in limbo

A decision on the venue may be forthcoming on or before March 31.

The short list is believed to be Cork (Ireland), Barcelona and Malaga (Spain).

Fortress New Zealand has been opened up to returning Kiwis, enabling ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton to visit the shortlisted venues, ahead of any venue announcement on March 31st. He has already been reported at Malaga and Barcelona, in southern Spain.

The issue all the prospective venues face is that the way the Protocol is worded there is a strong incentive for the teams to be sailing at the venue from June 1, 2023. That means base construction needs to be underway by early 2023. While that assures the venue of 12 months revenue from the teams, it means that construction must be fast-tracked through design and build. Once in the venue the teams won't leave completely, except to maybe launch and commission their raceboats for the 2024 Cup in their home countries.

The venue negotiations have been a fraught process with the NZ Government and Auckland Council, who did not adopt a realistic approach to staging the next America's Cup in Auckland.

Outside that exclusive negotiation, the attempt by Kiwi Home Defence Group to publicly split away ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton from the team he had taken over in 2003 and led to wins in the 2017 and 2021 America's Cup was a stupid move, that grabbed headlines, but was bound to create an estranged relationship between the team and would-be funder from the outset. Nothing has changed since.

The search for an offshore venue for the 2024 Cup has not been straight-forward. Once one major obstacle has been overcome another appears – each worse than its predecessor.

When Europe had largely recovered from the Delta version of the COVID virus, the more contagious Omicron variant appeared, resetting any confidence that was building in the sports and event sponsorship market.

With the Omicron outbreak largely contained, the Russian invasion of Ukraine spooked the commercial world and continues to do so.

With a team like Emirates Team New Zealand, which is notoriously unpredictable, it is not worth indulging in a sideline analysis of the merits of two Spanish venues in Malaga and Barcelona against Cork in Ireland.

It would not be surprising for Auckland to be named as an alternate venue, in the same way that Sardinia was for the 2021 America’s Cup.

That gives confidence that the America's Cup could have the certainty of being staged in 2024, almost regardless of what happens in Russia, its former buffer states and the rest of Europe. All the entered teams have sailed previously in Auckland – in 2021 or 2003, and it is a known venue with plenty of America’s Cup infrastructure and a world-leading high-tech marine industry.

The fan enthusiasm, fuelled by free admittance to the Cup Village and on the water, was a lasting memory of the 36th America's Cup. But the size of the fleet - numbering several thousand boats was a big constraint on the course location. Regatta Director Iain Murray quipped after the first day of the 36th Match, that "it would be easier to move Rangitoto Island than the spectator fleet!"

However, an Auckland Cup in 2024 would be a very different version from the last. Expectations that Aucklander can be treated to a free show are utterly unrealistic in a tight sponsorship market and with the degree of funding antipathy from Government and Council.

Crashing through the bureaucracy inherent in a New Zealand based Cup is a significant issue when strong leadership is absent at Governmental level. A Mike Moore or Murray McCully type is required, who can bang the panjandrums' heads when necessary and short circuit issues before they become embroiled in bureaucracy and legal opinion.

Somehow the Government and Council have to extricate themselves from their report on the 2021 Cup, which had the whole of the infrastructure cost dumped into the 36th America's Cup cost. They also have to politically reconcile how they can justify an investment in an event, which their 2021 reports claimed returned only $0.48c for every $1 spent.

That figure doesn't square too well with the previous Cup in Bermuda, as reported by PriceWaterhouseCoopers using the conventional approach used for all previous Cups, which showed a return to Bermuda of $5 for every $1 invested. It’s not Emirates Team New Zealand’s to pull New Zealand out of the business mire that has resulted from Government imposed COVID rules and mandates, and the destruction of the commercial area of downtown Auckland by the construction of the City Light Rail project.

Emirates Team New Zealand doesn’t owe anyone anything.

A reality check is long overdue.

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