Duel Helms

When Luna Rossa came out smoking with Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni sharing the helming duties, I remember looking at it, analysing it and eventually concluding that it couldn’t possibly work. From all I knew, from all I could compute, it just didn’t work. I was wrong. As a racing sailor, I have those all too brief glimpses of what it’s like to be in phase, when the shifts are my friends, the waves are compliant and the fleet is to leeward. I know the feeling of pace and point – and it’s the flame that draws this moth back. I wouldn’t want to share the helm on those days. Not for all the tea in China.

Francesco Bruni ©ACE / Studio Borlenghi

So, splitting helms in a dual role was a head scratcher. Initially I thought it would be just for the starting sequence and that made a kind of sense. No running across the tramps, perfect vision, the ability to execute moves and blindside the single helms on the other boats. Aha – I get it. But the Italians persisted upwind with Jimmy in the starboard hull as the senior driver and Francesco as the speed merchant on port. It was brilliant.

Crucially it worked. By the time the other teams had done the analysis it was too late in the programme to make an effective change and when the Italians waltzed magnificently into the Final, it was an obvious area to focus on and believe that it was the difference. In truth, the excellent campaign that Max Sirena curated encompassed a development runway, a concentration on detail upstairs in the wing and a pretty comprehensive aero programme that addressed significantly the turbulence created at deck level.

If you ever get the chance to see the implied flow graphics of the turbulence that is kicked off AC75s by the crew, you will see just why this is an area that all the teams will be concentrating on in the design of the 2024 versions. Team New Zealand had a virtual trench down the middle in acknowledgement of this. Dan Bernasconi is no fool.

Max Sirena ©ACE / Studio Borlenghi

So now, with the design teams approaching the conclusion stage of the one-build, one-shot, one-chance next generation boats, we’re starting to hear snippets, dropped into conversations casually about the possible direction the designs are all heading.

Every team is analysing the cyclor factor – personally I think they’re too much of a nod to the pointless act of oil grinding and alienate the audience who can’t see sheets being pulled in or travellers wound up but I’m a luddite according to some. I think we’ll see them back.

©Richard Hodder / ETNZ

But the dual helm thing is fascinating and I get the impression that we’re going to see it across the fleet. The biggest clue, and the reason for what you may feel is a mis-spelled or mis-typed headline of this post, is the fact that Team New Zealand signed Nathan Outteridge quickly and then put the pressure on Pete Burling to re-join after he danced around the options available overseas before realising the Protocol rule on nationality was watertight.

I’d very much like to write these two outstanding sailors as being in a ‘duel’ for the most prime real estate in world sailing but perhaps I’d be wrong. Perhaps the real ‘duel’ is for the starboard hull helm, if we assume that’s the prime spot on the boat, and that Team New Zealand is going to run dual helms with the diminutive Glenn Ashby crossing the tramps, calling the shots and keeping aero disruption to a minimum. It makes sense.

©Richard Hodder / Emirates Team New Zealand

On current form, and from the available evidence we have from SailGP, you would have to say that Nathan gets the nod for the lead role in the start-box. Pete has been off colour for a while and I found myself shouting at the television on four out of five starts in San Francisco – not even the cool, guiding, live-link to Ray ‘Razor’ Davies could coax Pete to within a couple of boatlengths of the line and I can only imagine the language that was filtering over the airwaves.

But here’s the thing…on that one race when Pete got it right and got in the lead, wow we saw something. He’s the speed-master when he’s ahead and he’s wonderfully smooth to watch. He’s a big-time player. He’s won the Cup twice and you don’t become a chump overnight. Give him the boat, give him the pace, give him the dynamite crew and he’ll eke more speed out of it than anyone else. The perfect port-tack helm perhaps?

©Thomas Lovelock for SailG

Outteridge was magnificent on that golden, even, logical Saturday of San Francisco. He was the best in the world by a margin. His boat positioning in the start-box was a masterclass. It was highly calculated. Aggressive when needed. Passive when necessary. And he pushed just at the right time to hit that line with pace and power, acing every single first leg to the wing mark like it was his divine right.

I thought it was a brilliant, outstanding display of seamanship and elite performance from a sailor that I highly regard as being right at the peak of his powers. On that kind of form, Team New Zealand would be daft not to stick him in the starboard hull, get the boat off the line in pole position, lead the boat into the first tack and then hand over to Pete. On the ensuing port tack, Nathan could then cool down form the freneticism of the start, take stock of the conditions, look for the shifts and input to Glenn calling the ultimate shots, safe in the knowledge that Pete will have the boat on rails. As dream-teams go, that’s pretty powerful. That’s winning.

©Ricardo Pinto for SailGP

So, far from getting the duel, we’re possibly getting the dual and it’s 50% of the reason why I think Team New Zealand is getting to the stage now where they are looking virtually unbeatable.

When Outteridge was signed, I chuckled at its Machiavellian undertones. Of Grant Dalton making sure that sacred cows were slayed. No position was safe on the boat. No star players could usurp the ‘team’ ethos. Tall Poppies were being trimmed. But I’ve mellowed in that view and what I can see is a team boss who, of course, has that benching threat at his disposal at all times but it’s the nuclear option in reserve that is unlikely ever to be fired. Far better to put an arm around his two star players and develop them into the most frightening afterguard we have perhaps ever seen in the America’s Cup.

©Beau Outteridge for SailGP

If I were a Kiwi, I’d be looking into the magic that’s happening at Team New Zealand right now and look beyond the headlines. As a Cup watcher, I’m terrified for the other teams as what I’m seeing, what I’m hearing, what I’m being told, is leading me to one conclusion and one conclusion only. And that’s a Kiwi defence in stunning fashion.

The only glimpse of hope I can see for the Challengers is the F1 connection with Alinghi and Red Bull, Ineos and Mercedes and Ferrari quietly linking up with Luna Rossa. That’s the only ace I can see but all those teams are in catch-up mode, attempting to bridge a gap that we have no clue on its width. We never saw Te Rehutai sailed in anger in its optimum wind range. We saw flashes of it in the Match against Luna Rossa and it was so fast to be embarrassing and the only conclusion I can draw is that there was plenty in reserve.

©ACE / Studio Borlenghi

Team New Zealand is mighty, make no mistake. Taking the Cup overseas, securing the money, nailing the team down in all areas and extracting exactly what they desired in the Protocol puts them possibly over the horizon already.

Getting two of the finest sailors of this generation pulling together their complementary skill-sets could well be, on reflection after the regatta is run, one of the masterstrokes of America’s Cup history.

The duel is overplayed. Is the dual the key to winning in Barcelona in 2024?

3 thoughts on “Duel Helms

  1. Technologically, they have a lot going for them— but sociologically, they may have lost the national consensus.


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