For the first time in his long and victorious sailing career, Glenn Ashby has office hands.
Gone are the callused and blistered mitts that symbolised almost three decades of pulling on salt-encrusted ropes; rugged hands that have won a phenomenal 15 world-championship titles.
“I have to say, I’m not very proud of my paws right now,” the Emirates Team New Zealand skipper laughs.
Ashby’s softer, smoother hands are the result of spending too much time on what looks suspiciously like an XBox controller, hunkered down in his allocated dugout in the hulls of Team NZ’s super-slick AC50 catamaran.
There’s definitely no time for fun and games during this intense America’s Cup in Bermuda, especially four races into the match against two-time Cup holders Oracle Team USA. But the hand-held device that Ashby operates has turned out to be a boon for the experienced wing trimmer – or flight controller – as he’s otherwise known.
And it looks to be one of the telling breakthroughs in a technology war that Team New Zealand is winning in this Cup so far, and in the war on the water – which sees the Kiwis take a 3-0 advantage into the restart of racing on Sunday morning.
Nevertheless, the Australian-born Ashby – arguably the smartest multihull sailor in the world – is in no hurry to share the intricacies of the remote control’s workings.
“Everyone wants to know that at the moment, but I’ll be happy to sit down and share that with you – after the event,” he says, teasingly.
It’s Ashby’s job to control the twist and camber of the giant 23m-high wing sail – taller than a Boeing 707 plane wing – and the smaller soft jib sail in front of it.
“Talk is cheap at this stage of the game”
Team NZ skipper Glenn Ashby
Hidden inside the rigid carbon fibre wing are complex hydraulics, which allow Ashby to alter the three flaps on the trailing edge of the wing sail, or to twist the entire wing – altering the “angle of attack” of the wind onto the wing. With the black box in his grasp, Ashby has more flight control than his counterparts on the other America’s Cup cats in Bermuda, who have used traditional ropes and winches to adjust their sails.
Ashby relies on the four men in front of him on the boat – the cyclors – to pedal up enough power to drive the hydraulics. He spends much of the time with his eyes cast skywards, reading what the wing and the wind are doing.
Seated next to helmsman Peter Burling, Ashby is often seen with one hand on the steering wheel while Burling dashes across from the catamaran’s other hull. It’s all part of the harmonised choreography the Team NZ crew have honed to almost perfection over the past 18 months.
Team NZ sailing coach Murray Jones says Ashby’s role has been critical to the precision of flying the boat.
“Glenn is doing a fantastic job. Trimming the wing and jib is a full-on job. Flying the boat accurately is more about the way you are trimming the wing than the foils. He’s doing all that, and holding the helm for Pete in manoeuvres as well,” he says.
Although you rarely hear his typically calm, quiet voice over the television microphones, Ashby is constantly feeding information to Burling. “Glenn has a little bit of time to look around as well, so he has a big input into the lay-lines, as well as keeping a good eye on the wind shifts,” Jones says.
Team NZ’s crew arrangement is very different from that on board Oracle “17” – an area where many Cup critics say the Kiwis have another advantage. It’s a setup that works expressly for the ground-breaking systems the Kiwis have created on the boat.
Ashby had a quiet chuckle when Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill claimed the communication on board Team NZ was lacking because they don’t have a designated tactician, like Spithill’s fellow Aussie Tom Slingsby. “Talk is cheap at this stage of the game,” says Ashby (who, coincidentally taught Spithill how to sail a multihull for the 2010 America’s Cup).
While it’s true that Team NZ don’t have anyone wearing the tactician’s hat, they boast an afterguard troika – Burling, Ashby and Blair Tuke, the foil trimmer – all contributing to the tactics on board.
“We have three guys on our boat who are all actually looking around. You can call anyone whatever you like, but the way we have configured our boat is very much so that Pete doesn’t have to do a whole lot of things on the boat, and he can be looking around and making decisions,” Ashby says.
“I’d argue that we are in a stronger position than having someone specific to relay information back to the guy on the handlebars. We find it quite easy to communicate.”
Murray Jones – previously part of Oracle’s brains trust – believes that, in comparison, Slingsby is “a bit compromised” as tactician by the number of responsibilities he has on the boat. “He’s grinding, he’s pedalling [on the hybrid bike they sometimes use] or lying up front, getting his weight right forward. As a tactician, that’s quite disjointed and not easy to be fully aware of what’s going on to make easy decisions.”
Tuke is the perfect man for the job of foil trimmer – adjusting the rake and camber of the foils to keep them stable. It’s a responsibility that the helmsmen on other boats have, operating buttons or grips on their steering wheels. But as a cyclor, Tuke is hands-free and can operate a tablet, taking the foiling responsibility off Burling.
What makes him ideal for the role? Tuke’s eight-year partnership with Burling on a 49er skiff, which culminated in Olympic gold last year. The relationship between the helmsman and foil trimmer on these complex cats is the most critical, and must be almost inherently in sync for the boat to fly.
In front of Tuke, cyclors Andy Maloney and Josh Junior also contribute to the discussions. “While it looks like they’ve got their heads down pedalling, they glance up quite often, look around and make strategic input – what we’ve still got coming up, how many tacks we still have on this beat,” Jones says. “It has a big bearing, not just on the position of the boat, but how much power you require; how much pedalling needs to be done to produce oil the whole time.”
The man at the front of the cyclor peloton is head-down, bum-up, purely pedalling. Simon van Velthooven, who usually fills that role, describes it as the “mercenary” position.
Although Burling has been dubbed “Driving Miss Daisy” for sitting relaxed behind the wheel, it gives him a clear view of the racecourse ahead, over the bent backs of the streamlined cyclors. Their aerodynamic positioning has turned out to be another string to Team NZ’s bow.
Ashby has more responsibilities off the water, in his role as skipper of Team NZ. It’s the first time in the team’s 24-year history that the roles of skipper and helmsman have been split in two. The philosophy was to allow Burling, 26, to concentrate on driving the boat, while Ashby, 39, looks after the sailing programme.
So far, it has worked well.
“The on-water stuff is just a very small percentage of what I do,” Ashby says. “The operational and managerial duties take up 95 percent of my time.
“All the guys on board have got plenty going on, and it doesn’t matter what role you’re in, we’re all working towards the same goal – to bring the America’s Cup back to New Zealand.”
They are four wins away from achieving it.