Can We Go Home Yet?

Rob Salthouse, who runs the Emirates Team New Zealand fairings program, gives us the inside scoop on the work of the challenger's shore team.

Sailing World

Rob Salthouse

Chris Cameron/etnz

It was Groundhog Day all over again for everyone involved in the America’s Cup, from fans to sailors to event organizers as Race 14 was postponed Saturday. All except perhaps Oracle Team USA, who must view each day this regatta is extended as a chance to continue to improve and develop their boat, whereas for the favored Emirates Team New Zealand, it prolongs the agony of having that dang trophy in their hot hands.

An unusual fall day in San Francisco saw a rainy front blow through with a southerly breeze during the morning, making it impossible to set a course. The Race Committee had given the teams fair warning of the system, offering up an alternate course, but neither team was interested, preferring to wait until conditions were back to a southwesterly on the course they’ve become accustomed to. Unfortunately that never transpired.

Meanwhile it must be a great time for Air New Zealand, as many Kiwi fans have changed their plane tickets in order to stick around, while other Kiwis can’t get home soon enough, like Rob Salthouse, who runs the ETNZ fairings program. As part of the shore crew, Salthouse is longing for a day off and a sleep-in. The work of the ETNZ shore crew is pretty much around the clock, as Salthouse explained, “You certainly work pretty long hours, and you don’t get a lot of breaks. That’s probably the biggest thing about this event. When I think about what I’m looking forward to the most, a sleep-in would be good.”

Salthouse, a sailmaker and boat builder from New Zealand, has been involved in the Cup since Perth in 1986-'87. He worked for the Kiwi team in the ‘88 and ‘92 campaigns, skipped a few, and then rejoined the Kiwis for Valencia in ’07. He was brought in quite late in the current campaign to fill a gap that had developed with the AC72: to manage the Fairings program, a whole new role for these boats.

“I started off part-time to help the team from December last year through February, and I’m still here,” Salthouse said laughing. “The fairings have become a key component with the speed these boats are doing. As windage and drag become a big thing, we’ve been able to see potential and real gains in certain areas with the aero package that we’ve put on the boat. Coming from a sail-making background, this has been really exciting for me to be involved in. It’s all aero-related and fits in pretty nicely.”

The ETNZ daily routine is similar to their competition down the road. The team’s day starts with a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting, and by 7:30 they’re into work, with the first part of the day spent preparing the boat for weighing and measurement, which takes about an hour. A wing lift meeting is held about 7:40 a.m., and shortly thereafter the wing and platform are pushed out of the shed. Salthouse says it takes about 70 people to get the Kiwi wing on and the boat into the water. It takes about an hour from the time to push out of the shed, lift the boat, and get it onto the mooring.

“The tricky bit about it is that we’ve always got to keep the wing head to wind so if you have a swirly breeze you have to be ready to rotate the boat platform under the wing at any stage, so it’s quite a critical phase while you’re connecting everything up etc.,” Salthouse said.

By about 10:40 a.m., ETNZ sails up to the America's Cup Park and onto the mooring there, where fans get a great close-up view of the fantastic Aoteoroa, as the Kiwi boat is named, and support boats. A team of 40 to 45 people are on the water everyday including sailors, chaseboat and support crew. After racing the morning procedure is repeated: Two tugs plus a tender placed alongside the boat are used to bring the 72 to position within a pen, the crane is then connected to the boat to lift it from the water.

“That’s also a tricky stage,” Salthouse explained, “because once again you have to keep it all head to wind, and then as you lift and swing the boat over with any breeze you’re pretty vulnerable to it moving around. We have 10 tag lines on the boat to help steady it and keep it rotated in the right direction.”

The boat is pulled out and put on a cradle, the wing comes out, and the boat is rolled into the shed followed by the wing. That’s when the shore crew start and get into the post-race checks. In each of the areas (rigging, wing, structural) every little detail is checked on the boat to make sure there are no issues. It takes the Kiwis a minimum of two hours to do a thorough check on everything, a clean and polish of the boat takes about two hours, then the nightshift crew of seven guys stays on to do any other jobs that need to be done.

Work aside, the Kiwis have made time for an important ingredient in Kiwi sports: beer. Some of the enthusiasts on the team got into brewing their own home brew back in Auckland, and the management of a local San Francisco pub agreed to continue to brew the same beer for the Kiwis during their stay. The beer is called “Big Cat” after the bar back in NZ where the boys would have a few quiet drinks every Friday night, says Salthouse. “I’m not a real big fan of the brew, but it’s gone down quite well at times for sure!"

Speaking of Kiwi beer, Salthouse is looking forward to getting home. It’s been a long tour, he says, and breakdown of the base is already under consideration. He thinks it’ll take a minimum of two weeks to get the base and boat broken down and packed into containers. A core team of 20 to 25 bodies will remain in San Francisco to pack up while the rest head home to New Zealand. This will take place as soon as the Kiwis get their likely final win out of the way although, Salthouse cautioned, “We may have to wait for the dust to settle a little bit!”

Salthouse has worked both AC and Volvo campaigns and the obvious difference between the events is the numbers, a Volvo campaign being a lot smaller for starters with about 30 to 35 people in a big team. “You’re working a lot closer together in a Volvo because there’s a lot more overlap than in the AC, so you come out of a Volvo with closer relationships to the people you’ve worked with, not what you’d get in an AC campaign."

Having said that, Salthouse acknowledges that this AC campaign has been different to others he’s done.

“The culture in this team has had a really good vibe and feel right from the start. There’s a lot of excitement now which keeps us going so that side of it compared to other Cup campaigns I’ve done has been really fantastic and a lot of fun. Hopefully we can get the business done!”