America’s Cup Interview: Ken McAlpine, A Man in the Know

When the Louis Vuitton Cup series starts in Auckland next October, every challenger entry will have one thing in common--an ACC measurement certificate with Ken McAlpine’s signature on it.

When the Louis Vuitton Cup series starts in Auckland next October, every challenger entry will have one thing in common–an ACC measurement certificate with Ken McAlpine’s signature on it. Come race time, McAlpine and his colleagues James Dadd, Nick Nicholson, and Shaun Ritson –the foursome known as the ACC measurement committee–will be the only ones privy to the dimensions of each and every boat, not to mention the Cup defender Team New Zealand. It’s a privileged position, says McAlpine, 49, from Perth, Australia, and a privilege he and the others guard with vigor. Grand Prix Sailor talked by telephone with McAlpine this week. He was in Cape Town, South Africa, measuring the Volvo fleet before the start of Leg 2.

Grand Prix Sailor: How long have you been a measurer?

Ken McAlpine: I’ve been involved with the America’s Cup for a long time–in a minor way back in 1970. I became more closely involved when the America’s Cup Regatta was in Perth. Before that, the most telling thing was that I was the measurer who measured Australia II before it went to America.


GPS: How’d you get involved with the Volvo, too?

KM: The competitors and organizers wanted the Volvo Ocean Race to be administered in the same way the America’s Cup is in that it’s very tight and there is a limited number of measurers. In effect, we have the same measurers for the Volvo as for the America’s Cup.

GPS: Are you on two separate payrolls then?


KM: Oh yes. They’re two totally separate events.

GPS: How’s the pay?

KM: (Laughs) Not enough. No, that’s not fair. We’re paid reasonably well.


GPS: What led you down this path?

KM: Well, I was working for a naval architect who was the Australian Yachting Federation 12-Meter measurer and it’s just gone on from there.

GPS: Do you have any free time to draft any of your own designs?


KM: I have a consulting naval architecture business in Fremantle and employ two other naval architects, and we do mostly commercial work for the local shipbuilding industry. Most of my time, over the last couple of years, has been yacht-racing administration.

GPS: Do you ever get to sail any of these boats?

KM: We rarely get to sail on America’s Cup boats or Volvo boats as non-measurement time spent with a syndicate might be viewed by others as a conflict of interest. As for sailing myself, I am a very ordinary Saturday afternoon sailor and enjoy racing in Perth whenever time allows. It seems the more involved in sailing at the grand prix level you become, the less sailing one does.

GPS: Can you pinpoint one highlight from this 30-year career?

KM: When I issued the certificate for Australia II, it was a defining point in my life. Putting my signature on a piece of paper effectively changed my direction although I did not realize it at the time.

GPS: Do you still have a copy of that certificate?

KM: Yes, absolutely.

GPS: Framed?

KM: No, I haven’t framed it.

GPS: So you were involved with the creation of the IACC rule, too.

KM: That unique opportunity presented itself with the catamaran/big boat America’s Cup in 1988. We were given the opportunity to send the America’s Cup in a state-of-the-art direction. Many people were involved and grasped the opportunity to create a new type of boat, which was a huge leap of faith for everybody. We were designing the class rules for the most important regatta in the world. Nobody had ever seen one of these boats; it was all done in our minds. As it turned out, they’re very special boats and continue to be very special boats. When they stop being so, we’ll probably need to think again.

GPS: How long will that be?

KM: I don’t know. It’s hard to judge. I think everyone’s reasonably happy at the moment because the rule is so stable. Everyone knows reasonably well where to go and where the optimum numbers are. They are producing some unbelievably good racing. Certainly, the challenger final series last time was very special.

GPS: Last year, masts were the big issue, what about this time?

KM: If I knew, I’d be a very happy man, but I’m not clever enough. There’s going to be something, but I just don’t know what it’s going to be yet. My job is to work out what it is going to be and have the issue under control before it becomes a major confrontation.

GPS: There’s some diversity among the four of you right?

KM: We are from differing backgrounds and that’s very important. Nick Nicholson is a retired magazine editor. He brings special word skills to the measurement committee–word skills that I don’t have. James Dadd is a boatbuilder and has built these types of boats, so he brings those special skills. Shaun Ritson is also a naval architect. It would be ridiculous to have four naval architects. For example, when it comes to preparing notices and interpretations Nick might say, “That’s clumsy English, so you should be using a different word in that particular situation.” At the end of the day, we end up with better written interpretations because we have this cross-pollination of skills. Every interpretation in effect becomes a legal document, so it must be very precise.

GPS: What’s the process for measuring in a new IACC boat?

KM: During the design process, we get many questions about various aspects, which we deal with formally and informally. They’re dealt with formally by means of interpretations. The syndicate can request whether they want a confidential interpretation or a public interpretation. Informally, it’s usually a new player just trying to figure out how things work. That’s been happening for the past 12 months. Now we’re entering the business end and boats are being built. As the boat gets built, the syndicate will request a sail number. When the boat is at a certain stage, we send a measurer to carry out the post-construction inspection and take core samples from the boat and do an actual rating type measurement of the boat. This is completed in the yacht’s country of origin. The yacht is then completed, launched and sailed or alternatively shipped to Auckland. It’s up to the syndicate as to how far they go with measurement, whether they complete it or not. Some syndicates feel they know where they’re going and don’t need to complete, and therefore they won’t have a certificate until September next year. Some of the not-so-experienced players like to get a certificate early so they are sure they have an ACC yacht. The timing depends on the confidence of the syndicate in knowing how far they have to go to be completely sure they don’t have any surprises down the track.

GPS: Do some like to get it out of the way early?

KM: Yes, but all the boats gets measured again when the full measurement committee is in Auckland because, chances are, each boat has only been cleared by one, or possibly two, measurers. It’s important that the whole measurement committee look carefully at each boat to make sure they’re happy with it. Another advantage of having an early measurement is that it allows the boat to arrive late in Auckland if that’s what they choose to do.

GPS: It must be exciting to get the first peek at all these new boats?

KM: Yes, it’s very special. I’m not sure it means very much, but it’s a unique position, seeing information the rest of the world may never get to see or maybe not see until the very end. We’re right there and get to see it all and that’s a very interesting and privileged position, a privilege that we guard zealously in regards to keeping all information confidential between the measurement committee and the syndicate concerned.

GPS: Has anyone ever tried to get information out of you?

KM: Yes, but it’s always done in a fun way. I’ve never had anyone offer me a bribe. It’s always treated in good humor by someone handing you a dollar note and saying, “Now you have to tell me something,” but that sort of stuff is OK, it’s just part of the game. The good thing about being around this game for so long is that that sort of thing can go on and nobody takes offense at it. Certainly, I would be more than offended if the attempt was real. It would constitute a serious offense if anyone were to offer any measurer any inducement to disclose information and would be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the racing rules.

GPS: There’s a lot of correspondence between you and the syndicates during the design phase, how do you keep it all confidential, especially e-mail?

KM: It’s only circulating among a very small group of people and I have 100-percent faith in these people. It doesn’t leak. With e-mail, a lot of what comes to me is passworded and encrypted in various ways. We’ll take it to a level of encryption consistent with the importance of the document.

GPS: Over the years, is there any one boat in particular that you feel really hit the money?

KM: Looking back over the years, the boats that make it to the end always impress me. They always seem to have the numbers just right, the whole thing looks right. Equally, as a naval architect, you can look across the fleet and say, yes I really like that idea, or that’s a clever idea and you’ll see that idea in the next generation of the boats. Some of the cleverest thinking is not necessarily at the top of the fleet, though. Some of it’s at the bottom and it’s just they have not got the big picture quite right.

GPS: How about some of the last generation?

KM: The Kiwi bow was surprising. I expected everyone to be going down a particular direction and when I saw that bow I was surprised.

GPS: As a naval architect, do you ever look at things and say to yourself, geez, I’m not sure that’ll work?

KM: Not at all. You’d be a very brave naval architect to stick your neck out like that and say something’s a lousy idea. One of the interesting things about what we do is that while we’re deep in all this insider information, the ability to pick the eventual winner, or any winners, is near impossible. I don’t think I’ve ever got it right. There are just too many factors is this extremely complicated and diverse game.