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No Bull (Actually, it's more like, Yes Bull!)

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail World AUS 7 Nov 2022 13:00 PST
Ben Durham mid bow - Louis Vuitton Acts 6 & 7 Luna Rossa ACM 2005 / Photo: Francesco Ferri © ACM 2005 / Photo: Francesco Ferri

Ben Durham is known to a lot of souls as Bull. He's funny, and wonderful to talk with, yet the overarching thing you feel when spending time with him is sharp. No knives involved, or pens in the ribs, just intellect. He's the thinking man's sailor. Durham has also just been announced as Coach of the Year at the Australian Sailing Awards.

When he talks, people listen, for there is detail and accuracy in his presentations. Not fluff, and now you know where the headline came from.

The Pathway

As a youth there were firstly Mirrors, and then Lasers in Ben's world, and he really enjoyed the latter, taking out State and National titles whilst at it. Schools Teams Racing featured at this time too, with a young Ben revelling in the excitement of competition and travelling, meeting new people and the challenge of attaining new levels.

All of this also opened up the door to travel from his native Western Australia, and he got a lot from competing nationally, as well as building some friendships. James Spithill, and Joey Newton, as well as other top guys of the time are included in those days.

Durham commented on it all relative to any young sailors coming along now, "I loved taking on all types of sailing, and School Teams Racing really gave me a chance to race and sail everyday after school, as well as compete at Nationals and eventually the World Championships in Miami, where we were the first Australian team to podium, finishing in third place."

Match racing stemmed from that, which brought the opportunity to go to Europe as quite a young guy. A few years on the World Match Racing Tour all then led into the America's Cup with Young Australia, then the American team, One World, and after that, Luna Rossa.

Peter Gilmour was the skipper of One World, and Spithill ended up driving, but the whole thing was far more crucial in the development of Ben as a sailor, and then coach, for this is where he learned the craft.

Durham said, "It was a really supportive team, and the American and Australian cultures clicked, so it just let everyone take it on. There was no set sort of mindset of who belongs where and in what roles.

"We all shifted to Seattle, and for us young guys it really opened our minds to what potential there really was in the sailing world. We had a lot of very good designers, and incredibly professional sailors, many of whom were part of Team New Zealand that had just won the America's Cup. Some incredible mentors who were at the top of their game."

That team disbanded through no fault of their own, but Luna Rossa were there to pick up the pieces and they all moved to Valencia. Durham reflects that it was a great time with so many teams present, which all just added to the ambience, but for them it was another level of responsibility leading into AC32 that was the defining memory.

Through all of it, Durham had been ocean racing, and of course, the TPs would be/still are a significant part of his life. The Extreme 40s were also part of the mix at that time, and they were also his first real foray into coaching. This also meant they needed to combine a new generation of sailors with some of the older hands. This process and dynamics of working with different nationalities and age brackets would serve Durham well, even to this day.

This group expanded to get set for the big cats and San Francisco, so the AC45s were the new weapon of choice. Specifically, Piranha and Swordfish, with Chris Draper driving the latter, and Paul Campbell-James the former. Success in the AC World Series was a big part of that era for them, with Draper and crew taking it out.

Politics, egos, and sailing are a wonderful cauldron brewing away all the time, so when that team disbanded, it was Team New Zealand this time that swooped in to take the spoils, and they went on to get the job done in Bermuda. They're a team of innovators, so it was not the only reason for their success for sure, but definitely was a leg up! Just remember how good they were in Bermuda.

Durham's energy was poured into the 52s, firstly with Quantum where they won the Med Cup, and the Worlds. He then spent time with Gladiator, and most recently with Hasso and Tina Plattner's Phoenix. Note here that it is one Tom Slingsby OAM that calls the shots from the back of this owner/driver crew, and the importance of this will become more evident later.

In addition to all that he does, Durham has just recently joined Artemis Racing as coach for their RC44, a boat he knows a lot more about now, and will head to Oman with the team in December.

That magic word...

Durham said, "I guess it was an interesting period was when Covid hit. I was pretty busy with the 52s, but naturally all that stopped. SailGP was working really hard to work through it all. Late in the season before it, I started with the Chinese team, which Phil Robertson was driving, and we finished third for the season, which was a great effort."

"Phil and I went to the Spanish team after that, and did a couple of big training camps, but the ensuing twelve-month lockdown thereafter made it all very hard and frustrating. I ended up coaching locally at the yacht clubs here in Perth.

"The only thing that was really getting people out of Australia was SailGP, because it was run at such a professional level, and they helped with the funding of hotel quarantines etc. Obviously, once you got out, you knew you probably weren't going to get back in, in a hurry, either."

Around this time, and before Durham departed to go back to the Spanish team, Slingsby called, and some discussions eschewed. The pictures here show the result of all that. A fair old golden run followed, and before Dubai, which happens soon enough, the Aussies still hold a slender lead in Season Three, having taken out the preceding two.

The level of trust between the two Aussies is significant, for they do the ClubSwan 50 Earlybrid, the TP Phoenix, and SailGP, as well as the SSL Gold Cup together. Matter of factly Durham says, "There's a good relationship and bond between us."

Future Focus

There is no doubt that the level of professionalism in our sport has advanced significantly, and over the last five years, the way that coaching information has been gathered and delivered has to be one big part of it all. Durham indicated that some teams now have three or four coaches, so that just shows you the quantum of the statement.

"I think technology has been a big part of it because it's such a big job to actually put all the technology and analysis together. The relationship and trust stems from the information, so quick analysis and then assessments to make improvements/changes after a day on the track is vital. You know, even simple things like the GoPro camera, that really wasn't around ten or fifteen years are a vital ingredient, as too are drones. There are now just so many incredible cameras that can do 360 degrees and can really let you capture everything on and off the boat.

"The software has also developed very quickly, which is crucial, as you do not need to be a boffin any more to pull it all together. You can even do a lot of these things on your smartphone nowadays with the GPS. This makes it all evidenced based, and facts command attention."

The amalgamation of the data is probably one of the most amazing things I have seen as part of the development of coaching. Having it all synced together between data and footage is really quite something, and you can get a feel for that in these SSL Gold Cup videos.

The trickle-down effect from the America's Cup and SailGP is as distinct as it is evident, just like adaptive suspension and variable valve timing from F1.

Being able to see first hand the buy in from sailors when the material is presented is exceptional, because obviously then the whole team does better. As Durham says, some people are numbers driven, others visual, and here it is all laid out with something for everyone.

Given that it is fact, rather than recounting of observations, it also becomes nigh on impossible to argue with, and your relationships get built faster, as well. Of course the real trick, with so much data around, is to grab the stuff that's pertinent to the job at hand... None the less, the speed with which bonding, and critical on-water improvements can be made is as devastating as it is significant. I can certainly attest to that.

SailGP have an incredible array of data and vision, which is unilaterally shared. I can't wait to see the front of the foil footage (currently only some teams do it with GoPros, and it is not part of SailGP parameters), interlinked with on-boat, drone and metrics, for instance. So pretty please RC, Sacha and Nick? However, the big point is can any, some, or all of it be used in the marketing of the event, for let's face it, the general populace simply cannot get its head around the complexities of sailing. OK. Hold that thought...

"There are over 1200 sensors or data points that you can get from the F50s, which is quite astonishing. Obviously if someone is having a good day we can really delve into the data, and perhaps see what they're doing a little differently, and it would be factual, like wing camber angle.

"In the past, especially with the America's Cup, is was very cloak and dagger stuff, and it still is, where you're sort of guessing what the other guys are doing and you know, you can really get led down the wrong path if you don't get that right. Whereas in SailGP, you know exactly what's happening."

Dubai is up next, then Singapore, Sydney, Christchurch, with San Francisco for the final, and the Kiwis certainly blasted out of the blocks this season. The Australians definitely had a target on their backs, but equally, the data allows the Aussies to assess what they watch and follow of the Kiwis. "There's a number of other teams doing some really good things, as well. So we've really been getting pushed hard, which is exactly what we want. We've got a team that's always pushing hard to try and get a little bit better," said Durham, reflecting on it all.

Note that with the higher placed teams having reduced training, you'd definitely want to show up to each location with a real plan of action, for there is just not time to fly around and work it out when you get back to base.

Could not help thinking that as good as all of that is, there's the old next up question. I mean if you look at motor racing or mountain bike riding, sure there are cameras, but the telemetry also includes the athlete. AFL might be unknown to many, but the hotspots, track usage, distance covered, and heart rates are incredible to watch. Could we see this come into the mix not only for coaching, but also coverage?

"It's amazing what's happened in the past ten years. And it is going to be incredible what happens in the next ten. Everyone's pushing so hard for that little advantage. SailGP has really led the way in the amount of data points that we're getting and the data sharing, and that's just really pushing the evolution.

"To be at the top of the game, you've got to have that mindset that what we're doing today will be pretty obsolete probably in another couple of years with different technologies. There's a lot of smart people thinking every day, 'What else can we get out of this?"

SailGP may well be onto this as we speak, with GPS and heat maps, giving indications as to stress levels, and speed when crossing the boat, or the actual amount of energy expended on the pumps, and other biometric data. Nothing official, but I did get a 'watch this space' return email, so I'm tipping we're inside the playing field with this one.

As for watching the foils and understanding what happens when they boil and stall relative to the data? Not sure, but it is a brave new world, and as Ben says, in a couple of years everything we know now will be dead and buried, so who knows?

Sitting still is no longer an option. It is tantamount to going backwards.

Game on, me thinks... We'll see where it all lands.

OK. There it is. There is so much more on the group's websites for you. Simply use the search field, or 'edition' pull-down menu up the top on the right of the masthead to find it all. Please enjoy your yachting, stay safe, and thanks for tuning into

John Curnow
Editor, Sail World AUS

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