It was as if their skipper was eerily looking into the future.
When I spoke to Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Glenn Ashby yesterday, he was beginning to feel the responsibility of something going wrong on the Team NZ boat as the winds began to whip up on Bermuda’s Great Sound. He hoped the race to determine the America’s Cup challenger would not dissolve into a war of attrition.
“Things can go awry very quickly on these boats. Fingers crossed it won’t be too gnarly out there,” he said.
Less than 24 hours later, his fears were realised. At the start-line of their second semi-final race of the day, Team NZ flipped their AC50 catamaran in frightening conditions on the Sound.
The boat pitch-poled after trying to bear away hard, to make sure they didn’t cross the start-line early in their race against the British BAR challenge. Because they were not sailing at speed, there was little helmsman Peter Burling could do to stop it capsizing – they had stepped over the bounds of physics.
Although the boat lay mournfully on its side, with its 23m tall wingsail in tatters, all six crew on board the cat were pronounced safe – although a little battered. Three were thrown into the water; Ashby, Burling and cyclor Simon van Velthooven were still sitting in their pods high above.
“I was very thankful when I was sitting up top to be able to look out the back and see all their heads above water and know they were all safe,” Burling said.
“It’s definitely the first thing that goes into your mind… the main thing we are all happy with is there are no major injuries.”
All six bear a few bruises and cuts from the crash; the boat fared worse.
The cat was quickly righted by Team NZ members in chaseboats, and towed back to the base to begin the long and harried process of repairs, in the hope they will be able to make the start line again tomorrow.
Burling doesn’t know if they will get there in time – but reckons the “incredible resilience” of the New Zealanders will get them close. “We will bounce back from this. At some stage we will get the boat back to 100 percent,” he said. “It’s a great test for us as a team. It really pulls us together.”
Ashby had warned yesterday that with the fresher breezes expected today, his team would have to be extra-vigilant on the race course, with winds threatening to reach the upper racing limit of 24 knots.
“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,” Ashby said.
“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.”
He forgot to add terrifying.
Former Team NZ designer Mike Drummond, back in Auckland, said from what he could see on television coverage, the damage to the Kiwi boat did not look catastrophic.
“There was nothing I could see that looked technically difficult to repair or replace,” he said.
“When a boat like this capsizes, it’s almost certain that you will break the top six ribs in the wing. Team NZ should have spare ribs on the shelf they can replace them with. They may not have spares for fairings, but they will have large sheets of pre-made carbon fibre they can cut stuff out of.”
“The only hiccup could be if water has got into the electronics. But again, I would imagine that they have been waterproofed.”
But only Team NZ’s shore crew will know if any major structural damage has been done in the capsize.
“We will bounce back from this. At some stage we will get the boat back to 100 percent.”
In the wake of Sir Ben Ainslie’s breakdown just minutes into the first race of the Louis Vuitton challenger semi-finals yesterday, Ashby and his team held meetings back at base to discuss the need to be “extra vigilant” over the next few days.
Team New Zealand had been “double and triple checking everything” on their boat Aotearoa New Zealand to safeguard against the same calamity befalling them.
But even before racing began in 20 knot winds today, Team NZ suffered damage to their No. 1 wingsail, and had to return to the base to replace it with their spare wing.
The New Zealanders 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 6 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. But 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.
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 tomorrow, 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.”
After the British were forced to retire from the first two races, Ashby said he felt for his 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.
All four boats in the semi-finals suffered some damage in today’s racing, so it will be a long night in the team sheds tonight.