America’s Cup: The Race to Improve

He who makes the fewest mistakes wins. So why are these America's Cup teams still slipping up?
America’s Cup: The Race to Improve Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

America’s Cup sailors despise the daily press conference. Day after day, helmsmen, or a sacrificial lamb if a helmsman is preoccupied, are paraded through the wood-paneled side door of the media briefing room beneath the exclusive and impenetrable Club AC.

When the helmsmen show up they’ve already had their time in front of the cameras and microphones of radio jockeys and broadcasters and sit before a mix of press types. There’s an array of cameras at the back of the room, neatly organized rows of hard plastic chairs, and a stage upon which the helmsmen sit shoulder to shoulder, answering softballs and leading questions from reporters who know darn well they’re not going to get the answer they really want.

Most in attendance don’t bother asking questions. Why give the other journalists in the room your soundbites, right?

America's Cup
Emirates Team New Zealand jets away from Artemis Racing Team in their first match of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Qualifier’s second round robins. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

Like the pre-start of a race, it’s an awkward and forced dance. The questions come. The subjects dodge them and then pull an answer from the can, giving “credit to the boys,” or taking “their hats off” to so and so. So far the press conference party line in these opening days of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Qualifiers, however, has been along the lines of “we’re developing every day” or “we’re making a lot mistakes.”

Mistakes. Mistakes after mistakes. It’s what we keep hearing about, and each day it makes me ever more curious. How is it “the best sailors on the planet,” most of whom have been training for two years or more, are so off their collective game.

Why so many mistakes? What gives? Of course they’re not going to share their weakness, but why not ask? So I did.


For SoftBank Team Japan’s Dean Barker, it’s the challenge of sailing the AC50 well: “It’s the hardest thing to do 100 percent of the time.” For Emirates Team New Zealand’s Peter Burling, mistakes are the byproduct of sailing on the development curve. “When we talk about mistakes it’s maybe re-evaluating of how good you really need to be.” For Groupama Team France’s Frank Cammas, mistakes were coming from being too focused on sailing the boat itself and not on racecourse.

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Artemis Racing Team plays defense against a Emirates Team New Zealand pre-start hook. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

For Land Rover BAR’s Ben Ainslie, who had the final word, it was the acknowledgement that every mistake on the racecourse is damaging in some way. And every mistake puts excessive demands on the grinders. “The communications and everyone doing their job properly is making for some fantastic team sport,” he said.

From Oracle Racing Team’s Andrew Campbell, asked the same question earlier, his team’s mistakes are the result of learning on the fly—sometimes literally.


“We’ve gone from having a really heavy modification ramp up to slowing that down, but only for reliability’s sake,” says Campbell. “You don’t want to lose races or not be able to start because something’s not working so, a lot of the teams right now are toning down the developments so they can get reliability, but there’s still a fair amount of making adjustments to the boards and to the settings on how the boards work.

“Even our tacks—we have a lot left on the table. They’re not good at the moment and we’re still trying to hash out how to improve them and how to improve their consistency. That’s the way it’s going to be going forward as things get modified.”

America's Cup
Emirates Team New Zealand’s Peter Burling says mistakes thus far are the result of daily improvements to the boat. Giles Martin Raget/ACEA

Race-changing mistakes, of course, can be of the tactical sort, and we’ve seen plenty of them thus far over more than a dozen good races. Often, the mistake is an innocent one, like sailing in a light-wind patch. Sometimes it’s a consequence of lacking sufficient oil pressure in the hydraulics to be able to execute the desired set of maneuvers or avoid the boundary.


Even the umpires are making mistakes. The broadcasters and the media, too, as we try to keep up with the frantic pace while feeding our demanding social media and digital audiences. No one’s perfect in Bermuda, that’s for sure. As one simple marker, as of the end of racing today, no one team had yet to claim bragging rights for 100-percent flight. Close, though.

Maybe it was the conclusion of Round Robin 1, the shedding of nerves, or the start of Round 2 acting as a sort of re-boot button, but in today’s races, it was a struggling Land Rover BAR that toned down its mistakes best. Lighter winds on Great Sound may have helped.

For Artemis Racing Team, however, the day’s big mistake came during a mid-race port-starboard after leading most of the match. Their cross on port was marginal. They stuck their neck out and Emirates Team New Zealand dialed down and swung the machete. And that was that. One crucial mistake and Artemis was done for. It was the Swedish entry’s second straight loss to the Kiwis (the much debated umpire mistake of the previous day included) on account of a penalty. It now puts them at only two wins in the series and they’re plenty fast.

America's Cup
After a win at the end of the day against Artemis Racing Team, Land Rover BAR’s Ben Ainslie had reason to be happy–finally. Giles Martin Raget/ACEA

Artemis, I believe, has had the lion’s share of penalties (including one OCS) and this is a factor of most of their races having more hand-to-hand combat, with more lead changes and rules engagements than other team. They’re like the kids that keep getting into schoolyard fights they didn’t start but somehow end up in detention.

For Oracle Team USA, the second race of the day, following a lay day yesterday, was a lap around the park with Groupama Team France miles behind. After shutting down the French in the pre-start with an easy hook, Oracle was off and running, and running away ever faster until a wing control issue forced them to pull back on the throttle and deliver the boat across the finish line. Even sailing alone, it wasn’t a perfect race for skipper Jimmy Spithill and Co. As Campbell noted earlier, their maneuvers still have much room for improvement, as do their starts, which they apparently worked on overnight.

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Bermuda’s Great Sound is proving to be a great venue indeed. The 20-minute races are quick and decisive and the imagery is spectacular. One commonly heard complaint among locals is that the broadcasts don’t have enough about Bermuda. Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

The one team that had to show improvements was Land Rover BAR. In morning interviews, Mr. Ainslie explained that they’d made modifications to the boat overnight, as well as debriefs to get to the root of nagging issues. Whether he would actually admit it or not, one thing that was most noticeable on the audio feed during BAR’s loss the previous day to Groupama Team France were breakdowns in communications with tactician Giles Scott. In high-pressure situations yesterday, questions batted among the two were more common firm tactical calls. Confusion and hesitation leads to rushed maneuvers and we’ve seen them every day from the Brits.

Today, however, the dialogue between the two was far more sharp and concise, with Scott feeding Ainslie, and Ainslie more often simply responding, “Copy.”

If one were to put the two transcripts side by side, it would tell of a different and much more effective dynamic at the back of the British boat, which was much stronger today. Once they boxed out Artemis Racing Team in the pre-start in the third and final race of the day, they sailed as the unit they should be at this stage of the campaign. “Keep it calm,” Ainslie noted to Giles at one point, and then “our boat,” awhile later.

In his live feed post-race interview Ainslie twice gave credit to his tactician for calling a great race. Maybe that was the difference, a renewed confidence or trust. Either way, it got Land Rover BAR headed in the right direction, the direction of making fewer mistakes.