Our America’s Cup yachting expert Suzanne McFadden talks to the man flying the flag for Team New Zealand – even though it’s not his own flag. 

He may be an Aussie, but Glenn Ashby feels he owes New Zealanders.

The Emirates Team New Zealand skipper was offered a string of jobs with other America’s Cup syndicates after the disaster of San Francisco in 2013. The man they call “Mr Multihull”, with 15 world championships to his name, could easily have walked away from a New Zealand team left in disarray and doubt after losing the most dramatic of Cup showdowns, 9-8, to America’s Oracle.

Among the campaigns headhunting Ashby was Team Australia, which had signed up as the Challenger of Record, representing all the challenging teams for the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda. Just as well he said no; six months later, the team dissolved.

“I had a few offers on the table, but it didn’t feel right after what we’d been through in San Francisco,” Ashby says from the Team NZ base on Auckland’s waterfront.

“We had been in the trenches together, all of us guys. The reason we’re here is for the people, so it didn’t seem right to leave.

“It means a massive amount to me to be able to make amends for the last campaign.”

He knew it was a risk staying with the New Zealanders, when a campaign in Bermuda was far from guaranteed. “It nearly didn’t get off the ground here. But all things considered, I had to make some decisions, and here I am. I feel 100 percent that I made the right decision coming back.”

As the team snatch their final sailing days on the Hauraki Gulf, testing their revolutionary pedal power before flying their AC50 to Bermuda at the end of the month, Ashby has no doubt Team NZ can finally bring back the silverware after a 14-year absence.

“Absolutely, I mean we were so close last campaign to having it go our way – 0.1 of a knot here, a time limit running out there. You could rattle off five or 10 reasons why it should have gone our way. It didn’t in the end, and that’s sport. We all have to live with that,” he says.

“As frustrating as that is to think back to the result of that campaign, we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons moving forward to this campaign, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we can safely say we are in a much better position, a much stronger position now, than we were in the previous campaign.”

Ashby initially joined Team NZ in 2010, to teach skipper Dean Barker the ropes of sailing a catamaran, and then became wing-sail trimmer on board the AC72 in the 2013 Cup.

This time, with Barker gone, the role of skipper and head of the sailing team was up for grabs. Ashby’s unrivalled experience in multihulls, design knowledge and knack for giving his time to everyone, made him the number one choice.

Ashby is the first non-Kiwi skipper of a New Zealand America’s Cup team (American Rod Davis became a New Zealander before skippering the 1992 challenge). He’s also the first skipper of a Kiwi campaign who won’t be at the wheel.

Although the roles of skipper and helmsman have always gone hand-in-hand, Team New Zealand decided to split the duties between the experienced Ashby, who’s 39, and young gun Peter Burling, the 26-year-old Olympic gold medallist making his America’s Cup debut.

As skipper, Ashby is responsible for the sailing programme and the racing boat when it’s on the water. An experienced sailmaker (he owns a sail-making business in Australia with his wife, Mel), he’s also had a say in the design of the new AC50 boat.

Glenn Ashby has no doubt Team New Zealand can bring back the silverware. Photo: Team NZ

As helmsman, Burling will make the split-second decisions on the racecourse on Bermuda’s Great Sound, but will have Ashby right at his side, again as the wing trimmer controlling the boat’s speed.

“The on-water stuff is just a very small percentage of what I do,” Ashby says. “The operational and managerial duties take up 95 percent of my time.”

Ashby still marvels at the fact he will lead a New Zealand team into battle for the world’s oldest sporting trophy. The kid who grew up in land-locked Bendigo, Victoria; learned to sail a dinghy on a man-made lake; and won an Olympic silver medal for Australia.

“Mum and Dad were over in New Zealand the other day, and we were laughing looking back over old photos; seeing yourself flapping around in the muddy waters of Lake Eppalock. She’s quite a contrast to the Hauraki Gulf.”

Ashby grew up in Spring Gully, on the outskirts of Bendigo, where his parents – both draughtspeople – had escaped from the rat-race of Melbourne. His mum was the original sailor of the family, and sent Glenn and his brother and sister to the local yacht club.

Although he excelled in multihulls, Ashby was one of those kids who dived into all kinds of sports, and in his teenage years, had to choose between sailing and motocross. “I was working two or three jobs after school to pay for everything in both sports, but I didn’t have enough money to do both,” he says.

His parents encouraged him to pick sailing. But if they did so thinking it would be a safer option, they might be reconsidering that, now their son sails these volatile, bucking beasts dressed in a helmet and body armour.

At 18, Ashby learned to sail an A-Class catamaran, considered the ultimate in single-handed multihull sailing. Within three months, he was off to the world championships in Spain; his first trip overseas. And although he was “absolutely green as grass”, he won the world title. He’s now collected nine A-Class world championships.

“That’s where I learned the harder you push, the better things go,” he says.

Against the advice of others, he left school in Year 11 to take on a sailmaker’s apprenticeship. “It was the absolute catalyst for my future.”

After winning silver with Darren Bundock in the Tornado cat at the Beijing Olympics, Ashby considered switching to boardsailing, until he got a call from Jimmy Spithill. His fellow Australian needed to learn how to sail Oracle’s monstrous trimaran before clashing with Alinghi’s catamaran in the 2010 America’s Cup.

Although as a six-year-old he’d been dragged out of bed to celebrate the moment Australia II broke the Americans’ 132-year stranglehold on the Auld Mug, Ashby had never imagined a day when multihulls would rule the America’s Cup.

“Working with Oracle was a fantastic challenge. A massive departure from Olympic sailing,” he says. Then he accepted an offer to dish out the same lessons to Team NZ’s sailors for 2013.

“I’ve never regretted coming here,” he says. “Australians, New Zealanders – we’re all tarred with the same brush. We take the piss out of each other left, right and centre. The whole ANZAC programme works really well – feeding off each other, the banter, the thought processes.

“Mel absolutely loves it over here; we’ve brought up our two daughters here. We’d love to bring the cup back here and stay longer. That’s certainly the plan… well it was last time too, to be fair.”

It’s the relationships with people that have kept him here. “Although we are small in numbers compared to other teams (91 at last count), each person here is worth two or three people. The efficiency in decision-making is what really keep us mixing it up with those big teams who throw three or four times the resource into it as we do,” he says.

“This has to be one of the strongest teams that Emirates Team New Zealand has put out on the water. The new wave of guys coming through is exceptional. It’s one way to make you feel pretty old, pretty quick.

“For a lot of the guys, there’s a massive personal quest to win this thing.” And Ashby has willingly taken on the onus to make that happen. 

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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