Top Trumps

“Two quick gybes and we paralleled her on port. Then, as if using a propeller, or those trick wings on her keel, the boat started sailing lower and faster than we could. In desperation, I tried to match her sailing angle, to keep our wind-shadow on her, but she just sailed lower and gained more. At that point I turned to the crew and said, ‘Does anyone here have any ideas?’ There was stone-cold silence.”

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It’s a lonely place being a skipper in the America’s Cup. These were the words of Dennis Conner so beautifully brought to life by Michael Levitt in DC’s book on the Cup that I return to time and time again. What Conner went through both in sailing terms and personally in losing the Cup in 1983 is a tale for the ages. The human element and raw emotions that flooded through for years afterwards in wonderfully written books and articles set the bar for all future Cups of the modern era. Those races in Newport are what drew so many of us into the intrigue and fascination of this great game with all its parallels to real life. The tales of loss, recovery, defeat and redemption. Good guys versus bad guys. Winning mindsets and losing campaigns. The politics and the skuldugerry. It’s everything that the America’s Cup is, like it or love it. Loathe it or despise it. It was there.

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So what’s really happening behind the scenes in this Cup is intriguing. Standing in the wings either by choice or defeat are titans surveying the scene. If you’re sitting on the banks of Lake Geneva or aboard a superyacht on your holidays licking your wounds, what’s going through your mind? What gets you on the phone to your bankers to cash in those bonds, liquidate some share capital or redeem that private equity investment that was speculative at best? What’s your mindset now? Well you’ll have gathered your most trusted lieutenants over dinner first and made it clear, after the second bottle of Domaine Leflaive Batard Montrachet or perhaps just Evian, that you want to go again. You will have been offered all sorts of advice in between the lobster and Dover sole courses to the contrary but let’s suppose you’re all in. What next?

For sure, you’ve sent your team scuttling away to run the rule over the landscape and if they’re even half-way decent they will already have in their laptop a detailed pecking order of one to four for every single position in the team fusing Team New Zealand, American Magic, Luna Rossa and the ‘other’ team (a bit like the taboo of saying ‘Macbeth’ on a theatre stage) together. The rule of four is a brutal limited edition version of Top Trumps in this current Cup cycle.

A quick data run sort of the Excel spreadsheet shows subjectively and fatally who is top and bottom. As an addition, there’ll be a few lines of those who didn’t feature in this Cup and a fairly detailed reason why not in the accompanying notes. Too political. Not a team player. Too expensive. Gets drunk. A bit dull. Brain dead. You get the picture. If you’re in Lake Geneva you’ll be sitting there thinking how you can slot existing loyal team members into an otherwise crowded spreadsheet but that’s just details.

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On the presentation back to the boss, the scale of the recruitment task ahead becomes apparent. Current assumed salaries sit in a column on the far right. And this is where cold hard cash and the first outline of a budget of just what this is going to cost to win is laid bare. The dispensable Cup hardware, the flotsam and jetsam almost, in the shape of the hull, sails and kit are irrelevant to what you now need to consider to compete. As much as we like to say this is a technology race, it just isn’t. This is a people game and the technology follows. Who you get onboard and around the team is not only important, it’s the difference between winning and losing. If you’re shrewd enough or lucky enough to amass fortunes that put the Getty’s to shame, you know what the very best means and the price tag that accompanies it.

Yes the venue is important. Yes the class of boat is important. Yes a seat at the table, in whatever form, is a good insurance policy but if you haven’t got the people you might as well give your money to the local dog’s home. In the current market and with a dearth of talent in the sailing department, let alone areas like mechatronics, design, communications, analysis and management, your cheque-book has got to be writing big tickets because everyone in the wings is doing, and thinking, the same. Sure you could “give it a go” and talk a good book but if you don’t nail the key areas, you’ll be found sorely wanting and that’s not good for image or business.

©KOS Picture Source / www.kospictures.com

The very best was the Alinghi campaign in 2003. From top to bottom it was a machine. The best sailors, the best designers, the best shore crew, the best communications, the best support. It ran like an Audemars Piguet – and no surprise, they were one of the sponsors. I don’t think there’s been a campaign, and Larry will have a hitman looking for me after I say this, that comes close to what Alinghi did in that Cup. Sure, the Black Magic crew in ’95 were awesome and did it so magnificently on a wing, a prayer and talent and yes, Larry did a great job once Russell got everything going, but the way Ernesto Bertarelli swooped in, raided the best and then delivered was utterly breathtaking. Never once in that series did Coutts utter the words, “Does anyone have any ideas?” because ideas were seeping out of every pore. It’s the blueprint for the next Cup. If you’re that guy sitting on the stock, bonds and dividends right now, look at that campaign, suck in the fumes, drink the Swiss Kool-Aid and repeat.

Top Trumps in the Cup is no different to the game being played in virtually every other team sport. Look at what Manchester City did to build a team that can win Premiership titles at a canter – big middle eastern dollars and the talent ran to it. Look at the Mercedes F1 team – no spare baggage there. Look at the Jumbo Visma cycling team. Great teams require money, talent and management to bring them together. When you’re starting from scratch it requires enormous sums to just get to a level and then it’s a case of finessing with the finest that can be lured. I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see super-agents in the Cup world before too long. Managers securing the best slots for their clients – “yes I can place him but he comes with a flight controller and a tactician for $10m…each…year.” You can see a freight train when it’s coming. This is coming.

So if you’ve been lucky enough to be a part of Auckland 2020/2021 in a sailing role expect a call. If you’ve been in any of the teams on the mechatronics or design side, don’t sign anything just yet. There’s not many people like you. Your stock is rising like Dogecoin after a Musk tweet.

People matter. They always did. Now, they’ve never mattered more. And Auckland or Sardinia are pretty nice places to live for the next few years.

One thought on “Top Trumps

  1. Magnus, agree with your analysis for the next cup. Team NZ employees and sailors will be raided by Euros and American gaZillionaires no doubt. That isn’t a bad thing for the NZ economy. Just like the All Blacks, we lose some but there’s always another player in the wings to takeover the role. We are used to it, hence why we have sports development initiatives for grassroots levels funded by the taxpayers, to keep all sports in Aotearoa in top notch, including sailing. Indeed it is good investment, spreading your eggs in different baskets of goodies. From Ed Hillary to Coutts to Peter Blake, Grant Dalton, Burling and Tuke and many many more…the dividends. NZ as they say is small enough to test future products before going to market. Bring it on! could be a draw, so the cup will remain in Aotearoa.

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