2017: THE YEAR OF REDEMPTION FOR EMIRATES TEAM NEW ZEALAND
Just ask Google and Facebook - both will tell you 2017 was a massive year for Emirates Team New Zealand, the #1 most searched and engaged topic in New Zealand was the team and trophy. But we didn’t need them to tell us that.
Rewind to 7:30am on the 3rd of January, the full team back at the Beaumont Street base. In all honesty, not exactly bouncing with energy after just the statutory break over Christmas, barely enough to catch up on rest let alone fully refresh after 24 months of development squeezed into the 12 months of 2016.
Rolling straight into the final 6 month push of the entire 35th America’s Cup campaign with nothing more than the understanding that to have a shot at winning and making the struggle worthwhile we needed to be back at the grind.
By 10:30am smoko the collective focus and enthusiasm had resumed to the normal elevated levels by rolling up our sleeves and helping the next guy with the first job. It wasn’t a high power design meeting or a full day testing on the water but rather, deconstructing the first 990 square metre wing tent and containers to ship to Bermuda, our home away from home in 4 months’ time.
Work intensity didn’t stop - weekends, long nights - we had a race boat to get ready to launch.
The largest cat kept in a bag for 3 years was quietly let out on February 14th by an eagle eyed Sail-World journalist. Upon reviewing photos taken earlier in the day he noticed four bike seats in the place of the usual grinding pedestals.
The news had already reached Bermuda via watchful spies never far from the team base.
Text messages inbound from the mid Atlantic island, “We can’t believe you actually did it!”
Had the secret been kept long enough? Time would ultimately tell, but a lineup of each teams ‘grinders’ thigh muscle mass and training regimes suggested maybe - but nothing is outside the realms of possibility in the America’s Cup.
Word had it Oracle’s ‘resource’ had been instantly unleashed to play catch up, the result of which was a temporary ‘hybrid BMX’ seen months later.
Two days later “Aotearoa, New Zealand” was launched on a wet and dreary Auckland day - a good omen suggested by our friends from Ngati Whatua who blessed the boat.
22 days of testing on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf had its ups and downs, every move filmed, analysed and uploaded by our designers as well as the committed opposition spies.
Although, reconnaissance was a two way street. Spies of our own were producing material even 007 would be proud of. We were learning in Auckland and learning in Bermuda.
A serious issue with both new race dagger boards exposed in the first few days testing put the team back into serious emergency mode. It had the potential to end our campaign. Crisis time to solve a problem, work out a road map to repair and get on with the job – little did we know it would prove to be good practice.
No shortage of political interference to contend with also. Signs of an increasing threat looming from New Zealand perhaps.
Testing & development wrapped, Beaumont Street resembled a military base getting prepared to ‘move out’ to a foreign battlefield. That is precisely what it was.
Two weeks and an Emirates cargo plane full of equipment later, Emirates Team New Zealand sailed on Bermuda’s Great Sound for the first time in front of a waiting fleet of opposition chase boats. Late in the day under a setting sun, in 11- 12 knots of breeze, Aotearoa, still on its replacement foils, popped up and eased straight into a series of foiling manoeuvres before returning to the dock content in ticking off another milestone along the road.
Only 1 month until race one of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifiers, and still Emirates Team New Zealand had not lined up for a single race start against another race yacht.
As a few sausages sizzle on a BBQ the night before the first practice race opportunity, Skipper Glenn Ashby and Coach Ray Davies nervously ponder what the next day could bring. “Tomorrow we will find out if we have a shot at competing to win this thing or if it will be a battle to save face.”
The reality of the situation is clear across their normally positive faces.
A nervous day, Oracle and Softbank refuse to race, Artemis decides to race but does not engage and purposely starts late. Emirates Team New Zealand maintain the lead around the race track. A positive sign. We have a breakage in the pre start against Groupama and abandon the race. Reality bites again.
Next race day pushing some highly anticipated new rudders, one explodes at speed. A race rudder down and so is the team lawyer Luis Saenz - 20 metres down trying to retrieve the intact rudder elevator from the bottom of the Great Sound.
Time is ticking, the New Zealand marine industry jumps into action to replace the rudder in record time.
Oracle continue to refuse to race, but the unknown is eating at them. They spontaneously decide to line up against Ashby and crew. All eyes on the Great Sound are locked on the two boats watching in silence to see the first hint of superiority. The jury remained out after several up and downwind runs.
Racing is reduced to lining up with Groupama and Land Rover BAR, the two teams emerging down the slower side of the ledger. Valuable for Helmsman Peter Burling and crew to get some starting practice until Land Rover BAR decided to gift the infamous ‘Love Tap’ to the kiwi boat.
They did more than just a tap, they poked the bear and woke New Zealand in their red socks from its 4 year America’s Cup hibernation.
Enter the relentlessly working shore crew tasked with not the first or last campaign saving operation on Aotearoa. The tap resulting in the end of our practice racing before the main event, having had only 5 practice race starts.
Lady Luck pops in as any semblance of raceable breeze vacates Bermuda for three days while the boat is repaired ensuring the opposition do as much race practice as the Emirates Team New Zealand boat was doing in the shed.
Back on the water the countdown is onto the digits on a hand.
5 days out Tom Slingsby, who has videoed a line up, asks “Who's your money on? I have a lot of impressions but I still dont know the answer.”
Neither did we.
The day before the Qualifiers began, all was relaxed and ready… enough… Still so much work to do, so much important equipment to install.
At least we had our repaired race dagger boards back in the boat and ready to fly in the nick of time.
As he said, the #battleofbermuda was on.
The next 10 days of racing a complete blur, the full team working their processes and focusing on the two and three races a day. 8 races won, the two losses against Oracle by what Spithill boldly heralded as ‘fundamental’ mistakes.
We knew mistakes could be easily rectified, lack of speed cannot.
Oracle win the Qualifiers and take a point into the America’s Cup.
We forget about them and focus on Britain.
3 points on the board part way through a blustery day. The team was on edge after a monumental team effort to replace a broken wing and get the boat out on the race course with a minute to spare.
The sound of the strong breeze is drowned by the gasps of the crowds in the race village.
It had been mentioned in planning, “If we capsize we are done”. Except no one within Emirates Team New Zealand was ready to be done- least of all Sean Regan, charging back to the base once the tattered boat had been salvaged, steadying himself to lead the resurrection. 89 team members ready and willing to help make miracles happen.
Lady Luck called by again, blowing the following race day out. Externally we said we were ready to race, inside the boat looked like it was on life support.
The good fortune brought another 24 hours of time to finish repairs before the next opportunity to race the Brits and tick off the next milestone of reaching the Louis Vuitton Finals.
Artemis loomed large as the final step before Emirates Team New Zealand could establish a clear shot again at Oracle Team USA.
The closest racing of the regatta by far, the differences minute. 1 second race wins and intricate weather and race equipment decisions. We were caught sailing our famous ‘kinky’ tips out of range.
More daggerboard damage, no time for repair, just monitoring the deterioration and inviting Lady Luck back for another visit.
Three race days and the Louis Vuitton Trophy was secure. The 5-2 score line against Artemis Racing was celebrated with a pie and a beer. No late night partying, the job wasn’t done.
It had been 6 months of relentless endeavour since starting the year, ironically now on the verge of the main event were 4 days of reprieve before the match began. Time to take a breath and calm the nerves before the #battleofbermuda resumed.
America’s Cup Race Day one: instead of the look of steely resolve, the team arrived at the base all smiling and laughing, the streets of Bermuda had been lined with hundreds of New Zealand flags. The first victory or the day to New Zealand, albeit a moral one.
It was time for a rematch. 4 years of hard labour and uphill battles to get to this point.
The first four races were a white wash, Emirates Team New Zealand were out of the blocks stunning Oracle with 4 wins from the first 4 races going into a 5 day break in racing. We were 3- 0 up after beginning the regatta -1 point down as a result of Oracle winning the Qualifiers.
“Keep the foot on the throat”, instructed Skipper Glenn Ashby.
5-0 up and Oracle won a race. The ghosts of San Francisco stopped by the Bermuda base. They were welcomed in and invited to stay. Spithill said, “It’s only just beginning.”
But looking back- it was already over.
The ghosts stayed close for a further 8 days then were told to bugger off when we crossed the finish line comfortably ahead of the former Defender again to complete the long hard road to redemption that began in September 2013.
The ‘Lone Wolf’ had outlasted the pack.
The reception upon arriving back in New Zealand was amazing. From a sheltered existence in Bermuda to full flood fanfare. The America’s Cup had been won for New Zealand and the team was immensely proud to bring it home.
The whole campaign was likened to running a marathon- and an incredibly tough one at that. Reaching the finish line completely mentally and emotionally shattered only to realise the fruits of our labour had just become the start of another marathon immediately- The 36th America’s Cup.
Taking a deep breath CEO Grant Dalton simply says “It’s a great problem to have.” And gets on with the job of organising the next event.
Immediate goals after the post victory celebratory haze were clear:
All huge tasks, all needing negotiation and diplomacy but added together all of them become the foundation to the next America’s Cup.
Already the next America’s Cup cycle has begun well and truly for Emirates Team New Zealand. The narrow focus is now split in setting up the foundations of a team, but also an Event organisation that will take on the huge task of organising a major global sporting event so the core team can focus on all that matters for most people in the team- Defending the America’s Cup to ensure it remains in New Zealand for the benefit of all New Zealanders.
It has been a big year, a long road to redemption, and without doubt the entire team are happy to be having a holiday this festive season.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and thank you for such amazing support from everyone at Emirates Team New Zealand (Defender of the America's Cup)