On this very day 22 years ago, yachting’s holy grail – the America’s Cup – flew into Auckland in its own first-class seat. Its new owners and first-time winners, Team New Zealand, took it down Queen Street on the back of a ute, where it was feted in a massive tickertape parade.
After the confetti had settled, the dazed Team New Zealand mob went on to more celebrations at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, where the Auld Mug would reside for the next eight years. Grinder Craig Monk (pictured standing behind Sir Peter Blake’s left hand), who had missed his 28th birthday crossing over the international date line, stood with a group of seven other sailors, drinking beer and looking out over the Waitemata Harbour. They discussed what the America’s Cup of the future might look like.
“Simon Daubney said: ‘In 50 years’ time, the boats in the Cup will be doing 50 knots, and they’ll look back at and laugh at these old dinosaurs who did 10 knots upwind AND downwind’,” Monk says.
“Well, they’ve achieved that in half the time.”
Maybe, he says, their skipper Russell Coutts – now the mastermind behind the modern-day Cup – was eavesdropping.
Monk, who turned 50 yesterday, has sailed in five America’s Cup regattas – the most recent San Francisco 2013, with the ill-fated Artemis Racing campaign. He is now sailing on the world maxi circuit, and won’t be in Bermuda when the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series starts on Saturday.
He’s still a keen observer. Last July, he was in Portsmouth, England, to watch the America’s Cup World Series event – a precursor to the Cup in Bermuda. It was his first time as a Cup spectator.
“I was so impressed with the level of spectator support. There were 30,000 people there; people were lining up to buy tickets – to a yacht race – like they were going to watch the All Blacks at Eden Park. I was quite proud of that; this natural, positive progression for the sport,” Monk says.
“While the showman side of the Cup is great, on the sailing side, I’m a little more sceptical.”
Monk is not convinced that the new flighty AC50 “remote controlled” catamarans are the best choice of boat for today’s America’s Cup – even if they are on the cusp of hitting speeds of 50 knots.
“The 72ft cats we sailed in San Francisco were safer and required more sailing skill. It’s hard to believe Team New Zealand turned up in Bermuda with two crew who’d never sailed in a boat race before,” says Monk. He’s talking about the two Olympic medallists – rower Joe Sullivan and cyclist Simon van Velthooven – who have become “cyclors”, providing power on the pedals of the Emirates Team New Zealand boat.
Since the last Cup, the number of sailors needed to drive a boat has almost halved – from 11 to six. The role of a grinder has changed significantly since Monk made his Cup debut in 1995. Where their brawn was once used to wind winches that would raise and trim the sails, and move the boom, today’s grinders are purely producing power, stored to drive the hydraulic systems which raise and lower the foils and pull in the monster wingsail.
Monk says one of his former 1995 crewmates accused Sir Russell Coutts of committing a felony to sailing akin to “removing the scrum from rugby”.
Although he knows there will be more thrills and spills than ever before, it is Monk’s hope that no one is seriously injured on these boats. In 2013, he suffered multiple lacerations from shards of carbon fibre as he fell through the wingsail. It was in that same horrific Artemis capsize that Monk’s fellow grinder Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed.
Coutts’ team Oracle, two-time defenders of the Auld Mug, are Monk’s pre-regatta favourites to win this 35th edition of the America’s Cup. “The racing might be closer. But it will still be the fastest and most reliable boat that will win,” he says.
Sportsroom asked Monk to assess Team NZ’s competitors in the first round-robin of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series (remember the defender will race with the challengers for the first two rounds – another first in Cup history).
GROUPAMA FRANCE (vs Team NZ, race one, Saturday)
Flag: France Skipper: Franck Cammas
The last thing Team NZ wants is to suffer a breakage, a breakdown – or to simply be outgunned – by the French in race one. “We need to hammer that one home,” Monk says. Not only because we all know how the French love to beat the All Blacks. But the French are universally considered the team least likely to win this America’s Cup. “They were late signing up and late getting underway, but that seems to be their style.”
Even though Cammas is arguably the best multi-discipline catamaran sailor in the world, the America’s Cup is not a strength of the French. “If this was a single-handed event, they would already have it won,” Monk says.
ORACLE TEAM USA (vs Team NZ race two, Sunday)
Flag: USA Skipper: Jimmy Spithill
“They are so strong,” Monk says, “and they still hold the advantage from 2013. They have the luxury of playing around with the challengers; good on them for pushing that change to the rule, and getting everyone, but Team NZ, to sign off on it.” They also have the luxury of time to make changes, and the ability to build a second boat.
“I think Oracle are three years ahead of the rest. They arrived in Bermuda early, and they only have to focus on winning the America’s Cup. They’ve already proven that when it gets tough, they will grind it out. But they are going out of their way to talk their advantage down.”
It’s difficult to predict the speed difference between the two arch-rivals, because Oracle have kept their distance from Team NZ in practice racing. Bring on the rematch…
SOFTBANK TEAM JAPAN (vs Team NZ race three, Monday)
Flag: Japan Skipper: Dean Barker
Monk predicts the Japanese, led by Kiwi Dean Barker, are the team that could upset Team NZ and Artemis through sheer boatspeed. “I suspect they have the fastest boat next to Oracle out on the water,” which has a lot to do with the technology sharing deal they have with the defenders. “But it’s whether their crew can perform under the pressure of a real race scenario. It’s a very new team and so their crew-work will be under scrutiny.
“In America’s Cup terms, they will be a stronger campaign next time. I also think it’s hard to be both the skipper and CEO, like Dean Barker and Ben Ainslie are.”
LANDROVER BAR (vs Team NZ race four, Monday)
Flag: Great Britain Skipper: Sir Ben Ainslie
No one is talking up the most well-funded challenger in the fleet, but Monk says don’t be fooled. “People say their boat is very slow, but they could be foxing. Until we see them race for the first time in the Louis Vuitton, it would be unfair to write Ben Ainslie off.” This is a four-time Olympic gold medallist we’re talking about – “the greatest sailor of our modern age. I learned the lesson not to write him off sailing against him in a Finn.”
But Monk believes the well-funded Brits may have put their focus on the wrong goal – concentrating on winning the America’s Cup World Series, and taking two points into the challenger series. “They may have read too much into the importance of that. The real Cup show is in the boat design. They have committed to the next Cup, where I think we’ll see a much better campaign.”
ARTEMIS RACING (vs Team NZ race five, Tuesday)
Flag: Sweden Skipper: Nathan Outteridge
They say it takes 10 years to win an America’s Cup, and Artemis, in their second Cup, are close to reaching that milestone. Without bias, Monk says his old team have had the most thorough campaign among the challengers. “They rolled on after 2013, but they made some hard choices with people and brought in a new design team.”
In warm-up races they have been consistently strong. They sailed two close practice races with Team NZ on the Great Sound yesterday, with the Kiwis having a slight upper hand. “Artemis are quiet achievers; their boat seems quick and reliable, and they have a strong team across the board. I know the quality they tend to do everything with. Oracle are the favourites to win, but Artemis has a better team.”