Andy Rice reports on the deepening rift between Emirates Team New Zealand and the rest of the America's Cup teams already in Bermuda.
It used to be considered the height of treason for a challenger to train with the defender during the preliminaries of the America’s Cup. Yet in the build-up to Bermuda it seems the only challenger that definitely won’t be practice racing against Oracle Team USA is the band of upstarts from down under, Emirates Team New Zealand.
While sailing fans from the other four nations mounting a challenge for the 35th America’s Cup will be enthusiastically cheering for their home teams – Sweden, Japan, France and Great Britain – the Kiwis have surely become the default option for any neutral supporters to cheer on this summer.
Being the only team that refused to sign up to the framework agreement agreed between the defender and four challengers in London back in late January, Emirates Team New Zealand is the lone wolf, the black sheep of the family, take your pick of clichés for the ‘odd one out’.
The framework is the document that brought together the defender and all but one of the challengers in agreeing the dates for the next two editions, in 2019 and 2021, in addition to guaranteeing the ongoing use of the AC50 as the weapon of choice.
Meanwhile those already in Bermuda have been quick to seize on the opportunities to train against each other, thanks to a recent change in the protocol which permits practice racing for a number of periods between the end of March and the start of competition in May.
The Kiwis, who have been working up their AC50 on home waters in Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, have been openly cynical of the change in protocol, commenting on the ETNZ Facebook page: ‘America’s Cup Class race boats lining up already? Until this week it was prohibited by the protocol, but now allowed after yet another rule change. Working together to protect their future AC framework agreement?’
Two practice races between the Americans and the Brits resulted in a 2-0 whitewash for Oracle Team USA over Land Rover BAR.
An embarrassing moment for Sir Ben Ainslie was also captured on video when a gust hit the wing rig just as the British AC50 slow-boat manoeuvring near the dock, accelerating the boat into concrete and causing a nasty crunch. Fortunately the AC50 design requires sacrificial bow sections which are easily replaced after such incidents.
It’s not been all plain sailing for SoftBank Team Japan, which snapped a rudder during training and sent a diver down to search for the missing foil.
Some like to refer to these moments as a ‘turtle strike’, where any broken foil is blamed on hitting submerged objects or large marine life. The more likely reason is that the foils are incredible pieces of engineering that are being designed around an impossible compromise – to be thick enough for ultimate strength whilst being thin enough for ultimate speed. Getting the balance right between reliability and top-end speed will be one of the great challenges of this Cup.
However, one of Team Japan’s sailors is so encouraged by their speed in training that they are predicting a Japan v New Zealand challenger final. Seems a rather bullish prediction given that we’ve seen nothing of Artemis Racing’s AC50 on the water yet, not to mention Groupama Team France.
Meanwhile the Kiwis have been ploughing a lonely but impressive furrow down under, putting out some videos of their crew sailing/cycling all the way around a two-lap race course without once dropping off the foils during a tack or a gybe.
Some of the other teams, all of which opted to stick to conventional grinding pedestals, don’t seem too fazed by what they’ve seen. It’s much more likely that the really important stuff on these boats is the stuff that’s hardest to spot, the small subtleties.
There’s no doubt the Kiwis are going to need everything in their favour, because they can sense there’s a target on their back even before they’ve arrived in Bermuda. As team boss Grant Dalton told the New York Times recently: “The danger of being a lone wolf, of course, is that there’s a lot of people, not just Oracle, that don’t want us to win this time. There are five teams that want us dead now, not one, only because we’ve ruined their little parade.”