He’s seen the launch of more than 20 America’s Cup yachts, but now Team NZ sail guru Rob Salthouse is putting in the long hours for his last hurrah for the Auld Mug.
When Rob Salthouse was six, his mum found him in the backyard cutting up a bedsheet to make a sail for his dinghy.
He used it to sail through the creeks of Greenhithe on the upper reaches of the Waitemata Harbour.
Nearly 50 years later, Salthouse hasn’t ventured too much further down the harbour, to Emirates Team New Zealand’s base on the edge of Auckland’s cityscape.
But he’s travelled a long way in terms of technology and innovation – now entrenched in the team’s sail loft, in charge of the complex sail wardrobe of the America’s Cup defender.
In that time, “Salty” has seen the launch of an astounding 22 America’s Cup boats; across seven Cup campaigns, starting with New Zealand’s first challenge in Fremantle in 1986. And in the gaps in his CV, he’s sailed around the world four times. “It’s not like I was ever sitting idle,” he laughs.
His team-mates will tell you he’s easy-going, but incredibly hardworking; a diamond in the rough. Trusted with overseeing everything above the deck of Team NZ’s latest boat, the AC75 Te Rehutai.
But Salthouse, who turned 55 last weekend, insists that this America’s Cup is his last.
“It’s a little bit like groundhog day,” he says, sitting in a café on Wynyard Quarter, a rare break in the 16-hour work day he’s been putting in of late.
“I’ve done so many Cups now. I counted them the other day – this was launch No.22 of America’s Cup yachts. At the beginning of November, it was 35 years since I signed my first contract to sail with the New Zealand Challenge for Perth.”
If you dive into the vault of esteemed magazine Sports Illustrated, you’ll find a report on Salthouse being washed overboard off the New Zealand yacht, KZ5, in the 12-metre world championships off Fremantle – the dress rehearsal for the 1987 America’s Cup. “I’ve never been so wet or worked so hard in all my life on the bow of a boat,” Salthouse was quoted as saying. “It’s the toughest sailing I’ve done.”
He is one of three ‘survivors’ from that original crew – Kevin Shoebridge is now Team NZ COO, and Tony Rae is the team’s chase boat support and on-the-water medic.
Salthouse was back to sail in the next two Kiwi challenges, missed 1995 through to 2003, but joined Team NZ for the 2007 challenge in Valencia and has been there ever since.
But now he’s ready to finish up; to hopefully pass on the baton to the next generation of the Salthouse family – one of New Zealand’s great boat-building dynasties.
The evolution of a sail
Ask Rob Salthouse to compare the ‘Plastic Fantastic’, KZ7, with the foiling monohull Te Rehutai, and he says: “It’s like taking a B52 bomber and putting it up against a Stealth Bomber.
“Just the sheer weight difference in these boats – how light this machine is compared with a boat back in Fremantle – is massive.
“But a lot of the principles are still the same as what we’ve been doing for 35 years – they just happen a lot quicker.”
Salthouse has been in or around boats since he was born. He grew up above the family’s Greenhithe boatyard – Salthouse Brothers – started by his dad, Bob, and uncle John in the 1950s. Bob Salthouse, who died last year aged 83, designed over 750 boats in his lifetime – and most are still afloat.
“I sailed with my dad from a really young age. We’d go away on the boat every Christmas,” Rob Salthouse remembers.
“The boatyard at Greenhithe was my playground. If Mum couldn’t find me, I’d be at the boatshed – either hanging out with the guys building boats or chopping things up myself. Or I’d be fishing or playing tiggy in the mangroves in the dinghies.”
Also playing would be his cousin Chris Salthouse, better known as Curly, who’s now Team NZ’s on-water operations manager.
Rob left school and went straight into a sailmaking apprenticeship. “My whole thinking was I’d do it so I could go racing and travelling. And it’s done me a lot of good in my career,” he says.
In 2017, Salthouse was wing coordinator for Team NZ. His job description for this Cup campaign – his first defence of the Auld Mug – is rig construction coordinator. He’s quick to point out that also means looking after the sails.
As we’ve come to expect from the America’s Cup, there’s been a major technological evolution in the sails of the AC75.
Rather than the hard wing used on the last two generations of catamaran – which needed a crane and a hell of a lot of manpower to haul in and out of the boat each day – this generation of Cup yacht has a twin-skinned mainsail. The soft sail combines with the mast to form another kind of wing, which generates the power the AC75 needs to get up on its foils and fly.
While it’s not as powerful as the hard wingsail, it saves weight. It’s been compared to a bird’s wing, and described as “beautifully complex”. Salthouse sometimes has other words for it.
“It has its moments; it’s complicated. But we’re getting on top of it now,” he says. “Talking to a lot of my mates on the other teams, they all grumble about it – but there are various things we grumble about.
“The team had a concept of sails that could be hoisted and lowered like on conventional boats, rather than the big heavy wing. But we have a boat with no stability – so we have to look at how we reduce the weight aloft versus having a single-skin sail, which would have to be taller to get the same kind of horsepower. So that’s been so interesting.”
That’s quite an advancement on chopping up a sheet on the garden lawn.
“One hundred percent!” Salthouse laughs. “One of the biggest changes today is the amount of modelling and analysis done before you even start building the sail.
“I want a sail to go out on the water and be as good as everyone’s expectations. Right down to the last detail – how the corners are put together, to the shape and structure of it. I have my own ideas, which are different from some of the younger guys. It’s always interesting trying to put your point across around things you’ve seen or done previously.”
The biggest change – or the biggest influence on change – Salthouse has seen in his career is the introduction of carbon fibre into virtually everything in sailing. “It’s not just in the boat – it’s in the mast, the sails; in every aspect. It’s made a massive change to what we do,” he says.
As you’d expect, there have been some bugs in the design and build of the new AC75s that have required ironing out – and Salthouse predicts there are still more to come. “But it’s a continual development, how we can get better. It’s a big sharp learning curve,” he says.
“That’s how I approach yachting – I’m learning all the time. With the four Volvo races I’ve done, the day we finish, I’m still learning how to sail the boat and make it faster. These boats are no different.
“And that’s why I do it. It’s a passion; it’s what drives me.”
A new kind of pressure
It’s been six weeks since Salthouse had a weekend off, but he knows the score at this stage of a three-and-a-half-year campaign.
Next week is the Christmas Cup – a dress rehearsal, almost, for the main event, but with all three challengers and the defender racing together for the first, and only, time.
It means working 16 or 17-hour days to get the boat ready for its first real test. Don’t forget, Te Rehutai was only launched three weeks ago. The challengers slipped their second boats into the water well before Team NZ.
Being the defender of the world’s oldest sporting trophy comes with more tension, Salthouse is discovering.
“There’s a lot more pressure – but some of it we put on ourselves, especially to make sure we retain it,” he says.
“And you have the added pressure of everyone trying to rattle you. And people wanting to know what’s happening. If I’m walking around town, or going out to dinner with my family, quite often I’ll get stopped by people asking questions about the Cup. The interest is definitely ramping up.”
But there are bonuses too. Like getting to go home to your family every day – even if it’s late.
Salthouse now lives back in Greenhithe with his wife, Kathy. He loathes traffic, so he arrives at the base every morning at 5.30am. He usually goes straight to the team gym, but lately “the gym doesn’t get a look in,” he says. “It’s just ticking through what I need to that morning so they’re ready to go out on the water.”
At the other end of the day, the crew stays out on the Hauraki Gulf as long as they can. “Yesterday, they didn’t get in till 5.30pm. And then there’s a minimum two-and-a-half hours to catch up with what’s happened during the day and get your job sheets ticked off,” Salthouse says.
“With what I do, it’s sometimes hard to switch off, because you’re covering a lot of different things. But it’s good when you get a chance to go home and mow your own lawns.”
Salthouse hasn’t had his turn on board Te Rehutai yet, but he’s sailed on her sister ship, Te Aihe.
“They are pretty amazing machines. The new boat is certainly living up to our expectations at this stage,” he says.
He still gets out sailing when he can, but it’s his son, Josh, who’s taken over the reins in that side of the sport.
Now 26, Josh sailed in the New Zealand team at the Youth America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017 and competed on the world match racing tour. He’s now trying out for the New Zealand Ocean Racing crew to race around the world in 2022.
There’s some nice symmetry there: Tony Rae is managing the team, and the VO65 yacht they’re sailing was originally Team Vestas Wind – the boat that Rae and Rob Salthouse sailed in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race and, unfortunately, shipwrecked on a remote coral reef in the Indian Ocean.
Salthouse is a proud dad. “I’ve had the opportunity to sail with Josh, to see him move around the boat and do different things, lead others on the boat, and I could say ‘Yeah he’s got it’,” he says. He’s proud of his two daughters, too – Olivia is in Melbourne doing her PhD in clinical neuroscience; Laura is a talented surfer.
His family have grown up around the world’s great sailing races, but Salthouse is finally ready for a change.
Next year, he wants to “kick back a bit”. He has bought one of his dad’s 65ft powerboats and plans to circumnavigate New Zealand. For now, it sits moored behind the Team NZ base, reminding him why he’s doing this, one last time.
* Important dates for the 36th America’s Cup:
– Christmas Cup: December 17-20
– Prada Cup Challenger Series: January 15 – February 22
– America’s Cup: March 6-21