With a solid list of grand-prix clients, and a work schedule that revolved around regattas in fabulous vacation destinations, veteran sailmaker Tom McLaughlin appeared to have it made. Then he traded all that in for the 12-hour, 6-day workweeks of an underfunded America’s Cup campaign, signing on as the sailing team coordinator for Dawn Riley’s Areva Challenge. The obvious question is why. We called Tomac, as he is known, early in 2007 to find out just what prompted him to jump back into the America’s Cup game.
How much of your adult life has been spent as a sailmaker?
Basically all of it. When I was in college [at San Diego State], I worked with Lowell North in San Diego. When I graduated, I was going to work for Proctor & Gamble and Lowell said, “Why don’t you try this for another year and see if it sticks.” That was back in 1970. So it’s been a while. I think I’m the longest employed North Sails person. I’m about two years ahead of Dave Hirsch and four years ahead of Gary Weisman.
This gig with Areva Challenge isn’t your first America’s Cup experience.
America II. That was Kolius, the New York YC, a different end of the spectrum from where I am now. We were the first and most well funded challenge. We were sort of on top of the food chain. I joined about halfway through, when we launched the second 12-Meter, as the training helmsman. I was picked, I think, because I was good enough to steer the boat well, but not good enough or ambitious enough to threaten Kolius’ or John Bertrand’s position. Or that’s my evaluation. I enjoyed it, I learned a lot. But at the time I didn’t think the America’s Cup was worth laying your life down for. Still isn’t by the way.
What I learned 20 years ago is the America’s Cup is about good management. It’s still a sailboat race, but to be competitive you have to have good management and make good decisions all along the way. There’s design decisions, personnel decisions, lots of things that impact the final result. I left the America II effort with so much respect for the people that spent their money well, their time well, and ended up emerging with strong campaigns.
Most people tend to say design, money, or time is the most important thing to a successful campaign. Management isn’t often mentioned.
If we look at Fremantle, it was a new venue. The New York YC and America II, they had to go learn about sailing in heavy air. But we all knew about the Fremantle Doctor. And we had more money than anybody else, so we started sooner than the other challengers. We were on location, set up, in 1984, and the regatta didn’t happen until February of ’87. So we were the first ones there, had the biggest budget, spent the most money, built three new boats and yet we didn’t make the semifinals. We had very good sailors. Kolius is a gifted sailor. I don’t think it was the talent; we just made a couple of wrong decisions and wrong assumptions and didn’t really challenge ourselves and think outside the box enough. Dennis Conner came in later, and had less money. Dennis is a fantastic sailor, but the way they decided to approach the development path was different. What stuck with me when we left America II, which was quite disappointing, was the value of very good management decisions, risk verse reward decisions.
So, after 20 years, how did you get back involved with the Cup?
Bernard Nivelt, the boat designer, I’ve known him since 1978. He called me a couple of times basically saying, ‘We have a pretty good team, but we need a couple more people to try to pull the sail program together.’ Dawn Riley is the general manager and I’ve known Dawn for a number of years and I’m extremely impressed with her organizational ability. Stephan Kandler, who is the CEO, started the syndicate, he was very encouraging when I spoke to him on the phone. They were running a little thin on people. They needed a couple of extra hands.
From your point of view, why was it an attractive opportunity?
I sailed and observed the TP 52 circuit this summer with John Coumantaros, the Bambakou team, and we couldn’t get going faster on a quicker path. I looked at that as far the components of mast, keel, sails, etc. looking for answers why we didn’t have more rapid improvement. It was very difficult. So I felt that when I got the offer to join Areva it would be like going to graduate school. All the America’s Cup teams, even the smaller ones, have dedicated smart engineers, sailmaking talent, very good people. I thought I would be a great opportunity to learn. I like doing this, I’d like to do it for another 5 years if I can, and if you’re not learning you’re falling behind.
What did you feel you would bring to the program?
I’m totally selfish. I was just trying to get something out of it. [Laughs] The one thing, reading between the lines, it sounded like they needed somebody old, they had a lot of enthusiastic young people and they needed somebody, I’ll say mature, that was not going to threaten anyone, not looking to take their jobs. I think a lot of these campaigns they run so long that any fresh face, you come in with no baggage, no history, no agenda, so people are willing to trust you. I felt it was clearly something that was on a trial basis and probably still is. I explained to Dawn that I’m not trying to build a career, if I wasn’t helpful, I’d say, “Good bye, thanks very much,” and it wouldn’t disturb my life.
But you’re still there?
I’m still here. It’s like a lot of people in politics. I like to think that I serve at the whim of the president. You don’t know whether you’re effective or not, that’s the beauty of the America’s Cup. You set up all of the internal systems to see if you’re making progress but in truth you just have to be better than the other guys. While you continue to make progress, if the other teams are making more progress, you’re just sliding back. All that talk will be over in a couple of months and we’ll see. But it is refreshing to be with the French and the Areva team because we have limited resources, like everybody, but nobody’s expecting much of us. We are. But if you went to Las Vegas to bet on who was going to win you wouldn’t see the name Areva up near the top.
I feel bad for the [syndicates] that have left no stone unturned. If they don’t win it’ll be seen as a huge disappointment and failure. Well, it’s not fair for me to say what they’ll think or feel. But when I reflect back 20 years, we had more money, more boats, and more time, and we finished fifth and didn’t make the semifinals. I know how that felt, it didn’t feel very good.
You guys had to make a two-generation leap to your new boat from the former NZL-60, which you’d been sailing. How has that gone?
I think it’s gone well. We did continue to improve 60, which was a two-generation old boat. We have tested some new things on the boat and that showed improvement. The beauty of the new structure of the Cup with the Acts being based in Valencia is you’re able to get a peak at what everyone else is going. It’s no secret that the new boats are narrow, reducing wetted surface. I don’t think you’ll see a strange wild boat. They also, with Version 5 of the rules, have tightened it up, trying to push people to the center of the rule. I think that the boats will be more similar, and there will be more development in sails and more development in the transition speed on the boats, downspeed tacking, the maneuverability, will be more finely developed.
Most people feel this a race between the Big Four syndicates. Are they overly discounting the smaller teams like yourself.
No. I think they’re correct. We’re sailing against smart people. They’re well funded and the Big Three [challengers] is a reality. I think without the Acts, you could say maybe someone’s going the wrong direction. The Big Three is definitely a towering obstacle for all the rest of us. Everyone will use the same phrase; we’re fighting for that fourth spot. But it will be interesting. The Big Three, they’re not doing this just to the win the Louis Vuitton Cup. So it wouldn’t be surprising if they take some risks along the way. If a team, like Luna Rossa, felt they weren’t able to beat the other two, they may choose to do something quite rash during the Round Robins because what good does it do to get second or third in the Louis Vuitton Cup.
The cream always rises to the top, but you’ve done enough boat racing to know stranger things have happened. And we’re going to have a good boat. One advantage we have is we’re not encumbered by the choice of this new boat or that new boat. We only have one boat. We have a lot of team solidarity because we only have one team. We’re not going to be telling people two weeks before they go in to the competition they’re not going to sail, “You’re on the B team.” When people live together and become a team, you all become friends and you support each other. To win in a match racing you only have to be smarter than the guys on the other boat. If you lose your concentration or confidence you can lose the race just like that. We have to support each other and that’ll be a strength.
You mention only having one sailing team. So do you line up often with other teams to test or race?
Yes. There are strict protocols about what you can and can’t do. You can’t line up with other teams and do joint training. But you can schedule informal racing series; a day of racing. You publish rules and a starting time, it’s as official as any small yacht club event can be. We don’t know the configuration of the other boat, we don’t know what they may be trying to learn, but we do test the crew, find out if we can do competent mark roundings. We do work on strategy. It’s not as good as a two-boat team because those guy know exactly what mode they’re in. We just go out and assume that’s our yardstick for the day and try to do the best we can.
What teams have you trained with?
I did not come here until October, but since then we sailing against Victory, Alinghi, Luna Rossa, United Internet Team Germany quite a bit as well as Shosholoza. So we’ve gotten a pretty good spectrum and we’ve done some training against some of the people in Oracle. I think now that we’ve launched our new boat we will get opportunities, people are asking us if we’d like to go out sailing for a day, it’s the natural curiosity.
Is that palpable in Valencia, the curiosity? Is everyone looking over the fence at everyone else?
Not so much looking over the fence, but everyone’s got two tenders, so if we see the Luna Rossa team doing two boat training, we’ll go over and stay outside of the 200-meter limit and just watch them for a while and see if there’s anything we can learn. Sometimes it’s a little like the old Mad magazine comic Spy vs. Spy. “I know that you know that I know that you know we’re watching.” So you don’t know the information you’re getting.
A couple of teams have left for other training grounds. What has Areva been up to this winter?
We just launched FRA-93, so we have to do some structural testing; and we’ve just had the Christmas and New Year break. It’s like anywhere else; you pick your days and most of the time you can get a heck of a lot done in a three-hour window on the water. The only thing you don’t collect is any real weather data that has any bearing on what it will be in May or April or June. But as far as being able to go sail the boat and find 10 knots of breeze and have it be pretty steady, that’s a regular occurrence. I scratch my head, our neighbors at Victory Challenge, they made a choice to expand to a two-boat program last fall, they were running parallel to us, then they got additional funding from Red Bull, which when you think about it, you get twice as many sailors but the maintenance team has to double as well. Suddenly they go from 60 or 70 people to 120 people, the logistical stuff has to be able to expand as quickly. But they chose to fly their boats to Dubai, sail for four weeks, come back from Dubai, and at that time they have a new hull that will arrive in two weeks or so. When the boats arrive it’s just a hull and a deck. There’s a lot of work to do once the boat hits their facility. My hats are off to those guys, because we’re looking at all we have to do in the days remaining, and they’re coming back from Dubai, building a new boat, and completing their training, it’s very ambitious.
You mention earlier that Version 5 of the rule has pushed everyone in the same direction and the hulls are likely to be quite similar. What will make the difference then? Where will the good teams separate themselves from the pack?
I’m a sailmaker by training so I always think it’s the sails. [Laughs] But I think the tools now are better to integrate the sail shape, the driving force, with the keels and rudder, so more than ever you end up with a better understanding of how it all goes together. Right off the bat you’ll see the very big square top mainsails, it’s almost like a gaff-rigged sail. This is important in light air venues where there’s more wind up high. You see the same thing on a lot of headsails. The way the rules are written you can have almost a squared headed jib, if you can get it in front of the mast and to pop on the other side. We’re seeing very aggressive innovative ways to carry as much sail area up high as you can muster. As usual, the America’s Cup is leading the way on a lot of fittings, ways to save weigh, etc. All top secret, of course, if told you about any of it, I’d have to kill you.
I got a quick look at Alinghi’s first new boat, SUI-91, and they seemed to have gone to extreme measures to simplify the deck layout and reduce gear. Is that a trend across the board?
Simple is more desirable; it’s less weight. All of the teams have an obsession with reducing the weight. Weight you save on deck or on the mast, you can stick in the bulb. With the new Version 5, it’s much more generous on sail area. If you can think about the hull weighing nothing, all the lead in the bulb, make the boat narrow so it’s as slippery as it can be. What’s amazing to me is watching people show up the parking lot next door with the radio-controlled boats and you look at the R/C boats from 4 to 6 years ago and you go, “Holy crap, that’s what we’re doing now.”
Any final thoughts on the upcoming contest?
The only thing I am quite interested in will be the Victory syndicate. They had a good solid program and then make the choice to go on steroids, really hit the hyperspace button, and do all the things they want to do and do it now. It’s going to be a very intriguing outcome.
Increasing your speed and activity is not necessarily taking you closer to the goal and to me that’s where they’re going to be tested on their management skills. They have opportunity and more choices, but with so little time, they have to make the right choices most of the time. With us and other smaller teams we don’t have that many choices, so it gives us more time to think about it and squeeze what we have.