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America’s Cup: Emirates Team NZ hit hard by five weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns

Auckland can expect to see the first America’s Cup Challenger sailing on the Waitemata Harbour in four months, with the final challenger arriving, a few weeks later.

Of the four teams that have launched AC75’s, Emirates Team New Zealand has been hit the hardest by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lights have been out at Emirates Team New Zealand base since the imposition of the most severe level of lockdown on March 25. The other teams have been able to keep their AC75 construction running through the five-week lockdown period, which has yet to end.

Previously ETNZ team had worked long hours from 5.30 am each day until around 11.00 pm five days or more a week at their sailing base in downtown Auckland. It would have been expected for the team to be running double-shifts at their construction facility on Auckland’s North Shore, in the same way as the challenger teams have done in the UK, USA and Italy.

The rapidity of the unprecedented lockdown in New Zealand gave the defender team little chance to prepare, and five valuable weeks have gone from the defence project plan.

It would seem that the Challengers have not been so badly affected, due to less severe lockdowns in the USA, UK and Italy, which have allowed them to continue AC75 construction.

Over the weekend, it was revealed by French website “Tip & Shaft” in an interview with INEOS Team UK’s boat builder, Jason Carrington, that the British build program had ramped up in the last fortnight.

Carrington says that his team started back two weeks ago and are working double shifts from 06.30 am to 0.300am the following morning. Approximately 50 staff are involved in the build of INEOS Team UK’s second AC75, which will be flown to New Zealand as soon as it is completed.

Fortunately for INEOS Team UK, Carrington and his build team, ran “a night shift from the start of the project so we have managed to get a big chunk ahead of where we thought we would be. We have obviously eaten into that a bit, but we are still okay,” he said – implying that by not stopping construction, the Brits were still ahead of where they needed to be.

Carrington made the point that they are on such a tight critical path in their build plan, that if they were hit with a New Zealand style Alert Level 4 Lockdown, they could face some campaign-ending issues. “The danger for us is if we were forced to stop,” he told Tip and Shaft. “If we did stop for a certain amount of time, quite quickly it becomes just not feasible to even get the boat done in time, so we are pretty aware of that. At the moment we’re on track.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, New York Yacht Club’s team American Magic, have managed to keep the lights on, and their build program running.

“We’re fortunate that we are still building,” CEO Terry Hutchinson told US Sailing commentator Gary Jobson, last week. He made it clear that the build team had some much-appreciated assistance from the state governor to keep their build program running, despite isolation restrictions.

“We’re in a tricky spot as all the teams are, based on what happens with production”, Hutchinson said. “We continue to thank the Governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo – she has done an incredible job of navigating through a difficult time, and the Rhode Island Marine Trade Association, have helped us immensely in navigating through something that is incredibly difficult for everybody. We have to thank her for the great job she is doing.”

“While we are working in a reduced capacity [at the team’s winter base in Florida], the team up in Newport are still going along. The idea is to have the boat out of the shed in late summer, and she’ll go straight to New Zealand.”

“Getting the boat to New Zealand is going to be tight, as it is.”

“It’s nervous times because it is not weeks, it’s days – that tilt the timetable of development. We’re running a pretty tight schedule in that regard. We’ll have to fly it to New Zealand.”

Over the weekend, Italian Challenger Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli through online news channel RaiNews24.it released a video interview with skipper Max Sirena at the team’s sailing base in Cagliari.

Although Sail-World has only been able to get a very basic translation of the audio in Italian, Sirena said they had only stopped sailing their AC75, but the rest of the team’s activities had continued at their sailing base in Cagliari, and building facility in Bergamo.

Their first AC75 suffered a dismasting in late January after the forestay chainplate failed. In a second incident after being off the water for almost a month for repairs and a planned development upgrade, Luna Rossa PP broke a bowsprit bobstay and ripped away a substantial piece of hull and foredeck.

So there was plenty to keep the repair team busy in their sailing base in Cagliari. Sirena said they would continue to sail their first AC75 until the end of September, and planned to sail their second boat from October 20 in Auckland.

Surprisingly, construction of Luna Rossa’s second AC75 at Persico Marine did not stop, despite being built in Bergamo, the epicentre of the coronavirus in Italy.

The heads of both INEOS Team UK and American Magic independently said they were very impressed with the first Italian AC75 and its design features. A point of interest when the second generation AC75’s are revealed as to whether the other challengers will pivot their design direction towards that of Luna Rossa.

Kiwis lose five weeks

While the other teams are making varying degrees of building progress, Emirates Team New Zealand has been caught in irons by the Coalition Government closing down the country at the highest CV-19 Alert Level 4 for five weeks – with all recreational sailing and boat construction banned.

Previously, the team had some of the wind taken out of their sails by the cancellation of the two America’s Cup World Series events. But the body blow has come from the Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand which has halted the sailing and construction programs.

The build of the team’s second AC75 and intended race boat is now well behind. A five-week delay will be difficult to catch up in the tight project plan normally associated with America’s Cup builds, which are geared around the need to maximise design and development time and cut building times to the bare minimum.

In mid-January, Emirates Team New Zealand stopped sailing Te Aihe, and their first AC75 was put on a ship bound for Singapore headed for the first of two America’s Cup World Series regattas in Cagliari. It was then transhipped in Singapore bound for Italy. A few days into that voyage the America’s Cup World Series Cagliari was cancelled by organisers.

Te Aihe has been turned around and sent back to New Zealand but is understood to be not even halfway through her return journey. In team planning, the voyage from New Zealand was reckoned to be a 60day trip, and the back-calculation is AC75 will arrive back sometime in June – and will start sailing in the New Zealand winter.

From April 28, New Zealand will de-escalate to Alert Level 3, and boat construction will be allowed to recommence.

Under Level 3, Sailing is still a banned recreational activity. Using logic that few can understand, swimming, surfing, canoeing, rowing, windsurfing and paddleboarding are permitted water activities. Also allowed is mountain biking. Hunting may also be a permitted recreational activity.

It is a massive stretch of credibility to classify an America’s Cup program as a recreational sailing activity. The reality is that professional sailing is a business activity and therefore allowed, in the same way, that commercial fishing was allowed even under Level 4, while recreational fishing was not.

INEOS Team UK is expected to be the first America’s Cup team to set up in Auckland get sailing. Construction on their partially built base will recommence in late April and will be ready for the team when it expects to begin sailing out of Auckland in September.

American Magic will be sailing out of a similar base to that used at their winter base in Pensacola in Florida.

Luna Rossa’s base is yet to commence construction in a substantial way and will be to a design by a New Zealand firm. They will probably be the last team to start sailing in New Zealand.

The two cancelled America’s Cup World Series regattas were expected to be replaced with one or two series ahead of the Christmas Cup. That scenario would have given the America’s Cup teams a chance to test themselves against each other and address any shortcomings highlighted in their jousting. That includes safety issues as well as boat speed.

Surprisingly INEO Team UK skipper Ben Ainslie does not want to see any additional regattas, and in fact, wants to see the race schedule compressed for the challenger selection series or Prada Cup.

“I think everyone will be hard pushed to get themselves sorted out – even by January/February,” Ainslie told Sail-World NZ in early April.

“Probably we should be looking at delaying or cancelling the Christmas Race, 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.”

Construction delays aside, Emirates Team New Zealand as the defender will go into the America’s Cup Match in March 2021 underdone – having only raced on eight or nine occasions in the Christmas Cup Series. There’s a good chance of that series being shortened, with days lost due to the wind limits being set at a peak average of 23kts.

Had all gone as planned, the teams would have tested themselves against the first generation AC75’s in Cagliari, in late April, and Portsmouth in early June, and finally in the Christmas Regatta due to be held in Auckland in December.

Under the Protocol governing the 36th America’s Cup, sailing or testing “in a coordinated manner” against another AC75 is prohibited for all teams. An exception is made for event-organised racing or other times sanctioned by Iain Murray, the Regatta Director.

That prohibition is switched off once the Prada Cup gets underway for challengers. Unlike Bermuda, the Defender is not allowed to sail in the challenger selection series and gain valuable racing experience.

Instead, the rules allow the defender to commence two-boat race training or speed testing at the same time, as the Challengers are allowed to sail against other AC75’s.

In the current situation, ETNZ now has a couple of good options, none of which are ideal – and both have significant downsides for the Kiwi team.

Firstly ETNZ could sail their two AC75’s against each other for just the five weeks of the Prada Cup, starting January 15, 2021.

That will require two crews of 11 sailors each. Currently, Team NZ only has one listed AC75 crew of twelve sailors, including a coach.

In the IACC keelboat era of the Cup (1992-2007) when Team New Zealand was either a challenger or defender, two boat testing would have got underway in earnest, as soon as the team’s second boat was launched.

The downsides of that option are that two-AC75 testing and training is limited to five weeks in January and February. The AC75’s required a highly skilled and trained crew. It is not possible, as in bygone Cups, to put together a sailing team from the ranks of boat builders and sailmakers in the team.

It has not been disclosed whether Emirates Team NZ will keep their first AC75 Te Aihe in racing condition. In the past two Cups, the ETNZ’s first built boat has been cannibalised for parts for the race boat.

American Magic indicated they were going to do the same for their new race boat, with the first AC75, Defiant, being kept as an “insurance policy” against a serious crash during racing when a second boat could be substituted for a badly damaged race boat.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s second option is to create a four-person crew and sail their half-size test boat Te Kahu against one of ETNZ’s two AC75’s. This option allows two boat testing to commence as soon as Te Aihe is recommissioned, maybe sometime in June. When the second AC75 comes online, Te Kahu can be tasked to work up against the race boat.

The upside for the Kiwi team, if they do decide to pitch their AC75’s against Te Kahu, is that potentially ETNZ gains nine months of two-boat testing, but will be relying on their surveillance teams to give feedback on the performance of their competitors.

While all Cup teams have always been very reluctant to disclose boatspeeds officially, American Magic’s Terry Hutchinson revealed in the US Sailing interview last week, that their test boat hit speeds on the high 20kts upwind and a very impressive 44kts downwind.

Their 38ft test boat, “The Mule” is similar to Emirates Team New Zealand’s Te Kahu in that it was designed to mimic an AC75 as much as possible – but at half scale.

It is reasonable to expect that Te Kahu will be achieving similar speeds to those quoted by Hutchinson, which makes it a useful trial horse – particularly if it can be demon-tweaked to lift its performance without being constrained by the requirements of the AC75 class rule.

In his interview with Gary Jobson, Terry Hutchinson did not mention if their test boat, The Mule, would be coming to New Zealand.

If they chose to do so, “The Mule” could be used to give American Magic some good two-boat training and race practice, as well as continuing to be a development platform for the design team.

With the advantage of The Mule, two AC75’s and the hard racing they will gain in the Prada Cup, American Magic have cards that the other teams can’t play.

The kiwis will have just eight or nine races in the Christmas Cup – and there is no guarantee that the Challengers won’t be sandbagging against the Defender in the races they sail.

Not showing their hand to the Defender is entirely in keeping with the traditional mantra of the Challengers – “to relieve the Defender of the burden of the America’s Cup”. No quarter is given, and none should be expected. Everyone is playing for keeps now.

Only in the 2010 Deed of Gift Match has the Defender (Alinghi) gone into an America’s Cup without working up against at least one other yacht of the same class or size.

Emirates Team New Zealand will join that very exclusive club, if they elect to tune up against Te Kahu – a yacht half their size.

The workup options for the challenger teams are relatively straight forward – being to train alone until the Christmas Cup, use their simulators, and train against a test boat if they have one.

The Challengers are safe in the knowledge that they have several weeks of boat on boat racing ahead – eight or nine races in the Christmas Cup and maybe 26 races in the Prada Cup.

Their major objectives are to get the team embedded in Auckland and functioning in race mode and to sort out the wind and tide nuances of the five race areas to be used for racing.

Like all America’s Cups, time is now a far more precious commodity than money.

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