While it’s always front of helmsman Peter Burling’s mind to keep his Emirates Team New Zealand crew safe and sound, it seems that’s not always the case for himself. This he abruptly discovered when the boat tossed him overboard.

Burling, charged with driving New Zealand’s boat at the next America’s Cup, was unceremoniously thrown into Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf during a recent intense training run. 

The Olympic gold medallist – who looks so comfortable behind the wheel of the yacht-turned-spaceship AC50 – was caught off-balance as the boat rounded a corner while whizzing above the ocean on its foils. “There are definitely some times when there are serious G-forces going around a corner,” Burling says.

So what happens when this graceful, silent-yet-violent machine is flying across the water at well over 30 knots, and there’s no-one at the helm? Well, it appears, no-one panics.

“We just depowered, hauled him out and put him back on again. Simple as that,” Team NZ boss Grant Dalton said yesterday, as the team went through its final paces out on the Hauraki Gulf.

Burling may laugh now at his mishap, but he knows how serious a wrong move on these incredibly quick boats can be.

“I’ve seen the Oracle guys go over the front beam a few times in manoeuvres, and that’s something we definitely don’t want to be doing,” he says. “Chances are they’re going to be hit by something and have a pretty serious injury. We’re definitely trying to negate those risks as much as we can. It’s definitely in the back of your mind that you’re responsible for that.”

Team NZ skipper Glenn Ashby, who as the aero trimmer can reach across and grab the wheel if needs be, feels he is accountable too. There are plenty of hairy moments, he says. Every day.

“It’s the quest of development. Like Formula One or MotoGP, through the testing and development is where you have your thrills and spills, so when it comes race time, it’s nice and smooth.” (Remember this is the guy who was left hanging like a koala when Team NZ’s AC72 teetered on one hull in race eight of the 2013 America’s Cup).

“We have to learn how to sail the boat hard and fast in breeze. A few skids and wobbles are par for the course. Knowing when to button-off is more on my shoulders than the other young guys’, because they’re all still happy to keep pushing hard. But sometimes you need to pull the reigns back for the safety of the campaign.”

On Tuesday, as the crew gave the boat probably its final test run in Auckland before being deconstructed and flown to Bermuda, there were very few hairy moments. The wind was barely clawing five knots, and the minimum wind limit to sail a race in Bermuda will be six knots. An attempt to stage a race (albeit against themselves) was abandoned.

“This could be it, our last sail here. The next two days are rubbish,” Dalton told me as we watched from a chase boat, with our very over-qualified tender driver, Italian Max Sirena, who skippered the Luna Rossa challenge in 2013.

“But we’ve had a bloody good run of weather otherwise this summer. You’ve got to learn to like these light winds, because we’ll be racing in them in Bermuda. But they’re a pain in the arse.”

Nevertheless, the crew got the boat flying on its foils in just a breath of breeze, leaving their pedalling grinders panting.

With all six teams in this America’s Cup now sailing in their race boats (the other five racing against each other in Bermuda right now), Team NZ is the only syndicate to have chosen pedal power over traditional hand grinders. The team has a group of eight grinders, who rotate every 45 minutes during on-the-water trainings. They need four on the boat at any time, lined up in a peleton, helmet to bum; racking up power that’s stored in the boat’s hydraulic accumulators, to be burned up as the boat goes through its complex manoeuvres.

Grinder Guy Endean was a keelboat sailor and boatbuilder in a previous life, but is now a cycling convert. He wears mountain bike shoes that clip into the grinding pedals – far removed from the boat shoes worn in Cups past. He started cycling early last year, and now rides 100km spurts in his spare time.

He admits that nine months ago, he would have worried about running across the trampoline of a speeding catamaran and successfully mounting a bicycle seat. But so far, no mishaps, he says.

“It’s always a bit of a nervous transition between hulls, but the adrenalin takes over and you are there before you know it. And the bike seats are pretty well padded.”

He reckons the pedalling action is a lot kinder on the body than arm grinding. And the recovery between bursts is a little quicker.

In the background, watching their every move, are “our friends” as Team NZ call them – two spies from other camps, who arrive at the simulated race course onboard one chase boat. They usually sit just off the dock waiting for the Kiwi boat to leave, and then shadow them as the home team seeks out the smoothest patch of water to sail on.

Foiling in 5 knots. Team NZ’s AC50 in action on Tuesday. Picture: Suzanne McFadden

Tagged “the lone wolf” in this America’s Cup, it can’t be easy for Team NZ, sailing on their own, staging mock race starts against an RIB chase boat. But Ashby doesn’t see their decision – to stay and train in Auckland, while the others are now contesting with each other on The Great Sound – as a drawback.

“I almost look at is as an advantage at the moment. Those other guys see each other every day, sail against each other every day, in their own little world. We are going to come in, in really good shape, having plenty on, and hopefully be in a good strong position,” he says. “The other teams will be keen to get out and get a gauge on us as soon as we arrive.”

And will they engage in a little racing with the rivals themselves? Burling says they are weighing up their options, but “if it’s on”, it would be in their best interest.

“You don’t want to be doing that first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup without sailing [against] another boat. It will be interesting whether they want to sail us as well. We’ll probably have to a lot more to learn racing against them than they do sailing against us,” he says.

Of course, Team NZ have been studying footage of the others racing last week, filmed by their own reconnaissance team in Bermuda. Defenders Oracle came out on top with nine wins from 11 races, while Swedes Artemis won seven of 10. The Japanese, skippered by Kiwi Dean Barker, came in late after needing to repair a rudder, and took two guns from four starts.

“It looks like Oracle and Softbank [Team Japan] are a bit quicker than the others at the moment, but I’m sure Artemis and [the British] BAR are pushing super-hard to catch up,” Burling says.

“We definitely have a pretty cool boat behind us, with a lot more innovation other than just the one everyone always talks about with the cyclists. We are continually improving it as we go, and that’s something that will carry on right through the racing.”

The boat will be taken apart and flown to Bermuda in about 10 days’ time; the 90-strong team, and their families, will follow.

“It’s hard to believe our time here in Auckland has come to an end,” Ashby says. “A couple of years ago it was hard to imagine us even having a potential race boat, and the fact we’re in a position now where we seem to have a fairly reliable one, is incredible really. It’s been a tough journey but an interesting one.”

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

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