Joe Sullivan has never contested a big yacht race, and yet the Olympic rowing gold medalist reckons he has what it takes to help power Emirates Team New Zealand through the world’s most illustrious sailing regatta.

Sullivan arrives in Bermuda this week to help reassemble Team New Zealand’s AC50 race boat, and begin the final phase of training for the America’s Cup on the Great Sound, starting May 27.

There’s a strong likelihood that Team NZ will engage in pre-Cup combat with some of the five teams already in Bermuda, and Sullivan will finally get his chance to race on an America’s Cup yacht.

Until now, the rower-turned-sailor-turned-cyclor – who helps drive the boat through his leg power – has only sailed against a Team NZ chase boat in mock racing as part of the campaign’s secluded build-up on the Hauraki Gulf. But that lack of race experience does not daunt him.

“I feel that a race situation is where I work best, where I get the most out of myself. I’m able to push to that next level,” he says. “Keeping calm, while hurting.”

He has certainly proved that in the heat of battle before. Who could forget the scene on Dorney Lake in 2012, when Sullivan and Nathan Cohen in a double scull stormed from deep in the field to win New Zealand’s first gold medal of the London Olympics? It was described as one of the best finishing bursts in Olympic rowing history.

Sullivan, the pride of Picton, can find plenty of similarities between rowing and sailing, especially as a grinder on Team NZ’s revolutionary “pedalstals”.

“Rowing is 70 percent legs, so I’m used to that power. And we did a lot of cycling in our rowing training,” he says.

“Racing in a double scull was six minutes of absolute hell – it destroys you – and there are definitely times sailing these boats when you’re pushing just as hard. Then you settle. It’s more about choosing the right time to go; being aware when you need the power, and giving it everything you’ve got.”

There’s a video made by Team NZ that shows Sullivan and three other cyclors (the new crossbreed of sailor and cyclist), going through a “brutal” test of power and endurance on the stationary Wattbikes – 24 efforts of 20 seconds’ pedalling as fast as they can, separated by just 10 seconds’ rest. Sullivan is caught retching into a bucket afterwards.

“You have to be a bit sick in the head to do this,” he laughs later. “But I do really like it though. It’s all about being able to push yourself into these zones. Knowing that you have a team relying on you to put that power into manoeuvring the boat makes it even more exciting. It’s a good challenge, good motivation to keep pumping.”

He’s also learning how to run across water – dashing from one bike seat to the other across a trampoline joining the two hulls. “It’s definitely not the easiest part of the race – but it’s pretty exciting,” he says. “The boat can drop, lift or go sideways as you’re running across. There’s been a couple of times I’ve been caught in no man’s land as the boat is turning. All you can do is drop and grab onto the tramp.

“I’m loving getting back into the intense fitness and high performance side of sport – and having this completely new experience.”

It’s been three years since Sullivan quit rowing. His doubles partner, Cohen, had retired with a heart condition and Sullivan was told he had to prove himself all over again after taking a break.

He joined the Fire Service in Auckland, working out of the Parnell station, and was content with his new life. Then Team NZ’s long-time physical trainer, Dave Slyfield, phoned with an invitation to try out for an America’s Cup sailing crew.

“I’d decided to ditch everything and have a life. But then this came up and it was an opportunity not to be missed,” he says.

He does, however, miss being a firefighter. “That was a really cool part of my life, working with the crew. The work can be pretty exciting at times.” Does that make him an adrenalin junkie? “Well, I could never sit behind a desk, that’s for sure.”

But Sullivan gets his fix of camaraderie at Team NZ, something a little different than in his previous sport. “In rowing, we were stuck in our crews. We mixed, but not to the same extent as in this team. We all eat lunch together – designers, boatbuilders, sailors – and every few Fridays we stay for drinks. It’s a lot better team atmosphere; everyone knows what’s going on. It’s pretty special to be part of a massive team who are all on the same page.”

Team New Zealand’s AC50 being loaded aboard an Emirates SkyCargo 747 on Monday night. Photo: supplied

That’s been no more evident than in the past two weeks, when everyone in the 90-strong crew packed up the Auckland base – including the race yacht – into an Emirates SkyCargo 747, which flew out of the city on Monday. There were 42 tonnes of belongings on board – one boat, two wing sails, a chase boat, daggerboards, gym equipment, electrics, hydraulics and a huge amount of supplementary equipment.

“It was every man on the tools. Taking the boat apart definitely helps to understand everything you do to sail it. It builds your team culture too,” he says.

Sullivan reckons he’s always been an America’s Cup fan. When he returned from the London Olympics and took a break from those early morning trainings, he found himself glued to the couch watching Team NZ race in San Francisco.

“I never imagined I’d actually be part of it though. It’s more my brother’s dream – he’s a big sailor.” Brayden Sullivan is a stonemason, who worked in Christchurch’s red zone after the 2011 earthquake, and now lives and sails in San Francisco. “He is living his America’s Cup dream vicariously through me. He’ll be there in Bermuda.”

And even if it wasn’t his first sporting love, Joe Sullivan can now see sailing being a long-term love affair.

In the meantime, he can’t wait to line up against other teams on the Great Sound racecourse. “I want to see how we stack up. It’s like in rowing – we’re tucked away down here in New Zealand, doing our own thing right up until the last minute, and then we burst on to the scene. It really works well for us as Kiwis.”

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

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