Opinion – With still nothing separating defender and challenger in this America’s Cup, Team NZ are working 24 hours to make a breakthrough.
Racing or no racing, the lights still burned through the night in Team New Zealand’s shed.
Even though Te Rehutai, Team NZ’s sleek foiling machine, didn’t get out of the blocks on Sunday – the first day of this America’s Cup regatta abandoned through a lack of wind – there was still work to do for the night shift.
While the Kiwi AC75 sat idle, surrounded by more than 1200 spectator craft on the calm waters in the Rangitoto Channel, it wasn’t time lost. Team experts jumped from the chase boats to the race boat to study the clew of the mainsail and other critical components of the thoroughbred yacht.
Every day, Team NZ’s shore crew wait back at their Auckland waterfront base while the boat is out on the Hauraki Gulf, ready to snap into action when it returns and work on the boat right through till dawn.
Team NZ’s onshore boat captain, Jack Taylor – part of the Team NZ family since he was nine years old – says there’s always a long job list when the foiling monohull slips back into the shed immediately after as it’s craned out of the water, and all of its parts are examined intricately.
“Each department has their own tweaks they do every night – sailmaking, hydraulics, electronics, boat building and rigging,” he says.
“And everyone is constantly trying to push the limits. As long as we get all the work done, then the hours can be put towards focusing on the boat’s performance.”
That’s another area that gets round-the-clock attention – upstairs in the Viaduct Events Centre, Team NZ’s home, the performance analysis team dissect all the data that comes off the boat, to see what went well, what didn’t, and pinpoint any areas where they can eke out more speed.
Especially in this truly unusual see-saw battle, which has the teams tied at 3-3 (1-1 for three days in a row) in the first-to-seven wins match.
So far, Te Rehutai has stood up well to the pressures of racing six races in three days – there have been no breakages to repair or replace.
Granted, the breeze and the sea state have been on the tame side so far in the match – unlike conditions in Bermuda four years ago, where Team NZ cracked their daggerboards in one race, and spectacularly damaged two wingsails on another day of strong winds and choppy seas on the Great Sound.
The entire team – including chairman Sir Stephen Tindall – famously worked through the night to get Aotearoa back in racing condition after the dramatic pitchpole. So far, no repeat.
“It’s interesting to see these boats being pushed, especially from a reliability perspective,” Taylor says of the new AC75s. “And it’s quite exciting – for me at least – to see the boats racing every day, for as many days as it takes for us to take this out.”
Sunday’s race day – canned when the wind failed to lift above the consistent 6.5 knots needed to start a race – has left the scoreboard poised at a deadlock for the fourth day running. And some may have seen it as a reprieve for the defenders, with Te Rehutai expected to reveal her true class in stronger breezes, while the Italian boat has tended to favour the lighter airs.
The forecast for Monday and Tuesday is for building moderate winds.
But regardless of what end of the scale the wind might be, Team NZ will still go through their regular race day rituals.
There are shifts covering 24 hours for the 100 Team NZ members; the first starting at 4am and working until the boat leaves for the racecourse around 2pm. Taylor and other heads of department arrive around between 7 and 8am, and an evening shift comes in around midday.
“They have lunch with the team and work until all the general work has been done, usually around midnight,” Taylor says. The night shift, with experts from all areas of the boat, starts at 7pm. “They’re there to get everything done.”
Even when Te Rehutai has left the dock, the toil in the shed continues. “A lot of the shore crew guys are putting in time on spares [spare boat parts]. There’s always some work for the boys on the tools back in the shed,” Taylor says.
Up until the end of race one, a person from every department is on call, ready to jump in a chase boat with “back-ups to back-ups”, Taylor explains, in case something goes wrong to Te Rehutai out on the water.
As soon as the foiling monohull starts sailing, team members on shore begin checking the data and performance of the boat. They’re also monitoring Luna Rossa’s yacht, as they have been since the challengers began the Prada Cup.
Taylor watches the race from the sail loft on the mezzanine floor inside the shed, where he can watch the data coming off the boat on one screen, and the race on another.
“On a race day the boat sees a lot less sailing time than it does on a normal sailing day for us. With the races being 20 to 30 minutes, twice a day, the boats aren’t sailing that long,” he says. “On a normal sailing day, you could see us leaving the dock at 5am and returning at 7pm. That’s like five days racing in one day.”
So who has the more stressful day, the sailors or shore crew?
“The sailors have biometric heart rate monitors on, so we can see exactly where they’re at. Some are quite high, some low – and that’s reflected in the shore crew as well,” Taylor laughs. “Everyone is behind the performance of this boat, so our heart rates are definitely up too.”
Taylor first signed on at Team NZ at the end of 2009, but he’d been around the base for years before that. He was “dragged along with Dad back in 2000 and 2003”, when his father, Murray Taylor, was the media and communications manager for Team NZ’s two defence campaigns.
“I kept that quiet when I first came to work here. But some of the old boys recognised me,” Jack Taylor says.
Across the Viaduct Harbour at the Luna Rossa base, the midnight oil burns brightly too.
The Italians’ daily dock-out ceremony is an event in itself. It’s a riot of colour and sound – the wives and children of the team dressed and painted in vivid red, white and green; kids blowing whistles and shore crew honking air horns to farewell their sailors.
On Sunday, the kids are jumping on a vintage Vespa scooter and sidecar, specially painted in the Prada strip. It had returned to the base after 21 years, when it was used in the 2000 America’s Cup parade – Luna Rossa skipper Francesco de Angelis driving his pillion passenger, chief executive Patrizio Bertelli, up Queen Street.
Today’s Luna Rossa co-helmsman, Francesco Bruni, kisses his wife and three children goodbye. His sidekick, Jimmy Spithill, is the last man to step out of the shed.
“It’s like la dolce vita [the sweet life],” one of the team members says – a special family that’s grown over 24 years.
The family then pours into the base cafeteria to watch the races, or as in Sunday’s case, to wait. Like the faithful seven million Italians back home, who’ve been getting up in the middle of the night to watch their team’s startling performance.
This was the first day in this regatta, the Prada Cup included, where racing was abandoned because of the weather – which is a pretty good record compared to the 2000 and 2003 America’s Cups in Auckland, when no-race days were a common curse.
Out on the water, Team NZ flight controller Blair Tuke is caught napping on Te Rehutai. Bruni says this is nothing new; he’s used to waiting six to eight hours for a race in other boats.
“That’s yacht racing for you,” Team NZ skipper Peter Burling said. “It was very close to being sailable, but not quite.”
* Suzanne McFadden is the editor of LockerRoom, dedicated to women’s sport, and a writer on the America’s Cup.
– This story originally appeared on Newsroom and was republished with permission.