The Oracle Racing Team was out—at least that’s how it appeared when they trailed Emirates Team New Zealand eight races to one during the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. “Heads were hung low,” says Philippe Presti, who had 20 minutes onboard the giant catamaran between races to somehow redirect his team toward a miracle, while Emirates Team New Zealand needed only one more win to take the Cup from the rich and powerful defender. Despite such dire circumstances, Presti stuck to his guns. The core of his debriefs continued to focus on what was working well and how to expand on specific positive elements. “We were doing everything right when sailing upwind for about 20 seconds,” says Presti. The debrief when the team was down eight races to one was “about how to double that time.”
The storybook comeback is now all but history, and today Presti is in “recovery mode” in his native France following the high-stakes insanity of the last campaign. For a change of pace before Oracle begins preparing for the next Cup in a few months time, Presti has been spending time with his family and doing some laid-back sailing on his A Class catamaran and foiling on an 18-foot Flying Phantom catamaran off the rocky coast of St. Lunaire in Brittany.
What is the most important skill set that you bring to a campaign?
[Laughing] You need to ask Jimmy [Spithill, OTUSA skipper]. I am a sailor, but I am not on the boat. I can offer an objective perspective and give the team more information that they otherwise would not have. I bring something extra from the outside. It is important that I am a sailor and have experience driving America’s Cup boats. I know the pitch and the feeling and what they are going through. I also didn’t need to keep Jimmy focused. In fact, you have to even distract him from the target sometimes [laughing]. There was never a single moment when I thought that he wasn’t focused.
How would you describe your coaching style?
A lot of my coaching is based on a playbook, which we developed for the smaller AC45 as well as the AC72 boats. What I like to do is to study a video of different scenarios, whether when training or during a race. From there, I draw a sketch with a software program I use and add it the playbook. It is sort of like a tree: There is a problem, and for each scenario, there are different options to solve the problem. It is a very collaborative effort. The team analyzes the situation and decides what the best options are. It is a brainstorming process. The most important people in the process are the sailors who ultimately make the choices.
We have four large screens connected to a PC that stores our database. Sometimes we have five cameras on the water, which are synchronized with the data, totaling 200 gigabytes per hour of sailing. There are 300 sensors on the boat that generate 30,000 data points per second. The heard rate of grinders, the turn rate of the winch, and the ratio of the bow to the stern are just a few of the data points collected. As a coach, I have to connect all of the pieces of information together and extract the most important things from the huge database. I look at the pitch of the board at a certain moment. If the pitch is wrong, I look at a graph of the pressure to analyze, for example, what valve was open and when it should have been closed. My goal is to analyze all of this information and make it useful for the next morning.
How did you get the team to regroup and make the comeback of all comebacks?
We solved problems: We were slow upwind and were wrong in our mode. The options for the angle going upwind were pretty different, when deciding to go more away from the wind and losing distance while gaining speed and vice versa. It was extremely hard to analyze that. We did not perform very well then. Emirates Team New Zealand was using the low and fast mode and we decided to shift to that mode. But that wasn’t like just turning a switch.
There were a lot of technical things to change on the boat to make that happen, such as trimming the board and wheel, and the balance of the boat, deciding who is grinding where, etc. It took us a little bit of time to change modes.
After the tack and before foiling upwind, we were not building enough speed. The problem we had initially was that we needed a lot of distance before we began to foil. Once we were on the foil, it was all good and we sailed well. The initial part was costly—it took us a lot of time, energy, and distance to generate the foil. We worked at achieving stability once we were on the foil as well.
How was your role as a coach especially important when trailing Emirates Team by such a wide margin?
I’d like to first mention the importance of the skipper’s leadership skills. Jimmy did a fantastic job leading the team and motivating them to work hard. He had a lot on his shoulders, but he was still able to do his job by managing the team and making the right decisions. Russell Coutts, the CEO, Grant Simmer, the general manager, and other senior managers played an important role as well.
When things were not going well, I tried to be the one that got the team to settle down. I tried to be the calm in the storm. I had them focus on what they were doing right. I told them: ‘Yes, we are not in a good position, but here are the good points we can capitalize on.’
At one point, we only performed well for 20 seconds when sailing upwind. But I showed a video of 15 to 20 seconds when they were doing everything right. Their performance was fantastic during that period of time and I had them study what they were doing.
For about 20 seconds, everything was right: the trim of the boat, the angle, the look of the boat, and everything else. We wanted to double the time. You often hear from a coach about what is going wrong, but I focus on what is going well instead. I told them that, if they could capitalize on those 20 seconds, then we could double the time when we did everything well when sailing and tacking upwind.
What did you learn from watching the competition and how were you able to apply that in order to exploit their weaknesses?
Analyzing the pre-start was very important. I think of the pre-start like I do a boxing match. When you are under stress, you do the same thing over and over again. You always go back to what you know when you panic. I tried to imagine what we could do to put Team New Zealand in a tough position, and we succeeded.
Team New Zealand was not really doing anything wrong, but I knew that if we decided to jibe at a certain time during the pre-start, then they would make a certain move. We knew that if we did X then they would do Y. We pushed, not too hard, but just enough to make them uncomfortable. It was a question of finesse more than making bold moves at the pre-start. I knew, if we jibed early, then they would try to move too early.
What are your thoughts about the AC72’s design and modern boats in general?
We have designers, boat builders and sailors and we need them to understand each other. I try to serve as the link between designers and sailors. I showed the designers how we operated the boat and what our needs were. We spent a lot of time getting the technologies to work. We spent a lot of time modifying the hydraulics system, for example. In order to complete a foiling jibe, the timing of the boat has to be perfect, especially when lifting one board and dropping the other one. We looked at the different options together. One grinder was used to grinding on position one, for example, but we found that he did better on position three to improve the pump ratio. We had to also obviously pay attention to where the team members were positioned to leeward and windward on the boat during a foiling jibe. We needed to understand what the needs were for foiling.
During one phase, we had to shut down valves and change the sizes of the hydraulic cylinders in order to move the foils and to decide at what point we had to deliver the power to the foils. This is all very complex.