As Emirates Team New Zealand head into the final dress rehearsal before the 35th America’s Cup starts in Bermuda, Suzanne McFadden senses an air of déjà vu.
When you think about it, there’s quite a lot in common between Emirates Team New Zealand version 2017 and Team New Zealand version 1995.
Both had a freakishly-talented Olympic sailing champion and engineer at the wheel of their black boats (Sir Russell Coutts in ‘95; Peter Burling in ‘17). Both teams were tightly-knit and innovative – with boats that caught the eye of even the most critical Cup doyens. Both were underdogs who had been burned in the cauldron of the America’s Cup numerous times before.
Back in 1995, under Sir Peter Blake’s watch, high-fives and back-slapping were banned on board Black Magic until the sailors crossed the finish-line in the final race of the America’s Cup match, beating Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes, 5-0. Transgressors faced the punishment of being tossed overboard. That ‘no-celebration’ conduct seems to have become an unspoken, inherent rule within the current Kiwi crew.
And both teams have Murray Jones.
In ’95, Jones was a first-time America’s Cup sailor, who made his name as the tactician and wind-spotting “man-up-the-mast” in Coutts’ legendary crew. Six Cups – and a couple of teams later – Jones is back with Team NZ, this time as their performance coach.
He’s built up incredible knowledge, having won the Auld Mug five times – for New Zealand, then Switzerland and the United States (yes, he helped Oracle to whip the silverware from Emirates Team New Zealand’s grasp four painful years ago).
Putting any acrimony aside, Jones has returned to Team NZ for the final six months of this campaign to make sure the sailing crew is match-ready for the battle for the world’s oldest sporting trophy, that begins in Bermuda is just 11 days’ time.
Team NZ will have their ups and downs through the Louis Vuitton challenger series to find Cup defender Oracle USA’s opponent. There will be races lost, and other calamities, like sailors vanishing over the side of their super-quick AC50. Yesterday it was the turn of skipper and wing trimmer Glenn Ashby to go for a dip in the Great Sound as he lost his balance running across the trampoline from one hull to the other during a Team NZ training sail. He was safely picked up by a team chase boat, no worse for wear.
But Jones is adamant there is no other sailing crew in Bermuda better equipped for this Cup than 26-year-old helmsman Burling and his boys.
Jones has been “super impressed” with the young crew, including Olympic 49er gold medallists Burling and Blair Tuke, who are making their Cup debuts in Bermuda.
“I think we’re in really good shape,” says Jones. “I wouldn’t put any other team here above our sailing team, and I’m very confident about that.
“Although some of these guys haven’t done an America’s Cup before, this class of boat is so new you can’t even compare it to San Francisco four years ago. Things have moved so far and so fast – it’s a different game now.”
Coming to grips with a new class is something Burling and Tuke have already mastered – winning the last four world 49er skiff championships and last year’s Olympics in Rio before committing full-time to Team NZ.
“When the 49er was in its early days, the guys struggled to sail those boats downwind in a lot of breeze. They developed techniques on how to overcome it, got better and better, until it became routine for them,” Jones says. “It’s similar to what we’re doing now in these boats. They are a real handful to sail in 20 knots and all the teams are trying to learn how to do it. Once again, I think we are in just as good a position as any other team to do that. Our guys are really impressive.”
It is Jones’ duty to oversee the crew’s physical and mental preparation for the America’s Cup regatta, with its intense schedule of racing crammed into just one month. On some days, they will race twice a day.
Having Team NZ physically ready won’t be a problem, he says. “They’ve been working hard for a long time, conditioning themselves. So, they’re 100 percent ready for it.”
And the innovative pedal power system introduced on the New Zealand catamaran has them in better shape than ever. “The cycling side of things has made them far less prone to injury. A lot of the injuries in past campaigns were from pushing too hard in the gym, and usually to shoulders and elbows. Pedalling is a lot less tough on the body than grinding.”
Mental strength won’t be an issue either, Jones insists. “Pete and Blair have been in high-pressure situations for a long time now. They won’t get phased by anything when they front up for race one.
“It’s more about keeping the excitement level down. That’s part of my job – keeping it low-key; like it’s just going out for a normal day’s sailing.
“We will have our ups and downs throughout the racing period. We’re not going to win every race; that’s just the nature of these boats. Even if you have a slightly faster boat, you’re still going to make a bad tack or gybe. The key to your success will be managing the downs – when you’ve lost one and you shouldn’t have lost it. It’s just about picking yourselves up and going again, especially on days when you have two races.
“But I’m confident that on that side of our team, there definitely won’t be any weakness at all.”
The crew get a final dress rehearsal of five days racing starting tomorrow, the last session of practice racing on the Great Sound. Team NZ, late arrivals in Bermuda, have so far only experienced one day of racing against the five other teams.
“We’ve had a little dabble in it, so hopefully we can get in all the races this week, and get quite a good feel of where we stand,” says Jones. “It’s an important time for us, as we have to make crucial decisions now on daggerboards, rudders and elevators. We need to see how we perform against other boats in different conditions with different combinations [of appendages].
“It looks like the first couple of days will have quite a lot of breeze, and later in the week, lighter breezes, so we should have a very good indication of where we stand.”
After being uncertain whether he wanted to return after San Francisco, Jones is enjoying his latest reincarnation in the America’s Cup. He spent a couple of years helping his sailing daughter, Gemma Jones, who finished fourth in the Nacra 17 multihull at the Rio Olympics, but then realised he missed the thrill of the Cup. It didn’t take a lot of arm twisting by Ashby to get Jones on board.
He smiled when he saw Oracle had copied Team NZ’s pedal revolution on the back of their boat last week (“I was a little bit surprised, but I think it’s a good move”). But he wasn’t shocked to see the Oracle “17” capsize for a second time.
“They’re in a position where they can push to find the limits. We aren’t conservative, but sensible about how we are using our final days and how we’re sailing the boat.”