Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

The Big Read: Sailors hunkering down for 35th Cup

Emirates Team New Zealand launch their new boat. Picture / Supplied
Emirates Team New Zealand launch their new boat. Picture / Supplied

Tucked away in the far corner of the Auckland Waterfront in the shadow of the large concrete silos that point to the area's industrial roots, Team New Zealand's new base can be difficult for visitors to find.

The only clue that the bland 1970s cinderblock building houses the most enduring America's Cup syndicate is a small sign on the wire fence out front.

While their new Beaumont St headquarters is only a few hundred metres from their former location, which they vacated late last year to allow the construction of a glitzy five-star hotel, the position couldn't be more removed.

The old Halsey St base - effectively a giant corrugated iron shed - could never be described as flashy, but it held pride of place in the Viaduct, where Team NZ's livery virtually formed part of the landscape.

Their new premises, which behind its uninspiring street frontage is a maze of tents and ships' containers, is almost a metaphor for Team NZ's understated and at times tenuous campaign for the next America's Cup.

After the turmoil of the past two-and-a-half years, during which the team copped a flogging over pleas for more government funding and the poorly handled axing of long-serving skipper Dean Barker, Team NZ are happy to not draw attention to themselves.

Their approach is a marked difference to how the team went about their last campaign, when they were the ones firing all the shots on and off the water.

Grant Dalton, the team's combative boss, was constantly in the headlines, never missing an opportunity to stick the boot into the Cup defenders Oracle Team USA and the America's Cup Events Authority over their questionable manoeuvrings off the water.

The Kiwi syndicate made even bolder statements with their sailing programme, leading the development curve for the 34th America's Cup and ultimately setting the course for the event by becoming the first team to foil.

This time, the team's build-up has been very much under the radar.

The lack of noise coming from the Team NZ camp was a deliberate strategy while they licked their wounds following the brutal aftermath of their 9-8 loss to Oracle in San Francisco, but it was also partly through circumstance.

Financial setbacks at the start of the Cup cycle put the team firmly in chase mode in the lead-up to the Bermuda regatta. A year out from the 35th America's Cup match, Team NZ have only just launched their first custom-built test boat, having done their early testing on a hand-me-down AC45 from Italian syndicate Luna Rossa.

Hinting at the turmoil that the syndicate have experienced over the past two-and-a-half years, Dalton said at the launch of the boat this week "they can't kill us off that easily".
TEAM NZ skipper Glenn Ashby can't wait to get his hands on his new toy.

"As sailing team director, not having a boat to go sailing on is a bit restricting. It's like a rugby team not having a ball to play with," he jokes.

"This is really the beginning of our campaign, in many ways.

"Without being on the water, it feels like a big part has been missing, so this will be a huge boost for the team."

The relentlessly positive Australian admits to casting a nervous eye to what their rivals are up to with their campaigns.

The rules allow each challenging team to build only one full-size 50-foot America's Cup Class (ACC) boat. However, teams can build smaller "surrogate" boats up to 45 feet for testing and development.

Oracle have launched three AC45 turbos, the most recent in October last year, allowing them to conduct two-boat testing in their second and third platforms. Their first prototype was sold to Barker's Team Japan, who are said to have made some significant gains on their own.

Land Rover BAR, headed by Ben Ainslie, have also launched a third boat, and Swedish challenger Artemis are running a two-boat test programme out of their Bermuda base.

Team NZ's chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge isn't concerned because while many of their rivals are incredibly well resourced, they have the benefit of experience.

"We're a well-drilled team that's been around for a long time. A lot of our advantage is we know how to do it proficiently and quite well. So we feel more than comfortable with where we're at and the team we've put together," says Shoebridge, who tends to front the media these days, leaving Dalton to concentrate on what he does best - selling the Team NZ vision to corporates and sponsors.

Shoebridge contends while Team NZ have a lot of hours to make up on the water, the effort in the design office never stalled.

The need to understand where the Kiwi team fell short after holding a seemingly unassailable 8-1 advantage over Oracle, and the threat of having key personnel poached by rival syndicates, saw Team NZ keep its design operations running after returning from San Francisco.

The setting may be uninspiring, but inside the design office, big things have been happening.

The shift to multihulls for the 2013 event was described as a quantum leap for the America's Cup, with the clunky monohulls replaced by sleek, high tech catamarans capable of reaching speeds of nearly 50 knots downwind, or about 90km/h.

This time around, the type of craft will be the same, although Cup officials have opted for a slightly smaller 50-foot model.

While outwardly there doesn't appear to be much different about the yachts from the previous event, there have been significant technological advances in that time.

Dan Bernasconi, Team NZ's technical director, said when the design rules were drawn up for the last America's Cup, foiling was just an abstract idea.

"This Cup, we know everyone is going to be foiling, so it's about how efficiently you can do that. It is the second generation of the class, so it is about doing everything far more efficiently."

Bernasconi said the key technology battleground ahead of Bermuda will be in the sophisticated control systems that operate the wing, rudder and daggerboards as
the teams seek fast, stable and continuous flight.

That means treading a fine line between speed and stability, as the design team look to develop a boat that is quicker than their rivals but also capable of getting around the tight Bermuda race course safely.

Ashby said crew development will be crucial over the next 12 months.

To power the sophisticated hydraulic control systems on the boat, it's likely four of the six-strong crew in Bermuda will be grinders, although on-boards are yet to be defined.
With gun sailor Peter Burling almost certain to be at the helm, that means the likes of Ashby, tactician Ray Davies, Richard Meacham and Burling's partner in the 49er class, Blair Tuke, could all be chasing one spot.

"It's going to be a different type of boat than anything we have sailed before, and I think most of the other teams are finding that the complexity of these boats, both electronically, hydraulically and systems-wise, is a big challenge, so we have to keep a fairly open mind to [crew positions]," says Ashby.

Because, as Dalton noted this week "San Francisco never really leaves us", being in catch-up mode this time around doesn't really bother Ashby. He says the key to winning will be making continual gains.

"Honestly, with these type of boats, if you're not developing right through to the end, you'll probably get passed."

- NZ Herald

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