War on water: Inside the America's Cup

When the oldest competition in sport visited the Middle East recently, EDGAR spent time onboard with the world's best sailors.

Robert Chilton May 8, 2016

What comes to mind when you think of sailing? Perhaps a tanned middle-aged man in a pink polo shirt, chino shorts and deck shoes, casually steering his boat with one hand while taking care not to spill his cocktail in the other? 

Well, that’s one incarnation of the popular pastime, yes. But at the other end of the spectrum is the America’s Cup, in which teams of elite athletes wearing athletic apparel and helmets, funded by huge corporations, tear around race courses at 50kph to fight for the oldest sports trophy in the world.

Nicknamed ‘Formula 1 on water’ the America’s Cup pits the best sailors in the world on board the fastest boats in a series of global races to find a winner of the Auld Mug, a competition that dates back to 1851 – that’s 50 years before the Modern Olympics.

The most recent race took place off the coast of Oman and was the first time the historic event had visited the Middle East. EDGAR slipped on its deck shoes (we left the pink polo at home) to meet the sailors and see the sport close up.

Power

“Sailing these boats is like driving in the fast lane of the Sheikh Zayed Road while playing chess with someone in the passenger seat,” smiles Neil Myant, a chatty British coach with the Royal Yachting Association. “It’s split second decisions and tactical manoeuvres at high speeds. If you get it wrong, you lose.” 

EDGAR is holding on tightly on board a military speedboat 200 metres off the coast of Oman, observing the six teams close up on a practice day. Real race conditions are recreated as the boats go one-on-one, plus races in which all six boats race together.

Each race lasts about 20 minutes Artemis Racing (Sweden), Land Rover BAR (GB), Softbank Team Japan, Emirates Team New Zealand and Groupama Team France are competing to take the title from the cup holders Oracle Team USA.

After Oman there will be racing this summer in New York, Chicago and Portsmouth before the circus heads to France in September. All points go towards seeing who takes on the USA in the final best-of-17 series in Bermuda in 2017. 

What is immediately apparent is the physicality of the five sailors on each boat. They skip across the netting between the hulls of the catamaran like gazelles, before furiously turning winches, yanking ropes and clinging onto the front of the slippery hulls to gain speed. As the boat cruises in a straight line the crew get a few seconds rest, before they need to turn the boat again.

“It’s explosive, they’re like coiled springs,” gasps Myant. “These guys burn about 2,800 calories during a 20-minute race.” After practice, the sailors mingle in the clubhouse. They look shattered. One guy can barely lift a bottle of water to his lips.

Jimmy Spithill is the captain of Oracle Team USA, the defending champions, who are backed by US tech billionaire Larry Ellison and British watch brand Bremont, the official timekeeper of the America’s Cup. Spithill, an Australian with biceps like cannons, became the youngest winning skipper in 2010 aged 30. He won again for the USA in 2013 in one of the most stunning comebacks in sports history, edging Team New Zealand 9-8 after being 8-1 down.

“Sailing is a highly physical sport,” he tells EDGAR. “We typically work in the gym for 20-25 minutes at maximum heart rate to the point of exhaustion. At some stage during the workout our trainer will stop us and give us a children’s puzzle so we have to calm down and concentrate. In a race if you get a decision wrong you can lose the race. And if we're going at 50 knots (65kph) you'll probably hurt someone.”

The redheaded Spithill, an undefeated amateur boxer in his youth, is a fierce competitor and the poster boy of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup. “We are going full throttle all the time on the boats. Everyone has to make a decision on the boat and think a step ahead, you don't have time to talk. It’s mentally taxing doing that for hours with water hitting you at speed. Speaking to some of the Formula 1 drivers, they face the same thing: the harder they push, the faster they go.” 

His tactician on the boat, another copper-topped Aussie, Tom Slingsby, admires Spithill’s poise, both on and off the water. “Jimmy’s main strength, which is weird for a redhead because I don’t have this trait, is his ability to stay calm when everything goes wrong. We all keep calm under pressure, but when things go wrong Jimmy never loses his cool. I’ve never seen him lose his temper, on or off the boat.

"Trust me, on the golf course I’ve pushed his buttons plenty of times, but he never yells a bad word. He’s the hardest worker in our team. He’s the first in the gym, and the last to leave. The team respects that. He’s pretty inspiring.” Who’s the better golfer? “I’ve got him there,” he grins.

Comeback

Spithill’s tenacity enabled him to engineer that incredible comeback in the 2013 America’s Cup. For Spithill personally, it was a life changing moment. “It was amazing how much of a step forwards sailing took. I immediately noticed how the result went worldwide, especially in America. Suddenly I was appearing on late night talk shows, and people were stopping me as I walked around Manhattan – that doesn't really happen in sailing.

The perception is that sailing is elitist, non-athletic, slow boats, boring to watch. But in 2013 people tuned in because of the comeback story and they were like, ‘what the hell is this?’. The America’s Cup is like Nascar on water, Americans like speed and risk. Plus, they love a comeback. The fact is that sailing fans will watch us sail a lot, but 2013 created a new audience.”

Tucker Thompson, the debonair TV host and compere at America’s Cup events, says the 2013 race was a turning point. “There was definitely a shift in the sport’s recognition. It should have been a flop because New Zealand could have wiped out Oracle Team USA and a lot of people might have turned off. But the dramatic comeback, which many believe is the greatest comeback in sports history, made everybody pay attention.”

At 8-1 down and with New Zealand needing just one more win to win the cup, Oracle Team USA tried one last throw of the dice by bringing in Sir Ben Ainslie to be the team’s tactician. The Briton is widely regarded as the greatest sailor of all time, winning four gold medals in consecutive Olympics. With the help of his tactical nous, the USA reversed the deficit.

Intriguingly, Ainslie is now competing against Spithill as skipper of the British team BAR Land Rover. It says something about Ainslie’s reputation that his team has his name in it (Ben Ainslie Racing).

“We've raced a lot against each other and worked together to win the cup,” says Spithill. “I've got a lot of respect for him.”

Is there a danger that, having seen the American team at close quarters in 2013, Ainslie knows how to beat you? “Well, you could make the argument both ways. We got to see how each other operates in probably the toughest situation you could find, 8-1 down. So we both know each other’s styles.”

Spithill’s pal Slingsby agrees. “Ben Ainslie was our tactician and we talked a lot so I feel like I know what he’s going to do.” He adds, “I grew up sailing with Nathan Outteridge [helmsmen of Team Artemis] since we were six years old and we were roommates at the London Olympics. I feel like I know what he’s going to do at all times and vice versa. Still, out-thinking these guys is not easy.”

Tech

Although knowing your opposition’s flaws can undoubtedly help, a lot of America’s Cup sailing comes down to technology. Sailors wear heart rate monitors and the catamarans are rigged up with devices that send 460 pieces of data to a team of analysts.

“We have Go-Pros all over the boat and we wear microphones so at the end of the day we sync it all up and see how we worked, where we gained time and where we lost it,” Slingsby explains.

There’s nowhere to hide, is there? “Exactly. Before I joined this team I was a solo sailor for 15 years [four world championships and Olympic gold in 2012] so I wasn’t used to this level of technology. In the past I could always say it wasn’t me and blame it on something else. But if you make a mistake at Oracle you put your hand up quickly because they will find out.”

Myant loves the gadgets in the America’s Cup. “I think it’s a generational thing but I think technology makes sailing awesome. Anything teams can do to gain seconds is vital because if you win the America’s Cup you effectively create an economy worth billions.”

Despite all the computers, there is still room left for, as Iain Percy, skipper of the Swedish Artemis team, puts it, “good old fashioned seamanship.” Four-time winner of the America’s Cup in the 1970s and 80s, Dennis Conner, used to shave the back of his head so he could feel which way the wind was blowing on his neck.

As the race enters a new, exciting era on these quick catamarans, Thompson is cautiously optimistic about the future of the America’s Cup, but believes the history of the Auld Mug will help it tackle any obstacles.

“I think the organisers are forging new ground but who knows where we're heading? The America’s Cup’s has evolved and there has been turmoil in its history but it has always bounced back to be the pinnacle of the sport. Bottom line, it’s the best sailors and the fastest boats. And at the end of the day, the cup is always the cup.”

It’s the end of a tense day of racing in Oman with Emirates Team New Zealand in top spot, followed by USA, and then GB. As the crowds drift away, exhausted sailors mingle with teammates and the opposition to chat about how they got on. There’s lots of pointing and hand signals to explain the day’s manoeuvres (yachting karate, they call it).

As EDGAR leaves the media centre, we spot two men starting a round of golf, talking animatedly. The names on the back of their shirts tell us who they are: Spithill and Slingsby. Our money’s on Slingsby.

americascup.com