Fortifying the Fortress Walls

With a belligerent bunch of challengers honing on on Alinghi, the Swiss syndicate is doing all it can to shore up its defense before the America's Cup begins in June.

SepFeatStreuli
Stuart Streuli

Like many things, fireworks are a matter of timing. Set them off after dark and you're likely to receive some genuine "ooohs" and "ahhhs," and maybe even a smattering of applause. When the sun is shining, however, all you'll get is confused people wondering why anyone would interrupt a peaceful day with such a racket. After all, what fun is thunder if you can't see the lightning?Acts 10 and 11 of the Louis Vuitton Cup had a bit of both, a fabulous display of pyrotechnics on the penultimate evening of the regatta and more than a few random midday explosions that had journalists, sailors, and spectators in the America's Cup Harbour vainly combing the sky for the telltale flash of light or puff of smoke. These daylight displays caught the collective eye of everyone within earshot, but no one was sure really where to look.Last May in Valencia, there was little doubt where the attention was focused. When it comes to the America's Cup, nothing quite attracts interest like a new boat. While spectators dream of a Cup match decided exclusively on sailing skill, this is a design game and the first, and often most crucial, part of winning the Auld Mug is designing a fast package-hull, foils, rig, and sails.Acts 10 and 11 saw the debut of three boats designed specifically to Version 5 of the America's Cup Class rule. They weren't the first Version 5 boats to hit the water-Team Shosholoza's RSA-83 was splashed last summer-but this trio came from the top three challenging syndicates, Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa, and BMW Oracle Racing. If any team is able to test Alinghi next June, it's likely to be one of these three teams. So interest was high to see what these teams produced with their first swing at the latest edition of the 16-year-old ACC rule.Each had something to create some buzz. Emirates Team New Zealand's NZL-84 was quite narrow and featured a blunt upturned bow that harked of the voluminous schnozzle on SUI-64, the boat Alinghi sailed to victory in the 2003 America's Cup. Luna Rossa Challenge's ITA-86 was less conspicuously unique, but the team raved about how happy it was to have a boat it felt was "in the ballpark," according to navigator Michele Ivaldi. ITA-76, which the syndicate sailed in 2005, wasn't known for being fleet afoot.BMW Oracle Racing's USA-87 had a bowsprit, the first since 1992 in Cup competition, and for Act 11, a "naked" mast with no rigging support above the hounds. Its deft maneuverability and acceleration started people wondering what sort of unique appendage package it had under the waterline. The American team won Act 10 with a 10-1 record, with Luna Rossa second, Emirates Team New Zealand third, and Alinghi fourth.But like midday fireworks, the buzz around the three new boats faded quickly. Alinghi, sailing the four-year-old SUI-75, dominated Act 11. After opening the only fleet-racing event of 2006 with a sixth, the Swiss team won three of the remaining four races, and won the Act by an 8-point margin. An ACC boat doesn't come out of the shed sailing to its potential. It takes time for the team to get the feel for it, and for the design and engineering teams to perfectly mesh the myriad combination of custom parts. There's a strong chance that all three of the aforementioned new boats will eventually be quicker than SUI-75. But Alinghi won't be racing SUI-75 in the America's Cup Match next June and that means, for the moment, the challengers are chasing Alinghi's past.The America's Cup has long been viewed as weighted heavily in favor of the defender. It's not hard to see why. Imagine if Italy were able to sit out the next World Cup soccer tournament, and then play for the title against the one team able to survive the long road there. But in practice, it hasn't worked out that way in the contest for the Auld Mug, at least of late. Since Australia II wrested the Cup from its home on Manhattan's 44th Street in 1983, only twice has the Cup been defended successfully-not counting the catamaran debacle in 1988. Four times, the challenger has won.It would be foolhardy to not rank Alinghi as the favorite to win the Cup in June 2007, but that's merely because the Swiss syndicate's chances are better than each individual challenger. Compared to the challengers as a group? Well, the Swiss team's odds don't look as pretty.So perhaps, the most important first step of a successful defense in the modern era of the America's Cup is the realization that the advantage lies with the team that wins the Louis Vuitton Cup.This is a hurdle Alinghi crossed early in the campaign. When scouting the sailors it needed for the 2007 defense, Alinghi looked to replace the handful of starters from the 2003 team that didn't return, and add enough additional talent to create two teams of varsity-level athletes. "We know we're not going to get the opportunity to sail against any other boats [in the Louis Vuitton Cup]," says pitman Josh Belsky. "Training on your own puts an entirely different twist on how to develop your team. We basically have to have two A teams."With this in mind, the core sailors-a group that includes Belsky, Curtis Blewett, Pieter van Nieuwenhuyzen, Francesco Rapetti, and the New Zealanders that came with Russell Coutts in 2000 to start the team: Brad Butterworth, Simon Daubney, Murray Jones, Dean Phipps, and Warwick Fleury-made a list of people they felt would improve Alinghi and mesh with the established team.Sailing skill was obviously an important criteria, but not the only one. A good attitude, a creative mind, and an ability to work within Alinghi's team-first environment were also paramount. Then the team went recruiting. It was a similar process to 2000 when the team was built from scratch. There was one key difference. It was a lot easier this time."Our success rate this time around was 100 percent," says Belsky. "Going into the last Cup, there were a couple of guys that we wanted that we didn't get."Three grinders, including Cup warhorse Mark McTeigue, and helmsman Peter Holmberg came from BMW Oracle's 2003 team. From Team New Zealand, Alinghi plucked navigator Mike Drummond, tactician Peter Evans, bowman Matt Mitchell, and Craig Satherwaite. Trimmer Lorenzo Mazza and grinder Nicholas Texier were recruited from the Prada team. Mastman Mark Newbrook sailed the 2003 campaign with OneWorld. Also added were Jordi Calafat, a 470 Olympic medalist and native Spaniard, and Ed Baird, a veteran of three earlier Cup campaigns who critiqued the 2003 regatta from the television commentators' booth."Alinghi is a special team, and that's why I joined it," says Holmberg. "I spent the last campaign looking over the fence at Alinghi and admired what they did: everything from how they managed their campaign, to how they treated their sailors, to how they built and designed their boats. It was my goal to become a part of it, and it has not disappointed. It's been a fantastic experience."Holmberg, grinder Brian Sharp, and Newbrook all rave about how the team has balanced the openness required for innovation against the discipline needed to complete a complex research and development project in a limited amount of time. "They just know where to invest time and energy," says Newbrook, a towering erstwhile International 14 crew from the Pacific Northwest. "They know which avenues are going to bear fruit. We don't waste a lot of time working on things that don't necessarily produce speed. The other thing is we're not afraid to make big changes. If we see something that's not right, or something that needs improving, we'll change it right now."One avenue they knew wasn't going to bear fruit was a search for someone to replace Coutts. With the exception of syndicate head Ernesto Bertarelli, who bankrolled the 2003 campaign, no one person was more responsible for Alinghi's success than Coutts, who was the syndicate's general manager, skipper, and helmsman. "There's no one just like Russell," says Holmberg. "So we came to the conclusion we'd find a different formula, without one person at the top of the pyramid. Brad is the team leader; he's our skipper. Grant Simmer, however, is our general manager and he takes on a lot of the role Russell was playing last time. Jochen Schumann, sports director, he takes on a bigger role than he had last time."And it doesn't stop there, according to Belsky. Everyone takes up the slack. Ironically, that's how Coutts built the team."The best thing [Coutts] brought to this team, and left it with, was a sense of individual responsibility," says Belsky. "Russell's system of management was, 'This is what we want you to do, but that's 50 percent of what you're going to do, because you're supposed to expand upon that. We're not going to check on you.'"Still, someone must drive the boat. While Alinghi has been noncommittal about who will have their hands on the helm for Race 1 of the 2007 America's Cup, it's likely to be either Holmberg or Baird. Neither possesses Coutts' leadership skills, but each has had tremendous success match racing, and a lot of experience with the unwieldy ACC yachts. As they did with every other position on the crew, the goal was to hire two A-level helmsmen and have them battle it out in-house for the right to be on the wheel next June. This is a contest that will likely carry on through most of 2006. At some point late in 2006 or early in 2007, the team will pick its starting team, including helmsman, so that those 17 sailors can develop the cohesiveness needed to win.Coming into the 2006 America's Cup Class season, Alinghi did the bare minimum of race training. As a result, they weren't the crisp crew that dominated the Cup match in Auckland three years earlier. En route to a fourth-place finish in Act 10, Alinghi looked vulnerable. On the second day of the regatta, Alinghi nearly lost to Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia, holding an 8-second advantage from the final windward mark to the finish. The following day, Luna Rossa built a huge lead on the first of two laps. Alinghi charged back on the second beat, and the two boats were basically dead even as they approached the windward mark. With Luna Rossa on port, just shy of the layline, and Alinghi closing in on starboard, Alinghi tacked on the Italian team's leebow, hoping to be able to squeeze them off before reaching the starboard tack layline. It didn't work, and Luna Rossa helmsman James Spithill was able to force Alinghi past the layine, tack, and lead around the mark. "Whatever you do there, you must execute exactly right," says Holmberg, who was the Alinghi's strategist during that race, with Baird on the wheel. "You don't have time to put a soft leebow on somebody and eventually turn them away. Luna Rossa chose the exact right spot to come in as a port boat and put the starboard boat in a very awkward situation. They did a very good job. It's a little frustrating for us now because we're still in the design phase of our campaign, we haven't gone out there and done the hard hours of racing to fine-tune ourselves. But that's something we'll have to find time for once we get to the full-on training phase of the campaign."Though Alinghi might've been slightly wanting when it came to match-racing technique and execution, by the end of Act 11 it was clear that it's still peerless when it comes to campaign strategy. Sailing a four-year-old boat that they claim to have barely tinkered with, Alinghi dominated the fleet racing in Act 11, winning three of five races by an average of 92 seconds over second place. In the third race, the only contest of Acts 10 or 11 sailed in more than 12 knots, Alinghi blasted off the line, lifted away from the competition-displaying the high mode some competitors had questioned whether it still had-and won the race without much of a fight."Normally they are a bit faster and they have the best possibility in the fleet to go high," said Mattias Rahm, strategist for Victory Challenge, which started just to leeward of the defenders in that race. "I think that's what they felt they had to do. And they did it."Butterworth, Alinghi's skipper, was asked whether his crew showed the competition an extra gear in that race. "Yeah, that's right," said a surprisingly feisty Butterworth. Then, on the topic of whether he was surprised that the new boats weren't faster than the four-year-old SUI-75, he added, with a wry grin: "You'd think they would've gotten a little closer to [SUI-75] with all those photographs they took of it last year."When pressed, Butterworth allowed that while the hull of SUI-75 may not have changed much since the 2005, the sail design team, led by Mike Schreiber, has been hard at work. Many experts feel this Cup match will be won by the sails and rig-the aero package-since the requirements defining the hull shape have been tightened even further in the Version 5 ACC rules.Then, after getting the last word on the water, Alinghi played its final card ashore. While the other teams were decompressing after two weeks of non-stop action, the Swiss team unveiled SUI-91, its latest boat, to friends, family, and some invited guests.It was an understated ceremony, without any of the theatrics that Alinghi was known for during its run to the Cup in Auckland. No dancers, loud music, or fireworks. But nonetheless, the sleek black missile-possibly one of the narrowest America's Cup Class boats ever built-generated plenty of noise. Even two months later, as Alinghi opted not to sail SUI-91 in Act 12, the buzz surrounding this boat had yet to die down.