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Donkin on Sailing

May 2007 – America’s Cup team management and organisation

So much media attention has been devoted to personalities, technology and money in past America’s Cups that the event has struggled to shed the elitist image of a competition among the mega rich flaunting their wealth in highly-engineered play things.

The race has always been defined as a head-to-head duel with more prominence given to the high profile businessmen fronting teams – people such as Alan Bond, Ted Turner and Larry Ellison - than to the crews.

Not until professional yachtsmen such as Dennis Connor and the late Sir Peter Blake began to make an impact in the 1980s, often with revolutionary boat designs, did the event begin to transform itself from that of a diversionary sport among billionaires to the highly-sponsored, media-led competition among the world’s best short-course sailors that it has become today.

The latest manifestation of the event, however, where rules have been formalised around a monohull sloop, average length of about 75 feet, and where teams are training and competing for two years to win the right to challenge the cup-holder in a two-boat race series, has introduced the kind of professionalism and team-building that has become the hallmark of formula one motor racing.

In the same way that formula one racing teams develop themselves over many seasons, the newer teams in this year’s America’s Cup eliminators are facing familiar issues, struggling to raise sponsorship and to attract top talent.

But the presence of yachts such as the Italian-led +39 Challenge, the South African Shosholoza and the China team have shown it is possible to build a campaign around a dream, even if short term prospects are slim. Each of these teams is expected to be among the also-rans but each has shown a commitment that could lead to bigger things in a future challenge.

For Salvatore Sarno, chairman of the Durban-based Mediterranean Shipping Company and head of the South African team, Shosholoza, the aim has been to build a squad from promising young South African sailors supplemented by more experienced hands in key positions.

For Luca Devoti, the +39 team leader, the dream is to pull together proven talent in some of the world’s best dinghy sailors such as Iain Percy, his helmsman, who had beaten Devoti to take the Finn Gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The team had performed well initially, particularly on the start line, but just as the boat was showing signs of technical competitiveness it broke its only mast in a collision, leaving the crew and support team with no choice but to repair what they had.

“I strongly believe that a team of really good sailors can make up for a lack of funding and I think we have shown that, but there is no question that the mast breakage has been a serious setback. All along we have been hampered by a lack of funds that has made it difficult to manage the cash flow,” says Devoti.

The mixture of youth and experience in these teams is essential for developing a larger pool of America’s cup racers. The top boats are competing for a relatively small number of experienced professionals – the so-called “rock stars” - who can command lucrative contracts in the best teams.

“There are probably only about a hundred in the world with the kind of experience we need. Each of the top teams needs 36 for their boats so that doesn’t leave many to choose from,” says Craig Monk, sailing team manager at BMW Oracle Racing, one of the leading contenders for the Louis Vuitton Cup that earns the winners the right to challenge Alinghi, the current holder of the America’s Cup.

Secrecy over keel design and other technology that has become a hallmark of the cup ever since Alan Bond introduced a controversial design for Australia II in 1983, means that intellectual property must be protected. To prevent people from transferring technological secrets to rivals, crew members are tied to their teams after the start of every campaign. There is an 180-day compulsory lay off if they leave that prevents them joining another team.

The rule disbarred the cup’s most successful skipper, Russell Coutts from the present campaign after he left the Alinghi team in a dispute with the syndicate head, Italian-born businessman, Ernesto Bertarelli.

The sacking of Coutts showed the steely side of Bertarelli in contrast with a more open style of management pursued by Coutts, that had fostered a strong team spirit.

This less hierarchical approach has been maintained, says Jochen Schuemann , helmsman and sports director of Alinghi. “It was very important to me when joining the team that we adopted the right principles where people could contribute their opinions openly without autocratic controls,” he says.

The three times Olympic gold medalist has brought a wealth of experience to the team. As the helm of the first Swiss entry into the America’s Cup on FAST 2000 Schuemann says he was disappointed at the tight management imposed on the team in that event.

The presence of so many Olympic sailors like Schuemann keen to preserve a Corinthian spirit within the America’s Cup is probably one of the most effective safeguards it has against retreating in to the cynical courtroom battles and niggardly one-upmanship that characterised some of the earlier campaigns.

Even the billionaire godfathers who continue to dominate the top teams have knuckled down to the demands of teamwork in pursuit of success. The on-board presence of Larry Ellison, the syndicate head of BMW Oracle Racing continues to attract comment, but Ellison has needed to develop his skills in the “afterguard” – the nerve centre of the boat, just like everyone else. One of his jobs, among others, is to call the relative speeds of competing boats.

Bertarelli can claim even stronger sailing qualifications, recognised as a top flight professional yachtsman in his own right. He was world champion helmsman in the Farr 40 class before working as navigator in Alinghi’s 2003 America’s Cup-winning campaign.

Competition has grown to such an extent that there is nowhere to hide in a modern America’s Cup crew. The hard training for these full time crews – the BMW Oracle crews sailed 165 days last year – means that injuries are a constant threat. Each crew member has a fitness programme tailored to individual needs. Craig Monk as grinder in the race team (like every team member he has a dual role on shore), has a daily intake of about 5,000 calories yet when racing the demands of hard grinding are burning fuel at between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day.

“You need to have an explosive power so it’s important to stay fit and not get injured when you’re sailing six hours a day. You’re always on a downward spiral on calorie intake during the race programme,” he says.

Beyond the crucial roles of navigator, tactician, skipper, strategist and helmsman, every other position demands years of training and experience so that manoeuvres are executed instantly without the need for shouted commands. Plans are communicated quietly on the best boats.

The mixture of nationalities on most boats means that shouted orders would be fruitless anyway. “The bow speaks Italian, the afterguard speaks English and in the middle they swear in Polish but nobody understand it. It works just fine,” says Devoti of +39, likening the team dynamics to that of an orchestra.

“When people know what they’re doing there is no need for a lot of shouting. The Bow manager works like the first violin and the mast like the first flute. I have 11 single-handed sailors in the team and they work together well. There is a great respect for each other’s abilities and we have a great cultural mix in the different nationalities,” he says.

His team nevertheless faces a steep learning curve as Vincenzo Onorato, head of another Italian team, Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia discovered when competing in its first Louis Vuitton series in 2003. The team was the first to be eliminated in the Auckland-based campaign but it won many admirers for its team spirit.

“We learned so much from that campaign. There is no doubt that you need people with experience but you also need new people and we are trying to bring through a new generation in this campaign,” says Onorato.

Unusually among the teams, the yacht competes with two helms, Flavio Favini who handles the start and Jes Gram-Hansen who takes over for the rest of the race. Like Devoti, Onorato is an accomplished sailor yet both team heads have excluded themselves from the sailing crews partly because of the physical demands.

Onorato worries about the escalating costs of America’s Cup sailing that he believes could kill the event if allowed to continue uncapped. “It’s ridiculous that my team is a medium to low budget team with funding of €64m. To raise that on the market is very hard. If these budgets continue to grow unchecked I think the competition will die. There needs to be a limit. I think a €40m maximum budget should be imposed on all the teams.”

The French boat Areva Challenge, is working on an even lower budget of €30m Euros. Team leader Dawn Riley, competing in her fourth America’s Cup campaign, looks enviously at the more spacious air-conditioned quarters of better-funded rivals such as BMW Oracle with a budget four times the size of Areva.

“The bigger teams can afford to be more choosey in their crew selection. We have built around a core of key people who have a good reputation and who can draw in other good people who like the idea of working with a very international cross-cultural team,” says Riley.

“We have tried to be family conscious, finding work where we can for significant others and to ease the pain of moving families from abroad,” she says. As Jochen Schuemann confirmed on Alinghi, this kind of sensitive management can make the difference between hiring or losing scarce sailing talent.

Each team is a business in its own right with budgets, operations and logistics supporting the competing yachts. So often the teams are characterised by the hardware – the yachts themselves and their technological innovations. But they cannot win without team work.

Ultimately team management is about getting everything – finance, technology, leadership, crews and racing in place and working smoothly. “If only we could have got the funding we needed at the right times,” says Luca Devoti of +39. “It might have been a different story. I may do this again but not like this. I’m ready for a holiday.”

See also: America’s Cup teamwork & Sail race training, The America’s Cup connection & Antigua week

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