Having been to Geneva three times this year, I feel highly qualified to say that not a lot changes there. The faux-bustle of the genteel city is juxtaposed by the serenity of the stunning lake that it sits on where seemingly only the Jet d’Eau – the water plume to you and I – seems to break the tranquility. The Societe Nautique de Geneve is a relatively unremarkable place, welcoming to all-comers, a nice and busy bar and of course, a perfect setting within the marina but nowhere near the grandeur of say the Royal Yacht Squadron or the New York Yacht Club. Oppie sailors mix with the grizzled. A TV is on in the corner showing alpine sports. Prettier yes than the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron but more of a scale akin to your local dinghy club than a colossus on the world yachting stage.
And that’s just how the Swiss roll, if you pardon my pun. It’s understated glamour and class. A working, useful clubhouse that is well-used by its patrons. How it should be. It’s all about tranquility that lulls you into making assumptions about gentility.
But one centimetre beneath the surface and just waiting to be roused is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, most perfectly exemplified by the Alinghi family who are at full tilt now in their quest for this America’s Cup. The Societe Nautique is literally buzzing on very little information and rather wonderful rumour whilst it’s all going down at the unremarkable and bland factory of Decision S.A. in Ecublens near Lausanne.
‘Boat Zero’ is quietly being prepared for launch right on the button of the window opening for new challengers in this America’s Cup cycle and the simulator, I’m told by those at the bar, has been heavily used in the months since the Alinghi Red Bull Racing Team was announced on December 14th to much fanfare.
It’s Swiss precision in action and firmly under the media radar. The rest of the Cup world has more than one eye on Alinghi and some commentators who I highly respect are already calling them as favourites. My view is that making any call now is simply too far out and I’m in the camp that thinks the sailors will have far more input in this cycle than we saw in Auckland where it was largely a first-gen design race.
The devil, indeed the Tao of this America’s Cup, will be in the detail to a greater extent but it’s development rather than the radical. Harnessing ever-increasing power in the wing and getting the pure mechanics of the boats better than up to speed is where the gains in design will be made. I spoke to a designer recently and I was all amped-up on the thought of light builds, radical designs, enhanced material construction etc and I was slapped with a rather large wet kipper. He opined that the envelope on hull design and construction was all “pretty much one way” – which I took as being along the TNZ lines – and that where teams are concentrating is on stuff that to the naked eye, will be hard to appreciate.
And that makes sense. If you look at a comparative development sport like Formula 1, the truth is that even the very best commentators and ex-racers aren’t 100% sure on what makes a Red Bull faster than a Mercedes as it stands today and that it’s the sum of the parts aligned with a top rate driver who can extract that car’s maximum that is the difference. So whilst the design element of any Cup cycle is deeply fascinating, where I believe the biggest gains will be made will be in the personnel who are capable of squeezing the boat to its design capabilities.
Time on the water will be critical. How many times have we seen or experienced it when a crew turns up at a regatta having sailed all year and are literally sailing on auto-pilot? You’re still heads-down in a snake-pit of ropes whilst they are concentrating on crew positions to best distribute the weight. Their manoeuvres are slick. They look totally in control and they’re over the horizon. You’ll be there soon enough but by the time you get there, the maths is against you. Happens all the time.
And Barcelona in September will be a gradient breeze aligned with a mind-bending chop that simply won’t make sense from one day to the next. The sailors that can adapt the best and extract the maximum from their platform will win. We will see surprising results on a daily basis. Scalps will be taken that we simply didn’t expect or the form book didn’t show. Holding it together through the highs and lows of this regatta will be key.
So Alinghi hunkering down in Lausanne, training around Lake Geneva presumably and getting some fresh-water time in ‘Boat Zero’ could be a significant masterstroke in this America’s Cup. The time they will spend on the water will be exhausting and possibly more valuable than the commensurate time that the established teams spent in Auckland. And seeing as the timescale is measured in days rather than hours, they can be on the lake at first light and sail through to sunset.
But the question lingers around the quality of the afterguard and this is amplified if, as likely, the design windows are narrow and pretty much all the boats of the big teams are in the same performance ballpark.
Ask me today to pick who would win between Ben Ainslie, Tom Slingsby, Jimmy Spithill, Pete Burling and Nathan Outteridge and all I can point to is the SailGP circuit. These five are the apex predators of our sport. In short, they are all brilliant and it’s a tough ceiling to smash through to get to their level. Time and again they prove it at the highest level and we see how tough the hard-chargers from the minor teams in SailGP find it to compete with these guys. They are the Top Guns of our sport.
So the question that simply can’t be answered here due to the lack of evidence is whether the Alinghi afterguard are the weakest link in an otherwise mighty chain. We know the design will be spot-on. We certainly know the build will be Swiss perfect. We are 100% that the programme that has been designed will all-round be of the highest level. The simulator exercises we know are relentless. But are we confident in the white-hot heat of battle against a charged-up Ainslie, Slingsy, Spithill, Burling or Outteridge with an ounce of boatspeed in their back-pocket and a weight of expectation on their shoulders that they won’t pull out the move that simulators haven’t got the imagination to provide? Can Alinghi train for the impossible?
Ernesto Bertarelli thinks so. I’m not going to argue with him. But it’s the biggest question mark that hangs over this otherwise brilliant and intriguing team. If he’s right, and let’s face it he hasn’t been too bad on many decisions in the Cup world before, it would be seismic. It would change how we think about sailing in the America’s Cup and SailGP. It would be Bill Koch-esque, firmly rooted in the pure data and science of winning the greatest prize in our sport and it would be the art of the sensational if they pull it off.
As storylines go, there’s nothing bigger than the Alinghi one. Watch this one from behind the sofa. It will be fascinating.