Yachting: Future on the line as monohull era comes to a close

By Shayne Currie

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Things will never be the same for Emirates Team New Zealand after the Louis Vuitton Trophy, as they prepare for America's Cup racing in a multihull and with fewer crew.

"Keep your head down!" cries the crewman, as we scramble on all fours on the carbon-fibre deck, watching carnage unfold.

Fewer than 10cm from the back of my head, a short and very sharp ping - the spinnaker halyard snaps loose and shoots forward, threatening to lash any obstacle in its path.

The warm seas of the Persian Gulf slowly devour the huge sail.

"Drop it, drop it!" pleads Emirates Team New Zealand skipper, Dean Barker.

Defiantly, the sail will not allow itself to be totally freed from the yacht. Its halyard has caught on something up the mast and crewman Adam Beashel is sent skywards to free the wretched cable.

Barker has been forced to bring the 24m yacht almost to a halt, rather than risk the entire rig being hauled down by the waterlogged sail. Valuable seconds - and effectively this race - are lost.

Despite a valiant attempt to claw back the lead, Team New Zealand lose this round-robin race in the Louis Vuitton Trophy series by 25 seconds.

What hurts more is that they've succumbed to their American arch rivals Oracle, the America's Cup holders headed by Kiwi chief executive Russell Coutts.

Barker is sombre as we return to dock in Dubai, barely speaking on the half-hour journey. It's a far cry from the jovial, upbeat skipper who briefly relaxed by hurling a rugby ball with his team mates before the race.

"Don't worry guys, we'll win the war," says one crewman on the return home. "As long as we learn from losing the battle."

The "war" should take place in the same waters today. If results overnight go as expected, the two teams will meet in the best-of-five Louis Vuitton Trophy final later tonight.

The round-robin race last Monday was an early opportunity for Team New Zealand to measure themselves against Oracle - and they were looking for every possible advantage.

Veteran pitman Tony Rae instructs me on where and when to sit and crouch at the rear of the racing machine. "Don't touch anything there," he says, pointing out the myriad ropes and pulleys. Fingers can be lost in these contraptions.

I'm told to crouch well under the leading edge of the hull on upwind legs to ensure I'm not imposing any wind resistance. Downwind, I move to a more central, upright position.

On board are the sights and sounds to which Team New Zealand fans have become accustomed: Barker's trademark stance at the wheel, the assured voice of tactician Ray Davies, and team boss Grant Dalton getting down and dirty with the grinding work. The yacht's creaks and groans as Barker and his men push it to its limit.

In reality, little separates the two teams. Oracle led by just 10 seconds at the first mark and just 15 seconds at the mark immediately following the spinnaker disaster.

The post mortems for the race are reserved for the team debriefing, well out of earshot of an embedded journalist, but it's fair to assume nothing was left unsaid.

Perhaps Barker's post-race mood also reflects a wider realisation that the past week has been his last chance to farewell the America's Cup monohulls in style. After today's final races, the yachts will be retired for good as the America's Cup enters a new phase - racing in high-speed 22m catamarans with a wing sail.

"Aside from taking his daughter sailing off the beach at Christmas, Dean is unlikely to sail in monohulls again," says Dalton.

The Team New Zealand boss has absolutely no doubt Barker - a "natural helmsman" - will adjust quickly and well to the new multihull discipline. He's already raced in Extreme 40 catamarans at the Almeria regatta in Spain, alongside team mates Jeremy Lomas and Winston Macfarlane.

Team New Zealand has just completed an "exhaustive" feasibility study on the new America's Cup technology, what it will take to win, and whether the team has the sailing and design skills to do it. That study confirms Dalton's optimism.

"We have completely got our brains around it. We understand the space, it's not scary. These big multihulls going at full throttle will be an awesome sight.

"The 900-pound gorilla in the room is the wing sail but the design skill exists in the aeronautical industry. High-tech, but it's still a wing."

Team New Zealand's ability to front up will also depend on the venue for the 2013 event - and whether Emirates will sign on again as the team's major sponsor.

Dalton wants to race in San Francisco - it's a natural amphitheatre, it's close to New Zealand and, equally importantly, it's a city on Emirates' schedule.

A decision on the venue is expected to be announced by Oracle in the next fortnight. Dalton is up front about what's at stake.

"If [Team New Zealand] doesn't do this one, the brand will wither," says Dalton. "Maybe someone else will come along, but if we fail this time, the campaign will fail."

So it's a nerve-racking time for New Zealand's most enduring sailor, who was described last week as being like a pinball with a BlackBerry attached, flitting between sailing, media and sponsor commitments and team duties at the Louis Vuitton series.

Whatever the case, Team New Zealand won't be the same again. Some sailors will lose their jobs, because the multihulls need only 11 crew rather than 17. That's created extra challenges to motivate the team in Dubai, although Dalton sensed the team's run of strong results (aside from the Oracle loss) over the past week had "started a fire".

"They're starting to dig ... the coaches have been fantastic. We're starting to come right."

Shayne Currie travelled to Dubai courtesy of Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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