It’s the kind of breeze that racing yachties live for. But Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby is beginning to feel the weight of responsibility, and a little angst, as the winds whip up on the Great Sound of Bermuda.
And he’s hoping the race to determine the America’s Cup challenger won’t now dissolve into a war of attrition.
In the wake of Sir Ben Ainslie’s breakdown just minutes into the first race of the Louis Vuitton challenger semi-finals today, effectively handing Team NZ two of the five points they need to progress, Ashby and his team held meetings back at base to discuss the need to be “extra vigilant” over the next few days.
While Tuesday brought the windiest racing on the Great Sound yet seen in this regatta, tomorrow and the rest of the week promise even more bluster, pushing hard up against the 24-knot upper limit for Cup racing.
As their British BAR opponents were working through the night to repair their broken wing, Team NZ were “double and triple checking everything” on their boat Aotearoa New Zealand to safeguard against the same calamity befalling them.
Ashby is one of the world’s best multihull sailors and, like his crewmates, thrills at sailing at the upper end of the wind spectrum. But, when you’re in charge of a boat that is a finely-tuned and highly-volatile beast, and you feel responsible for the wellbeing of the crew the hopes of a nation, that excitement is tempered with apprehension.
“Things can go awry very quickly on these boats. Fingers crossed it won’t be too gnarly out there,” Ashby said before leaving the Docklands Tuesday night.
“It’s really exciting sailing – anything over 18-20 knots in these boats is pretty full-on. I can imagine it’s like driving a Formula One car in the wet with slicks on – heaps of power, heaps of efficiency. It’s really hard to keep the thing from sliding around.
“But you’ve got a lot of responsibility too. There are a lot of people you’re dragging along with you – the whole team, and the whole country, in actual fact. So we are very mindful of doing everything we can to keep the boat in one piece, while still getting around the track ahead of your opponent. It’s exciting but its nerve-wracking.”
It’s not as though the New Zealanders don’t do meticulous checks over the entire boat every day it goes out on the water. The shore crew – working 18-hour days to keep the AC50 in perfect race trim – start the painstaking preparation of the boat at six o’clock every morning. Ashby turns up at the base at 8.
Lifting the wing on to the catamaran’s platform and then craning the boat into the water is a tension-filled exercise at the best of times. In the next few days, as a warm southerly flow brings gusts of up to 35 knots and the chance of thunderstorms, it will be more precarious than ever.
“I definitely feel for them. I’ve got a lot of good mates sailing on the British team, and you never want to see your opponent go down like that”
– Team NZ skipper Glenn Ashby
Team NZ remember all too well in the last America’s Cup when the wind caught the monstrous wing of their AC72 yacht and smashed it into a building at their Auckland base.
“With it forecasted to blow between 20 and 27 knots [Wednesday], it’s going to be pretty much all hands on deck to get the wing up, and the whole boat into the water,” Ashby said. “We’ve spent a lot of time going through the processes of making it as seamless as possible, but it’s still real heart-in-the-mouth stuff.”
How quickly things can go skew-whiff was never more apparent than in Tuesday’s opening race, when Rita, the British boat, was forced to retire hurt after just two legs.
Team NZ helmsman Peter Burling executed a masterful start, judging his run to the line perfectly while keeping an aggressive BAR at bay. The Kiwi boat zoomed up the reach at 44 knots – the fastest speed seen in this Cup – and stayed in front of the Brits, leading them by 6s around the bottom gate.
As the Brits rounded cleanly, Ainslie heard an ominous crunching. For once, there wasn’t another boat in cooee. But he knew immediately that it was the wing complaining, and brought the boat to a sudden halt.
It would have been all too easy, Ainslie said, to have ignored the noise and kept racing. But if they had, “we would still be picking bits of carbon out of the bay”. He deduced that the camber arm of the complex wingsail had broken, but left it to the on-shore experts to determine the cause of the malfunction.
After withdrawing from the race, the Brits were cautiously shunted backwards and sideways by their chase boats to their dock. It was a painfully slow process, and gave them no chance to put their spare wing into the boat in time for race two.
All Team NZ had to do was carry out the pre-start dance on their own, cross the start-line, and pick up their second win of the day.
“I definitely feel for them,” Ashby said of his luckless opponents. “I’ve got a lot of good mates sailing on the British team, and you never want to see your opponent go down like that. As much as we were very happy with the points, it would have been nice to earn them in the right way.
“It’s a tough one, because it could happen to anyone, and the reliability game is as much a part of the America’s Cup as much as the actual sailing side. There’s a lot of components on the boat that could go down at any stage.”
Team NZ suffered “a few little bits and pieces of damage” to their wing-sail in the early days of its sailing life in Auckland last summer, but nothing monumental.
It should be game on again Wednesday in the first-to-five series, as the Brits can sail with their second wing.
In the other semi, the fraught battle between Artemis Racing and Team Japan will resume with the teams tied at 1-1, after a perfect demonstration of how one smart tack or fortuitous wind-shift could decide the contest.