Upset the grinders union at your peril. They have branches all over the world. It’s a cult. They will find you. And they are big boys. Big, hairy units with muscles bulging and veins popping on their foreheads – scary. Gentle giants? Not really. Most tolerate yachting. It’s a job, a lifestyle, something to do before they do something more useful. Well paid whilst it lasts. Owners feel safer around them. Helmsmen enjoy the banter. They didn’t find sailing the way you did.
Back in the ’87 Cup you could actually see and appreciate what a grinding unit output. Dennis Conner had the likes of Jim Kavle, Kyle Smith, and Henry Childers providing the muscle for Bill Trenkle on trim, John Barnitt on mast and Jon Wright on main. You marvelled at the pace of their spinnaker hoists. You could see those massive overlapping genoas being ground in. And when we finally got onboard shots, you could hear the wire on the winches being ground round the drum.
As Cups went on, the grinders became an interesting story. Heart rates were measured. Cadence too. They did runs in the morning and lived in the gym for years. They were, and still are, like heavyweight boxers with a training regimen to match. Pretty soon, the Cup started foraging in the Finn class, that bastion of big boy dinghy sailing, and found grinding superstars. Craig Monk was an Olympic bronze medallist on the handles. Not your average gym bunny. And suddenly grinders became legends of the sport. Without a co-ordinated grinding unit in the heart of the boat, you wouldn’t win the Cup.
But then hydraulics came along and the game changed. Instead of a visible output, now the unit was grinding oil. That to me is Kim Jong-un levels of slave labour. Cracking rocks in a North Korean detention centre is more enjoyable and more appreciated. Sure it allows the guys at the back, those really highly paid ones, to press a button and change the sheeting tension but credit? Nah. And in this Cup, the teams are doing as much as possible to hide them away under carbon combing. If they could put them down below like they did in the 1977 Swedish challenge, believe me they would.
Team New Zealand in the last Cup changed the game, as they always do, with their aero Cyclors forming a peleton down the outriggers and I firmly believed that the beefcake grinding days were well and truly done. But in the AC75 they are back at their ugly best. Grinding away relentlessly, anonymously, pointlessly upwind and down. We can’t see nor appreciate the output. Viewers, and even those who know sailing, are baffled by their activity.
The Team Ineos designers clearly had a visit from the union demanding better conditions and a room with a view and the result was to put them facing outboard and to hell with the drag consequences. The union was happy. Its members’ well-being secured and to hell with the output. Good for them. Unions work.
But surely there has to be another way? The Cup is desperate to cut costs and here’s an area for consideration. Grinders are expensive, want gyms, eat loads and take up a lot of room. They weigh a ton and cost a lot to entertain in the bar. You have to make XXXL kit and they are prone to moments of extreme anger. Walls need repairing. HR teams need to remind about swearing and a professional atmosphere. They belong in another era.
I did grinding on a super-maxi in Australia a few years ago and it was a pleasurable experience. I was starboard grind. When the trimmer called “sheet on” I pressed a button. I was bloody awesome at it. World Class. I could even smoke a cigarette whilst on station. I got a lovely suntan. I didn’t sweat once. I looked quite cool in medium sized gear. My index finger ached a little in the morning but I manned up for day two and I was fine on the long offshore.
This might not sound like a lot to you but two weekends ago I used my new Torqeedo battery engine for the first time. I motored down the Medina River in silence with wife, child and dog aboard. It was so quiet, the dog fell asleep. He drifted away to the sounds of the water rushing by and the birds singing. No more smell of petrol. No more yanking on the blasted start cord. No more “have I got the mix right”. No more chokes. All that engine stuff that I have absolutely no clue about is over. Just press a button and go. It’s the future and it’s wonderful.
Apple are building electric cars soon. Elon Musk is the second richest person on the planet. Batteries are the kings now. How long before the Cup catches up and these boats are sailed by four or five rockstar sailors max all tweaking and eking on control panels?
(Come to think of it: How long before the virtual America’s Cup is bigger than the real thing with a worldwide audience of YouTubers and an eye-watering advertising revenue?)
The America’s Cup could well become the playground of the technocrats. It was ever thus. The gazillionaires who don’t accept the norm. Grinding will be a casualty. Battery power will replace grunt. Mark my words. And it can’t come soon enough. Tesla for the Cup? You heard it here first.
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