Pulling the Strings, But Touching No Lines
Though he'd rather be sailing, former Finn champion Philippe Presti has carved out quite a niche for himself as Oracle Team USA's coach. How do you make the world's best sailing team better? He's got plenty of ideas.
Guilain Grenier/ACEA/Oracle Team USA
Philippe Presti (right) has been coaching Jimmy Spithill on and off since they were both a part of Luna Rossa's campaign for the 32rd America's Cup.
Philippe Presti is a well-preserved secret in Oracle Team USA’s arsenal of racing weaponry. The angular 47-year-old Frenchman is one of those extremely quiet unassuming types that it pays to watch out for. He’s the sort who sits back quietly observing the lay of the land, or the race course as the case may be, biding his time patiently for the right play. These characteristics that have served him well as a coach for the defense syndicate. A sailor at heart, Presti takes his coaching role seriously and modestly claims that he is only as good a coach as he is a sailor. As two-time Finn world champion, that claim goes a long way. Presti was the coach and tune-up helmsman for Jimmy Spithill on Luna Rossa for the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007, and coached BMW ORACLE Racing prior to the 33rd Cup.
Sailing World: How did you come to coach Oracle in the 33rd Cup?
****Philippe Presti: I met Jimmy [Spithill] a long time ago, when I was preparing for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. I was at a very good level, second in the world in the Finn. We had this young kid coming for these training camps in the morning before school—5:30 to 8:00—and so we started to form a relationship. Then, I was driving the B boat for Luna Rossa in the 2007 America’s Cup campaign and he was driving the A boat and I started to coach him a bit; we would share things and I began to help him in the afterguard. I tried a little more discipline and to help him build the plays. Obviously Jimmy liked that and he asked me to come back for the 33rd America’s Cup quite late in the game. I did a couple of [training sessions] during that campaign then joined the team at the end when the purpose was to go racing. We’d work on the plays and on the simulator. We had a “camp” on the two Extreme 40s—I’m a match racer so the big question was, how are we going to match race these cats? We started with A Cats then scaled up, and when we couldn’t race against another boat we would work with simulators.
SW: How has this campaign with Oracle Team USA been different?
****PP: The boats. We started sailing a monohull in the very beginning for a while after the big trimaran as we wanted to catch up with the Louis Vuitton Series. We did a lot of training on the RC 44 and the Version 5 ACC boats until we swapped to the AC45. We initially trained on that in NZ and meanwhile we had three A Cats, so we were working with this multi hull platform and tried to match race these boats and learn from them. That was different.
SW: What are the biggest challenges coaching the team?
****PP: My goal every day is to try to bring something new to the table. I’ve been coached by a lot of coaches and when you come to a routine it’s difficult when the coach is not moving forward; it’s not good for the relationship. Right or wrong, with something new on the table, at least we can move forward in some direction. It’s also very different being on a team that’s all English-speaking. At Luna Rossa, everybody had to speak English but it was Italian driven. On this team I am almost the only non-Anglo Saxon. In my job the most important thing is just to try to transmit a message and connect with people. There’s a lot of understanding beneath that goes on…you don't approach a Kiwi like you approach an Australian for example in the way you present a problem. I’ve had the doors closed sometimes …
SW: What do you think the team needs to improve on?
****PP: There’re a lot of areas we can improve. We haven’t sailed the boat enough—only 8 days—so putting some hours on the big boats today would be the highest priority. At the moment I’m trying to think about how to improve time-and-distance skills. We are in a really challenging situation so if we’re not trying to push all the areas, together, we won’t succeed.
SW: How has Jimmy changed in the past 10 years since you’ve been working with him?
****PP: He was pretty young, so he’s changed a lot in the way he approaches life. He’s married with kids now. When he was younger he was more interested in just the sailing part of the equation, he was very into the technical and tactical side. Now he has a more open vision because he’s running the team.
SW: Did his talent stand out to you when you first started working with him?
****PP: He’s extremely calm and that creates something with people around him, a trust. In the AC 32, relationship with people was very important and he had to maneuver the Version 5 boat, so full trust was important. He doesn’t blow you up; he’s trusting you so you give him the most you’ve got. That’s the feeling I’ve had talking to the crew and sailing with him. He’s been strong under pressure; he shows good stability, which is important when you have this kind of business to run. He’s really at good match racing as he’s got the fighting instinct. He’s extremely aggressive in a good way. He’s also able to listen and to accept thinking that we can do things another way; he wants to learn. A lot of top sailors are in their bubble and they don’t really want to change. Jimmy’s pretty open in that way. That’s a good position for a coach because you feel that the input you are giving is being well taken.
SW: Are you focused on the overall group dynamic in your approach to coaching?
****PP:** Not totally. I think everybody can learn at any stage. Mostly I’m a sailor, not a coach and while I’m not on the boat, I can speak the same language because I’ve got the same feeling. I’m coaching Ben Ainslie—I’m a Finn sailor and have been world champion twice—when I’m talking with him, we’re talking the same language. When he’s on the water I have the same feeling just as if I was driving. So when I communicate a message I can be technical, but my goal is instead of telling them what to do, I try to do it by using media—video or audio or tracks—that can help the person realize what he has to do. Then it’s job done. You show a clip of good footage of what you feel needs to be changed and if you’re doing your job well, the sailor will look at that and say, “I need to do that,” and you don’t have to tell him. That’s the only way to get there in my mind. These guys are extremely high-level, and they have to be convinced that they have to do it. Audio is really useful too. I’ve been recording communications on the boat; sometimes you take a misunderstanding or decisions the wrong way on the boat, and by listening to what was said you can hear the feel the emotion which you can’t see in the video but listening to it, it goes deep, plus it’s clear, there’s no discussion. Then people can improve based on real fact. Even though I know what I want to change, I’d rather show them how.
SW: What is going to make a winning Cup team this year?
****PP: Got to be quick, as usual! You’re not going to win if you’re not quick. That’s been the case for 150+ years. The quickest boat wins. The boat is the same as the team. If you’ve got a good boat, you’ve got a strong team because all the sailors are not only the users, they’re also the designers, they put their input into the boat. That’s why we’ve got this strong team, because we have sailors who know what is going to be the next step, what they need to do to save weight, or to improve the systems or make a better maneuver, or how to manipulate the boards, whatever. The team makes the development of the boat so the two go together.
SW: What do you really think you’re good at doing?
****PP: Ask the crew!
SW: Do you miss sailing?
****PP: I’m still sailing, just not on this program. I am not on the boat everyday, but I drive the 45 a lot during the campaign. I have an A Cat waiting in the shed for me to race next weekend and when I finish this, I’ll be running a big boat program—I’ve been tactician and driver for years. Being a coach you need to continue to improve, you need to challenge yourself, I’d rather be a sailor. But I used to be in their position, so I think I can help them a lot not being on the boat. I used to deal with their problems, so I know how to deal with their needs, I can feel them. When you’re under pressure, you have a narrow vision of things; you have your goal while all around you there are plenty of other things happening. Sometimes someone who knows how it feels can offer up a different perspective and you can move forward again another step. That’s my position and I try to play that game.
SW: Do you like the multihulls?
****PP: Yeah, I do. I think it is a lot of fun. It’s a new challenge, it’s different, it’s quick and the way with the boundary system and the way we are starting is different. Technically it’s challenging.
SW: Thoughts on fleet racing versus match racing?
****PP: The fleet racing starts are different, but as soon as you’re around the top mark and you do the first jibe, then it’s more or less the same type of racing. Match racing with these boats you see distance between the boats pretty quickly. It’s hard to cover so in that sense, fleet and match are pretty similar. Normally in match racing in the old days as soon as you’re in front that was the game [to cover the opponent] but with these boats if you just cover, it’s going to be hard for you. When we did training for the last regatta, I decided to train for just the start—we did a lot of starts. Then when the other teams arrived, we decided just to sail fleet because on the course side you learn more and every time you have a situation with another boat it’s the same as in match racing - you have to deal with that situation. At the end of the day you cannot really control one boat so you need to learn all the course plays. For me you can use the fleet racing to improve your match skills especially on the race track.
SW: What’s the best part of your job?
****PP: I like it when we go racing. We prepare well our plays, we know exactly what we want to do against the other opponent, we know we’ve prepared ourselves for the course, we have the strategy down…we’re polished. Then you go into the race, there’s the 5-minute gun and then you’re a spectator again. That’s perfect, I like that part of it because I can see what where we’ve improved and what needs to be our next step.