Grant Dalton Keeps the Pedal Down

Grant Dalton's assertive, lead-by-doing management style is serving Emirates Team New Zealand well. From our September 2005 issue.

Relative to the rest of Emirates Team New Zealand's 17-man sailing crew, syndicate head Grant Dalton has no illusions about where he ranks in terms of physical strength. "Right behind the grinders," says the 48-year-old father of two, without a trace of smile. "They can bench press more, but I can do more pull-ups." From most men his age, this would be little more than bravado-America's Cup Class sailing is extremely physical. But Dalton's not your average aging athlete. In early 2003, while Alinghi was thrashing Team New Zealand on the Hauraki Gulf, Dalton was completing an Ironman Triathlon. The determination and confidence that got him through that 12-hour test of endurance-not to mention the skill that has produced two round-the-world race victories-was just what the trustees of TNZ were looking for in a leader after the disastrous 2003 campaign. Dalton quickly turned the squad around, producing a win in the 2004 America's Cup Class season championship. In June, ETNZ finished second in Act IV and third in Act V, the best combined performance among the 11 challengers preparing for the 2007 America's Cup. But with Alinghi ranked ahead of them in both regattas, Dalton knows the New Zealand public is hardly satisfied. You sailed with KZ-7 in Fremantle, so this isn't your first Cup experience?I was young and just a crewman. That was the first experience for all of us, in Freo. We were all learning.How has New Zealand changed in respect to the Cup?Emotionally they're not naive anymore. They've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the America's Cup. In '87 it was an emotionally driven thing. We had a bloody good result too. Had it been a little lighter-in that Louis Vuitton final against Conner-we would've won the America's Cup. They're more circumspect. After that Cup, you had a successful ocean racing career . . . Is it over?What lured you back into this arena?The original attraction was the nationalism. New Zealand was one of the powerhouses of yachting, and it still is-certainly in big boats-and it can't end this way. The challenge of putting something like this together was compelling as well.Nationalism is a small part of the Cup; are you a throwback?I'm a Royalist, which is almost a minority in New Zealand. I think at its heart the Cup should be a nation against nation event.How would you return this to the Cup?We would, I would, the team would sort it to the point where the yachtsmen were very much nationals. I don't think it would be right to try to drive that rule through the entire process of the team. The original deed of gift was a friendly competition between nations. Well, it's not particularly friendly and it's certainly not between nations. Not that it'll ever be friendly.In addition to running the campaign, you're sailing full-time. Why?It kind of came about by accident. I always wanted to sail and I sort of fell into that role as the numbers of people increased on the boats. Taking the sailing aside, the ability to run the campaign without being on the boat would be severely hampered because you just don't have your hands around it. You can't talk authoritatively about pre-start packages, weather input, anything. And my motivation would significantly reduce in my role as running the thing if I wasn't sailing, because at heart I'm a yachtsman.Why choose such a demanding job. I grind upwind on the back pedestal and then I work on the foredeck and pack sails. That's really the only role I could do because my skill level's not at a level where I could displace anybody else. I'm pleased to be able to sail. I hope that I don't impose my own sailing on the boat. When you took over, was it your way or the highway?One hundred percent. Someone had to make decisions. I made some gruesomely controversial ones, within the fraternity anyway. But now it's not like that. My job now is to probe: Have we thought of this? Are we doing this? How are we doing that? The previous team felt they could think their way to victory; has this team adopted a more workmanlike approach?There's a danger coming out of the last Cup that the way they did it was wrong; the temptation was to squeeze the place so tight there was no innovation. That would've destroyed part of the culture that Peter [Blake] had set up. In the initial time of takeover that was a deliberate thing. It's either this way or you're out. And in many cases you're out anyway. Now, hopefully, we're going back more to the culture that Team New Zealand was set up on.There's some extraordinary budgets; how does ETNZ make up the difference?We'll never win a money fight. We'd probably have trouble winning a money fight against Shosholoza [the South African syndicate]. We have higher perceived value than our actual budgets allow us to have. But I think we're competitive in all area of budgets with probably the only exception being fringe-edge technology, which may be a $5- to $10-million number.Can you get past some of these better-financed squads on heart and desire?I think willing your way is probably wishful thinking. There's a strong culture within the place, it's very much a Kiwi culture, it's certainly got a heart. But we won't will our way past them.Do you ever miss the Southern Ocean?Absolutely. It's going to be weird as the Volvo starts and I'm not in it. I've done the last six, it's been my life. I'd love to do a leg. But not a poncey leg. Cape Town-Melbourne would be just awesome.What do you think of the Volvo 70s?I think they're fantastic. I think they should have two hulls, but they're the next best thing. The Volvo is suffering, there's no doubt about that. If it's suffering from something they've done wrong, it's not to be brave enough to take the giant leap to big multihulls.One of your other hobbies is motorsports racing. Are you still active?It's active, except I've got to put a new front on my car. I took one off in the last race of the season. Is that a good substitute for the Southern Ocean?Yeah, it's a cool sport, and I'm not very good. I'm just a hack. But I really love it.It seems like you're fighting harder to slow down as you get older?A guy once told me that when you get to 40 you see for no particular reason a lot of guys fall off the pace. Their priorities change, they think more about their mortgage, their families, or whatever. But there is really a threshold. So when I got to 40, I stepped the pace up a bit. I don't think I've slowed the pace down.Back to Emirates Team New Zealand. The core is Kiwi, but you've added two Americans-Terry Hutchinson and Kevin Hall-to the afterguard. Was that a tough decision?The talent at the level of guys like Terry and Kevin was not available in New Zealand. So that was a five-second decision-it wasn't a five-second decision on who they would be-but it was a five-second decision on it ain't available here so we better find out where to get the best blokes. Terry has a reputation of being maybe not volatile, but very driven and vocal.No volatile, I'd say, vocally volatile. And we were very conscious of that when we interviewed him. We said, 'Hey Terry, this is a Kiwi team, mate, Matty Mason will duct tape you if you have one of those moments.'So I'm guessing you haven't used the duct tape yet?Haven't had to break it out. He's been fantastic.If this effort were to fall short, will you feel the same public ire as the last campaign heads?Worse, because we've got government money, and a lot of it. And fair enough, too. We're setting ourselves up for a thrashing publicly because that's the New Zealand way and fine with me, it's the nature of sport.