**The Australians are back as challenger of record for the 35th America’s Cup, **and it’s hardly surprising with top Aussie sailors making big strides in the recent Cup event—Nathan Outteridge, Jimmy Spithill, Glen Ashby, and Tom Slingsby to name a few—as well as people in key roles within the event environment, like regatta director Iain Murray and Oracle Team USA general manager Grant Simmer.
Fittingly, the challenge for the America’s Cup 35 was filed promptly by the Hamilton Island YC, on September 25—September 26 if you were down under—after Oracle’s outstanding comeback victory over the Kiwis, the same day that 30 years ago the Australians fought back from being down 3-1 to beat American Dennis Connors’ Liberty 4-3 in the seven-race series off Newport, R.I., and becoming the first non-American Cup winners in the regatta’s then 132-year-old existence. The parallels are uncanny.
Throughout a career than spans nine Cup campaigns, from the time Simmer was a 26-year-old navigator on Australia II in 1983 to his current role with Oracle, the past few weeks have possibly been the most stressful of all for the easygoing Aussie. Here he shares his insight into Oracle’s unlikely victory … and a glimpse of what we may see ahead for AC35.
Was it all worth it in the end?
GS: Absolutely. It was fantastic—an unbelievable outcome. The nice thing about this team is that we never gave up, although I guess that’s all people are hearing from us. Jimmy [Spithill] didn’t flinch, he’s such a fighter, and that was so impressive. Even the other sailors just kept on getting stronger. They went out there every day believing they were going to win. With their backs to the wall, they still went out there believing they could win. Impressive.
Did you doubt early on in the series that it would be possible to come back?
**GS: **Well, yeah, I have to admit I had doubts—you wouldn’t be a rational man if you didn’t. Sure, but did Jimmy have doubts? I don’t know. Surely he did, but he never showed it, he kept fighting. And of course, Ben [Ainslie] had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Making the change from John Kostecki to Ben was the right time because we needed to make a change. It was bloody hard on Kostecki, but probably the right thing for the team at the time.
Internally, how did it happen—can you describe the process, the meetings that must have taken place after the first few races?
**GS: **It was really the day that we used our postponement card. The sailors came in and met as a group, and I met with the designers to think about the fact that we couldn’t go on like this. We had to look at what our options were to make changes on the boat. We made a series of changes, most of them small but all of them significant ultimately. The very next day was a non-racing day so we were able to go out and test a few things. It was a combination of the way that we were tuning the rigging, a couple of changes with the hull and the appendages, which were quite small really, then a change in the way that the sailors were sailing the boat. It was all about finding a higher speed mode upwind, which we had not been confident with thus far into the regatta. But clearly we were getting hammered by the Kiwis in that mode, and we had to do something about it. The guys developed a technique on board the boat in the same way that they had developed a technique for tacking—the high speed foiling tacks. By the end of the regatta I think they were doing it better—more consistently—than ETNZ.
Phillipe Presti was working with Jimmy and the sailors to look at all the kinds of techniques. We had a couple of days when we weren’t racing when we could work on technique. The fact is that we were trying to catch up, so we watched how the New Zealanders were doing it. The systems are different on each boat so you have to actually adapt how you sail depending on the systems you have on board. There was nothing that we physically did—no physical changes—it was just technique changes that improved our tacking. That was almost as significant as our straight line speed. When we were able to foil upwind, we had a mode that ETNZ didn’t have. Even though we had toyed with the idea of foiling upwind before the start of the America’s Cup, it was only during the Cup that we developed the technique to be able to do it consistently, and to know when to go to that mode. You could often hear Tommy [Slingsby], Ben, Kyle [Langford], and Jimmy discussing what mode they wanted to sail. They added that foiling, very high-speed mode into their options, and when they used it, it was devastating, really. The way that we trimmed the wing helped with that. There was no silver bullet, aside from what all the media are saying. The changes we made were surprisingly subtle but very significant.
**What is a Stability Augmentation System and how did it come about? **
GS: [Laughs] Firstly, I don’t know what it is, and secondly, we didn’t have one. We didn’t change anything to do with our foils control system for a period of about six weeks prior to the Cup. We made no changes in that regard. We did have a control system which had been approved by the measurers and subject to a series of interpretations, which we had originally asked for, and then ETNZ had been trying to shut it down through the measurement interpretation process. Prior to the Cup, they went to the Jury a day before the Cup on it and nothing changed. It was the system we had been using for six weeks already and the system we used throughout the Cup. All the rest of it is media hype coming out of NZ.
Is the rumor true that you flew people up from NZ just to modify the boat?
GS: No we didn’t. The only people who came from Core Composites were a couple of managers who were always coming to see the event. We didn’t increase our workforce at all during the Cup. We had our normal shore team here. A lot of our shore team go on the water every day for maintenance and breakdowns, so we have a bunch of shore team on the water. Then we had a roster of guys working the night shift as well so they could keep working on the boat overnight, but there were no major modifications needed anyway.
The commentary on the street is that OTUSA was able to pull off the win by throwing lots of money at the problem.
GS: There’s nothing that happened during the Cup that had to do with the money Oracle may or may not have spent on the campaign. Our design team was smaller than ETNZ’s design team, our shore team was about the same size. Sure, we had extra sailors because we have the capacity to sail two boats together which is part of being the defender. But there was nothing about money that was the cause of the turnaround. It was about us continuing to learn and having a culture of constant change. I think that’s probably a bit of a difference … they [ETNZ] went into the Cup very confident where we went into it thinking we were probably the underdog and being somewhat concerned about performance. We were shocked by their upwind speed in the first part of the regatta so we just focused our efforts on improving our upwind speed and our tacking technique when it was windy, and we did that successfully. And of course we sailed better as the regatta went on. The relationship between Ben, Tommy, and Jimmy got better and better as racing went on. Ray [Davies] and Dean [Barker] sailed really well through out the whole regatta, but our guys just got better and better. Anybody who wants to be a tactician should listen to the last couple of races, which was just textbook stuff.
The decision to put Ben in the back of the boat worked well—comments?
GS: JK had a big part in preparing the boat, and he continued to contribute to Ben everyday about the strategy on the Bay because he knows it as good as anyone. We knew we needed to make a change at the time, and it worked out really well for us—the communication on the boat, and Tommy obviously became much more active in the decision process. In the ETNZ set up, Ray and Dean are in the back of the boat, and it’s difficult because of how hectic these boats are to get much input from anyone else. The way our cockpit was arranged—Ben and Tommy were able to talk to each other and then to Jimmy—it works a little bit better having someone in that strategy role and having someone in the back helping with the decision process. You could see that Jimmy never questioned it. He was just really comfortable with the decisionmaking that was going on. He was able to focus just on making the boat go fast, which he did. A lot of people have been talking about Ben, but Jimmy just sailed that boat beautifully and pulled off a bunch of maneuvers that were really high risk without a hitch. These boats are so full-on to sail that he couldn’t really have much say in the decisions because he’s so completely consumed with sailing the boat.
With an Aussie challenger for the first time in years [****the Hamilton Island YC] what does it mean for you personally and where do your loyalties stand with Oracle versus an Australian team?
GS: We’re at the stage in a Cup where people are looking at what their next project is going to be, who they are going to go with. Larry’s been really consistent with the team in that he said when the Cup finishes he wanted to take time to take stock of what had happened and to plan what the next Cup is going to be, and the make-up of the team is very much part of that. Until we know when and where the Cup is going to be and what the boat is going to be, it’s a matter of just being patient. I’m going to take some time to think about what I’d like to do next. I’m hoping there’ll be some good opportunities over the next few months. You get to my age and you’re thinking about doing it because you want to enjoy it, that’s one of my criteria.
The guys from HIYC—Sandy Oatley in particular who is a real enthusiast, he’s a good guy and I think he’ll be really good for the Cup—together with Larry’s people to decide on the next Cup, but that will be more on the event side than from the team side. The Oracle team at the moment is just in the process of shutting down, securing all its physical and intellectual assets, and then we’ll rebuild over the next few months, I expect.
What’s your view on a nationality rule going forward?
GS: I’m an Australian and have worked for a Swiss team and an American team. These teams are truly international, and I like that part of it. I think we should continue to have international teams. I know that there’s been talk of wanting to implement a nationality rule, but I doubt GGYC will do that.
What do you see as the biggest challenges of moving on to create AC35 compared to all previous Cups?
**GS: **We need to get more teams. We need to come up with a formula that gets more teams, but on the other hand it’s going to be very difficult not to have an event that matches AC34 in terms of being impressive. Going to a much slower multi or monohull—I think that would be difficult. Our sailors are just so into sailing these boats, they’re so exciting and it’s so full-on. Clearly it took some time to get confident to sail the boat but the Kiwis got there and we got there—we learnt to sail them at an incredibly high level, which if you’d asked us last October or November, we couldn’t have predicted that the racing would be at that level, sailing at such high speeds so close to the other boat. It’s something we never would have envisaged. If we ever race in these boats again, it’ll go to another level for sure.
Do you expect the Cup will stay in SF?
GS: I don’t know. Ultimately I guess it will be Larry’s decision where he wants to hold it. In the end I know there were a lot of issues getting the event together in San Francisco, but it turned out to be a fantastic venue—the Pier 27 set up, the Village that the event people put together, the racecourse. We lost a little bit of time due to weather, but don’t forget in Auckland in 2003—we lost ten days in a row from one race to the next—so okay, we lost a little time in San Francisco but not much.
Will we ever get to the bottom of the weight-gate story? Why did it happen if the end result was pointless?
GS: It happened because it was a decision by the individuals involved. It wasn’t some grand plan of the team, but the team paid the price for it. There was absolutely no logic for the team to do something like that. We believe the Jury decision penalizing the team for something we didn’t know about was extremely harsh. It’s kind of history now, and in the end we overcame it. There aren’t many people in the world who didn’t believe that wasn’t a harsh penalty from the Jury. It was difficult for all the team—aside from the two races, the last month prior to the Cup was very hard because a lot of people were distracted by the Jury process, myself included. It meant we couldn’t get on with our two-boat program. It was seriously disrupted and one of the reasons we went into the Cup certainly less prepared to race. It was far, far from an ideal preparation for an event of this magnitude.