Chieffi Whips Shosholoza into Shape

Italian Tommaso Chieffi has helped make South Africa's Team Shosholoza a faster, smarter squad. "A Voice From Valencia" from our March 22, 2007, /Cup Compound eNewsletter/


Team Shosholoza

"We've taken possibly a bigger step forward than some of our competition, but we haven't met them all."South Africa's first-ever America's Cup challenge was spinning its wheels in the early Louis Vuitton Acts, and true positive results were few and far between. Although the team never pretended to be anything but a startup campaign with an all-national crew and lofty goals, it's leader Captain Salvatore Sarno saw the obvious need to import some top foreign talent. In 2005 in Trapani, Italy, Sarno and former sailing team manager Dee Smith sought out 46-year-old Tommaso Chieffi, who was working with the +39 campaign. As one of Italy's top tacticians, and with plenty of Cups under his belt, he has helped make Shosholoza a faster, smarter squad. We caught up with him last week as the team emerged from a lengthy morning meeting. As usual, Chieffi was all business.What was the topic of this morning's meeting?We had two races yesterday and reconvened again this morning-and it was long one because we have been working really hard on the boat performance over the last two or three months and we have come to the point at which we need to get sorted out so we can go racing in two weeks time. The clear message from this morning is to stop wandering around with the boat; it's time to shift the focus from boat performance to going racing and getting organized.Has being a one-boat syndicate and not having the luxury of in-house racing limited what you can do over the winter?We've been doing a lot of racing against Germany, France, +39, and a bit with the Spanish. The softening of the rules and allowing teams to race against each other has been a big bonus for teams like ours because time on the water and really doing the racing is valuable.Have you done enough?We've done a lot, and of course, we had other things in the mix like making improvements to the boat and a new mast, etc. But we've done a lot and we're diverting our focus to facing the structure of racing so we're ready to go.Pre-starts in the early Acts were a trouble spot for Shosholoza; how have you focused on turning this around?We had a couple of starts that we were early by just one second, which cost a couple of points. But we now have a computerized launch system which has come a long way forward. We are much better in the pre-start box, and I think we've turned this deficiency into our strength.What's a launch system?It basically tells us the time to the start line. Every team has their computerized starting system; we've implemented a new one and have the new software, which is more precise with the time and distance to the line.Having worked with bigger campaigns in the past, how has it been dealing with a much smaller budget?We are a small campaign and have a limited budget for sure, but we have pretty much what we wanted. We have a boat that's been extensively modified, a new bulb, lots of new sails, and we've been able to bring on a few new sailors.With such limited resources, is it easier to get things done?In a way we have the constraints of being understaffed compared to the big teams, but at the other end we're lean and mean, so you can get things done. If you want something done you talk to the guy directly instead of going through so many levels. The boat underwent modifications over the winter; what were you hoping to improve upon?We modified bow and stern sections, basically up to 50 percent. We decided a year and a half ago that we didn't have the money or the resources to build a second boat and efficiently test it. The original boat was designed at the very beginning of the campaign by Jason Ker having very limited experience on how the design of the boats should have been. So naturally you want to build a second boat, but we didn't have that opportunity, so we decided to extensively modify the existing one. Do the changes improve maneuverability or straight-line speed?We did improve in both departments. The boat is more maneuverable in the pre-start and even has an edge compared to what we had, and straight-line speed…there's improvement there, too. Overall it's a better boat, and we are highly regarded by other teams in that way. Everyone knows we've come a long way from last season.At this point what are the team's expectations?Making the semifinals has been the target all along. Top-four is ambitious because we have bigger teams ahead of us, especially the Spanish, Mascalzone Latino, or the Swedes. It's going to be a good fight among these teams, and the winter racing we've done has proven that any team can now beat the other on any given day. Those spots from eight to four will be fairly open.Have the changes in the afterguard helped the fluidity of the decision-making?That's an area where we've been trying to improve a lot and now we have a composition where Paolo [Cian] has become our starting helmsman, but he's also doing the whole race. Last year he did only the start. I'm replacing Dee Smith in the tactician's role, where last year I was driving after the start. Ian [Ainslie] is strategist, and Mark Sadler is the traveler/main, and wind spotter. Mark is tied in with the crew, and with the maneuvers-kind of like Murray Jones with Alinghi does.Are the inexperienced guys brought in at the outset of the campaign sufficiently up to speed?These guys have come along and I rate them as experienced at this stage; they've learned their way through. We've brought some additional backups for trimmers who are also observing and coaching. And we brought in three new persons last year to back up the mastman, grinder, and runner/main positions. This is going to be a long regatta and we came to the agreement that we needed to have backups. Everyone could get sick or injured at any time.How popular is this challenge in South Africa; is the novelty still there?It's very popular in South Africa, and here in Valencia. It's just the young and fresh theme that brings a novelty to the America's Cup and the team is very highly regarded in terms of popularity. It's always been an open team and people are free to come and join the spirit of the campaign. The bigger teams are much more strict about their security and not letting people in and stuff; we've always been very open and that has helped its popularity.Are you guys sort of a sentimental favorite?I think so, yes. Shosholoza has done a good job of being popular and friendly and spreading the spirit of South Africa, which is a warm and friendly nation.How do you think Act 13 will play out?I don't know really. It will be fairly open; a 10-boat race and we've seen, over the winter, some of the small teams take down the big teams, so it could be open for surprises. Short courses will place a bigger emphasis on starts and crew work. The importance of having a faster boat is diminished for sure and that's probably why Alinghi wanted to go for longer courses because they've been working so hard on boatspeed, etc. The big emphasis will certainly be in the start-getting ahead and staying ahead. Boatspeed will be a minor factor.