It has been a tumultuous month for Sir Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK, just 12 months out from the 2021 America’s Cup.
The high came in the team’s first hit-out in the Sydney SailGP in late February.
Ainslie and his crew, drawn from the INEOS America’s Cup sailing squad, dominated a classy field of America’s Cup winners, Olympic medalists and world champions, losing only one of the seven races sailed in the F50 one design wingsailed catamarans.
In Cagliari, Sardinia the team set up their AC75 Britannia and settled in for what should have been a solid three months training and development, culminating in the America’s Cup World Series Sardinia.
“We were going to stay until the event, and then with other teams, we were talking about transport back to the UK for the second ACWS Portsmouth event, in early June.”
But a month into the Sardinian sojourn, that plan came to an abrupt end as the coronavirus spread down the Italian peninsular and jumped across to the island.
“The SailGP win was a highlight in what has been a difficult time”, Ainslie told Sail-World. “It was fantastic sailing and racing – Sydney Harbour at its best. We were very impressed with the event and the SailGP circuit in general.”
“We had a great time, but after that, the shutters have come down, unfortunately. It is a terrible scenario for everybody,” he added.
The takeover by INEOS Team UK of the Great Britain SailGP team last November came as a surprise to most pundits.
Ainslie’s move into SailGP created the very tempting prospect of a current America’s Cup team going head to head the established players in the with SailGP circuit. They included Olympic Gold medalist and America’s Cup winner Tom Slingsby, and Artemis Racing’s Nathan Outteridge – also an Olympic Gold and Silver medalist.
What was expected to be a donnybrook in Sydney, turned into an Ainslie masterclass, with the British team being a very convincing winning six of the seven races sailed (which included the two practice races). A fourth-place finish in Race 4 came after the Brits got caught in a hole in the wind at the start, and set off donkey-last by several hundred metres. Their recovery to fourth was just as impressive as the other race wins.
Ainslie says they were a little surprised at the ease of their first-up series win. “We went into it, not knowing how we would stack up. With having Goobs (Iain Jensen) and Parko (Luke Parkinson) and Neil (Hunter) and Matt (Gotrel) who’d had a lot of experience in the boat, I was very confident that we had a super-strong squad.
“But it has been a while since I sailed those boats (AC50/F50’s). I was able to step into the boat, and put it where we wanted to on the racecourse. With the guys being able to handle that was an incredible bonus because I didn’t have to worry about the crew work, the trim of the boat or anything.
“I could just focus on trying to do my job well, and it came together brilliantly. I was very impressed with the team and how they performed. It was a very productive period for us.”
The SailGP circuit now suspended to the end of June – skipping regattas planned for San Francisco and New York. The postponement of Tokyo2020 has meant that tactician Giles Scott has also lost the distraction of defence of his Olympic champion’s title in the Finn class, and can now concentrate on the America’s Cup.
Regrouping for Auckland
For INEOS Team UK the focus is now firmly on the upcoming America’s Cup in New Zealand.
“Our boat is being shipped back to the UK. It was a real shame to have to cut that training camp short. As you can imagine, it was a difficult decision as we were having some great hours on the water testing,” Ainslie reflected.
“As the crisis developed in Italy, it quickly became apparent how serious this was going to be, and we didn’t have any option but to look after our people and our assets.
“We’re back in the UK now. We will get all our assets back to the UK, and the next trick is to get the second boat going with all the components for that. Different suppliers are struggling with their efficiency – as all other businesses are due to the virus, and the lockdown that has been imposed as part of that.”
With the UK on a Level 3 lockdown, some work continues on the team’s second AC build. “We are still developing boat components and other tasks which require people to operate from the base. But the majority of our staff are working from home as you’d expect in this situation.”
“We have guys working on parts of the boat – but I’m not going to tell you exactly which parts,” he says with a security-edged chuckle.
“This period is a challenge for all the teams as to how much work they can get completed – as the efficiencies continue to be made more difficult because of the lockdown.”
A regular visitor
Auckland is familiar territory for the most successful sailor in Olympic history. He stayed several weeks in New Zealand back in 1995, training in his Laser before going on to win the first of five Olympic medals in the Laser a year later. He then switched to the singlehanded Finn class winning another four Olympic medals and a host of World Championships, including a World Match Racing title.
For the 2003 America’s Cup, Ainslie was the trial-horse helmsman for Emirates Team New Zealand, turning down the offer of a crewing role in the then America’s Cup defender to get helming experience aboard ETNZ’s second IACC monohull yacht. He sailed in Auckland again as skipper aboard the Team Origin entry in the 2009 Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, sailed in IACC yachts. They sailed on the same courses in 2009 that will be used for the 2021 America’s Cup.
He went on the win the 2013 America’s Cup sailing the AC72 with Oracle Team USA, and led the UK team at the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda sailing AC50 wingsailed catamarans.
Plenty of questions on Auckland but few answers
Base-wise, INEOS Team UK is the most advanced of the America’s Cup Challengers, with their base framing near complete and ready to be closed in, as soon as the lockdown level drops below Level 4 in Auckland.
“We’re not far off completion – about June. I think the work has slowed on that over the last couple of weeks, so we will be delayed on that by month. We were originally planning to be in New Zealand in September, so hopefully, we can still make that target.”
Ainslie says even very high-level planning is very difficult now. “We are having to re-evaluate and understand what we are up against. All teams are in a similar situation.”
“It is very tricky to understand how long the current coronavirus situation will last, and how we develop a strategy around that?”
“Those are not the easiest questions to answer right now? We have a great team, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure we keep our people safe and come up with the right solutions for the challenge.”
With heavier matters weighing on the NZ Government’s mind than the 2021 America’s Cup, Ainslie has had no direct contact with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (the NZ Govt department responsible for the America’s Cup planning and expenditure).
“I’ve had some conversations with Grant Dalton. As you’d expect he is doing everything he can to support the event, and certainly the America’s Cup Final.”
“It depends on how long this situation lasts and how open the New Zealand Government are to opening up borders, and allowing America’s Cup teams into the country to operate for seven months.”
“Can New Zealand hold a major international sporting event next February-March? We hope so!”
“One would hope that the teams could put their competitive aspirations aside and come together on this one so that we can find the right solutions for everyone, and get a decent competition going next summer for New Zealand.”
Hankering for a skiff?
In a podcast series run by INEOS Team UK and conducted by top America’s Cup commentator and team Technology Co-ordinator, Mark Chisnell, Ainslie admitted he had a soft spot for the design approach taken by Italian Challenger, Luna Rossa.
Ainslie still has a preference for the black-hulled AC75 having seen Luna Rossa trialling off Cagliari. ” I still think it is a pretty good boat, ” he says.
“I think there were some moments when they were sailing really well, and other times for whatever reason they weren’t. And then they had some structural failures which will be a challenge for the structural engineers on their team”, he notes.
“When you watch these first-generation AC75’s sail, the big question is whether they are foiling on autopilot, or are they sailing on manual flight control? That is one of the first things you have to work out before you try to evaluate a competitor’s performance, in terms of controllability of the boat and other factors.”
“Generally speaking, all of the teams have been quite impressive at times. Certainly, that is the way it appears from the reconnaissance and videos that I’ve seen. Whether that is achieved with an autopilot or not is often hard to tell from the reconnaissance boat.
“But if we can get that level of performance under true race trim then I think we’ll get some impressive racing,” he adds.
Ainslie sticks to his previously stated line over the split in first-generation hull shapes under the AC75 rule between the skiff of the Kiwis and Italians and the scow favoured by the Brits and US. He believes the Defender and Challenger of Record knew they were developing a rule around a foiling 75ft monohull – a design concept never before seen in a yacht that size.
Despite being the products of two independent design teams, the skiff hulls of Italy and New Zealand are similar but different.
“They both use the bustle line in the centre of the boat to help with the acceleration phase and touch down during manoeuvres. I think it is quite a neat solution,” Ainslie explains.
“There are some fine details on the Italian boat which are quite innovative, I think it is a good boat. Obviously, the rig and foils are going to be a big part of it as well. As well as the efficiency of the systems and control systems. There is a lot that goes into making up the overall performance,” he adds.
Despite reports that the tooling for their second AC75 was seen leaving a French yard, outside the British team, no-one seems to know whether INEOS has continued with the scow design-genre for their second boat, or have made the switch to the skiff of the Kiwis and Italians.
And Ainslie isn’t saying either, “It’s obviously going to be different,” he says bursting into laughter at the audacity of the question. “Going and building the same thing again wouldn’t be that smart. I can’t say too much now, but it’s certainly different from the first boat,” is all that he would reveal. Read into that what you will.
However, most expect all teams second boats to start settling into the same corner of the class rule – meaning that with their simulators all crunching the same photogrammed images and turning out the performance predictions the search narrows for the ultimate AC75 hull shape and package.
“There’s been a lot of comment about the teams coming together from their different design approaches that we saw on the first AC75’s. I think that is a fair observation,” he says.
“Hopefully we will get the chance to line these boats up. That is our focus now.” A compressed Prada Cup?
The British team are not keen on seeing more regattas sailed in Auckland to replace the two lost America’s Cup World Series events in Sardinia and Portsmouth.
“I think everyone will be hard pushed to get themselves sorted out – even by January/February,” is Ainslie’s response.
The delays, lockdowns and prospect of having to get people, boats and components halfway around a world, in which airline schedules have been binned and quarantine the new normal, makes for some very fraught logistics.
“Probably we should be looking at delaying or cancelling the Christmas Race,” is Ainslie’s response. “And potentially even shortening up the Challenger Series to give everyone more time to get their houses in order and get to New Zealand in a safe manner. At the moment trying to operate across cross borders – is almost impossible,” he adds.
“As a group of teams in the event, we’ve got to come together and have some honest conversations about what is practical here. If we are going to make this America’s Cup work.”
Ainslie wants this process to take place over the next fortnight. Given that all four countries – the USA, the United Kingdom, Italy and New Zealand are all in quite different situations with sponsors, lockdowns, second AC75 construction, base construction in Auckland, airline and shipping schedules. It will not be a quick discussion – but it is a process that needs to be initiated.
The situation cannot be repeated over wind limits where the Defender ETNZ incorrectly assumed that the Challenger of Record, Luna Rossa had communicated with all other Challengers on the matter, cannot be repeated.
Long-time Cup fan, and former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who also Patron of Emirates Team New Zealand, should be able to give the teams a good insight as to what is possible politically, and practically, in post-lockdown New Zealand.
Given the success so far of the COVID-19 measures in New Zealand, with only a thousand notified cases, a single death, thought must be given to what is possible when the controlled Level 4 exit is instituted, now likely for late April.
Build completion unlikely in New Zealand
One option for the Challengers is to extract their second AC75 hulls and send these to New Zealand for finishing and the not inconsiderable assembly phase. Auckland has world-class sparmaking, sailmaking, composite engineering and boat construction facilities, all with America’s Cup experience within 40 minutes of the Wynyard Point base area.
“At this stage, that’s not really on the cards. We’ve got a great team at Carrington’s, and they have been working incredibly hard for us, so our plan is to finish the boat her and then ship it down to NZ, “says Ainslie.
“Who knows – it’s not on the cards right now.”
The fact that the northern hemisphere teams are going into their summer means the boats can be launched and sea trialled close to their builders is another factor for remaining at home.
But for the next few weeks, the America’s Cup teams are being helmed by governmental responses to a global pandemic.
INEOS founder and chairman, Sir Jim Ratcliffe spent two days with the team at Cagliari, including a ride on the back of Britannia – one of the first non-sailing members of any team to be able to trial the 12th man/woman spot on the, figuratively speaking, supersonic AC75.
“He had a great time, came down and spent a couple of days with us. He loved the boat, thought it was amazing,” Ainslie says.
“He has a strong engineering background, so he understands the challenges and loads on the boat and so on. He was certainly fully aware of the strains that were taking place and the performance of the boat. It was great to get him out on the water.”
That spot is reserved as a VIP spot offering team sponsors and backers, a unique experience in sport. It remains to be seen if it is viable at the boat speeds of 40-50kts and tremendous G-forces of the AC75. The very popular stern-place was last used on the 75ft IACC keelboats that were the America’s Cup class between 1992-2007 and it was a huge success.
“We’ve had a few designers and engineers in that 12th man slot. It works quite well,” Ainslie reports. “There’s quite a big area there for them to hang onto some of the structural beams and clip in if need be. It worked well.”
Britannia didn’t try to emulate ETNZ’s spectacular sky jump, with the Kiwi AC75 leaping clear of the water at the start of a practice session in Auckland just before Christmas, before capsizing.
“We did put him through our safety training, but that doesn’t involve the sky jump!”
Fortunately, Britannia was well-behaved, and Sir Jim survived to fight another day.
No doubt, in these uncertain times his America’s Cup team look forward to doing the same