Stranded high above the waters of the Great Sound, carnage strung out below, Peter Burling had a view of two alternate futures.
As the British BAR cat sailed off into the distance, and Burling’s crewmates were being scooped out of a broiling sea, he could see in one direction Emirates Team New Zealand’s hopes of winning the America’s Cup sinking. And a sailing-mad country once again plunging into depression.
But what he chose to see as he sat stuck in the cockpit of his capsized catamaran was all it would take to mount the biggest comeback of his 26 years. Perhaps on the horizon, he could see an entire team preparing to join him in that fight, to rebuild their broken boat.
Because there was no-one in this exceptional team who would contemplate giving up. They hadn’t after San Francisco four years earlier, and they weren’t about to now. Two days later the boat was back, slicker, and the team stronger, for their calamity. And Burling, the learner driver having absorbed another lesson, was even steelier.
Three weeks after near-disaster, they were hoisting aloft the world’s oldest sporting trophy – 14 long years after it had left a heartbroken Auckland.
What marked this campaign for Team NZ to claim the America’s Cup for a third time in 166 years was resilience and pluck – and the bravery to go out on their own, to back their decisions and do what other teams dared not. A team determined to win it in every sphere – in design, in technique and in tactics.
But they were never driven by revenge for the soul-destroying comeback of Oracle in 2013. “It isn’t the ethos of this team. They don’t have it in their DNA,” the chairman of the Team NZ board Sir Stephen Tindall said.
And yet Burling, the youngest helmsman to ever win the Auld Mug, made it clear as he crossed the finish-line – having vanquished nemesis Oracle Team USA and tenacious skipper Jimmy Spithill: “We definitely wouldn’t be here without the heartache of San Francisco.”
Where others saw adversity, they saw another opportunity to rise up and fly.
KEEP ON DEVELOPING
The creation of this historic team began with the deconstruction of the 9-8 nightmare of San Francisco 2013. The key lessons learned from an extensive campaign review filtered through. The main moral of the story: don’t stop developing.
“We recognised we had locked in our technology too early in San Francisco, and it just got us through to eight wins,” Tindall says. Team NZ’s 2017 maxim was to keep developing until the final race of the America’s Cup.
They stuck to their word – still building new appendages the night before the deciding race.
Even when they were at match-point in the America’s Cup, Burling told the world they would be back tomorrow to “keep learning, keep moving forward, keep improving.” The race for perfection was almost more important than the winning.
THE RIGHT TEAM
Another message delivered at the outset was to build the right team. Every member of the 90-strong squad had to fit in – not only be expert at what they did, but be prepared to do more. People like team physio Paul Wilson, who proved handy with a power tool in the rebuilding of Aotearoa New Zealand post-capsize.
“We also had to have the best shore crew, naval architects, people who do the aero work, experts in hydraulics, right through to the support people – the physical trainers and nutritionists. After the big crash, it was all hands to the pump,” says Tindall.
The changes in personnel were dramatic. Dean Barker, skipper since 2003, left after discovering – via a leak – he’d been replaced as helmsman by Burling. Head designer Nick Holroyd and a handful of Team NZ talent followed him to Team Japan.
The often-gruff voice of the team, CEO Grant Dalton, took a less conspicuous role, focusing on raising funds. He was a face in the background in Bermuda.
Team NZ figured youth was more vital than Cup experience on the new-fangled, physically-demanding flying cats, which allowed just six crew.
In the search for fresh, new talent, they signed up Burling and Tuke – the world 49er champions – early in 2014. There were risks; neither had sailed in the America’s Cup before and both were keenly focused on winning gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But Dalton saw potential: “It’s up to guys like Blair and Peter to take [Team NZ] into the future, and keep this brand alive.”
Pressure was reduced on Burling by designating him helmsman, and the experienced Glenn Ashby skipper. Ashby would be the only sailor on the AC50 to survive the San Francisco fiasco.
Team NZ didn’t steer away from old wise heads. They turned to five-time Cup winner Murray Jones, a lynchpin in the last Oracle victory, to coach the sailing crew, alongside Ray Davies, who knew the pain of losing the Cup in 2003. Together they brought the fledglings up to speed – then beyond the rest – in record time.
CYCLORS AND THE XBOX CONTROLLER
New Zealand’s Cup campaigns are renowned for innovation, and with a new class of catamaran, Team NZ started inventing early – but kept their secrets hidden for as long as possible. Another lesson, after the 2013 campaign had revealed its ground-breaking foils to the world too soon.
“Even in the very early days, we were trying to understand how far we could push the boundaries,” Tindall says.
The idea of pedals instead of arm-grinders wasn’t totally foreign to the Cup. With the cyclist-sailors producing up to 30 percent of extra power for longer periods, Team NZ could create faster foils, with clever kinks for high lift. The sailors could quickly master tricky manoeuvres in a full range of conditions. And with their head-down-bum-up formation, they created less windage.
Other syndicates shrugged off the idea – until Oracle added a BMX hybrid to the back of their boat. All it did was add weight that had to be ditched when the Americans trailed 0-3 in the Cup match.
Team NZ asked Olympic cycling bronze medallist Simon van Veltooven to turn sailors into cyclists. It was another reason to select fit young athletes – who could change their body shapes without friends asking too many questions.
But even more crucially, the cyclors were hands-free, and could fulfil other roles. Tuke trimmed the foils – a critical role in the flight of the boat, handled by helmsmen on other cats – while Andy Maloney helped adjust the rake of the dagger-boards.
And their control systems also had the sailing world abuzz. Especially the X-box controller Ashby used to make small, but significant adjustments to the wing-sail – constantly quivering “like a hummingbird’s wing”, as British grinder Freddie Carr observed with fascination.
Although Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill slated the Kiwis for failing to have a designated tactician, the division of labour on the Team NZ boat – leaving Burling free to steer and make decisions – was eventually regarded as one of their strengths.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
Although technology-rich, Team NZ maintain they were financially poor – at least compared to other syndicates in Bermuda.
From the outset, the Kiwis struggled to keep the syndicate afloat. The government baulked at providing the taxpayer funds the team had relied on in the past, after the America’s Cup Events Authority backed out of an agreement for Auckland to host a leg of the Cup qualifier series.
“The team went into hibernation for four months. Guys were prepared to take a hit on their pay packets for a while, to stand by the team until we could cobble together enough money to pay the bills,” says Tindall, who came to the financial rescue. “It’s been a struggle right from then until now.”
But that’s the remarkable thing, Tindall says. “Out of adversity comes a heck of a lot of innovation. We’ve had to do things differently. The British BAR team had the luxury of building four test boats; we had one. The Oracle infrastructure is huge compared to what we have here. It just goes to show what Kiwis can do on the smell of an oily rag.”
Both Tindall and Team NZ principal, Swiss-Italian businessman Matteo de Nora, put up their own money to buoy the syndicate. An undisclosed grant from the Callaghan Innovations’ R & D fund allowed engineers and designers to keep creating.
THE LONE WOLF
With tightened purse strings, Team NZ had to remain in Auckland this summer while the other four challengers and the defender frolicked together on the Great Sound.
It raised the question of whether the Kiwis would be disadvantaged with only a smattering of sailing days in the local conditions before the qualifier regatta in May. With spies continually in their wake, the Kiwis replicated the smooth sailing of the Sound behind islands in the Hauraki Gulf, and quickly became acquainted with their slick racing machine.
Burling and his crew learned the art of match-racing pre-starts in unorthodox duels with the team chase-boat. Keeping their speed under-wraps from rivals a little longer turned out to be another boon.
The late arrivals made few friends in Bermuda. Team NZ were also known as the “Lone Wolf” – a moniker coined by Dalton. “There are five teams that want us dead now, not one, only because we’ve ruined their little parade,” he said in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year.
The New Zealanders were the only team who refused to sign Oracle’s “framework agreement” which would set the America’s Cup in a two-year cycle, sailed in the AC50 cats. “The cabal of five agreed to do this, which is opposed to the real ethos of the Cup,” Tindall says. “We were the lone wolf, and we definitely still are. They saw us as messing up their plans, and they would have been very pleased to see us lose.”
Resilience is a word that reverberates around this edition of Team NZ. As a team, they had the ability to bounce back from adversity, where others may have crumbled.
In Bermuda, they showed it when Sir Ben Ainslie gave them an unfortunate “love tap” in the final phase of practice races, and remarkably repaired their holed hull overnight.
Even more astonishing was their comeback from catastrophe in the fourth race of the challenger semi-finals, when Aotearoa nose-dived and pitch-poled – flinging half of her crew into the wild seas. The shattered and tangled mess pulled from the Great Sound was returned to the water two days later an even better boat, sailed to two race victories by a bruised, but not broken, crew.
“It’s the Kiwi way,” Tindall says, “but there is still something very special about this team. Every time the chips were down – even in Auckland, where we had some big setbacks we won’t talk about – the tough got going. These guys chose to forgo weekends, they fronted up early in the mornings and stayed late at night to get things done.
“We wouldn’t have won the Cup on resilience alone. But we won it with innovation using our resilience.”
THE YOUNG GUN – PISTOL PETE
At 26, “Pistol Pete” Burling is the youngest helmsman to have ever won the America’s Cup. He did it within a year of winning an Olympic gold medal.
He arrived in Bermuda with little match-racing experience, a healthy respect for – but no fear of – his older rivals, and no baggage from 2013 – when he’d been an intrigued spectator after winning the Youth America’s Cup.
Burling has grown on and off the water in the past five weeks. He transformed from a gun-shy driver in the start-box, to the wily aggressor at the start-line, in little over a fortnight. He showed a calmness and composure at the wheel that belied his years, and quickly learned from mistakes for which he happily wore the blame. He forced a world match-racing champion like Oracle’s Jimmy Spithill into error after aberrant error.
And he was cool in the heat of the daily press conference, never buckling from the gibes and barbs delivered by Spithill, the Cup’s chief niggler.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
From the outset of this America’s Cup, it was clear Team NZ had a speed advantage over their rivals. And with constant tweaking and improving, they only got faster.
It was never more obvious than in the first four races of the Cup match, when Oracle – who had bettered them twice in qualifying – could not keep on their pace. Not only was Aotearoa sailing faster upwind, she was pointing higher to the wind, sailing a shorter distance to the mark than Oracle’s cat ‘17’.
And while the American defenders used their five-day break in the match to lighten their boat and reel in the speed gap, they traded it off for stability. Their crew work could not compete with the Kiwis’.
It was evident in the last race of the first-to-seven grand final when Team NZ patiently waited until the first run to steamroll over the top of Oracle, their arch-rivals, and sail away for a comprehensive 55 second victory.
Just as former Team NZ designer Mike Drummond affirmed at the start of this regatta: the fastest boat, sailed well, will always win the America’s Cup.