Five reasons why New Zealand should stick with ACC cats for the 36th America's Cup Match

As the new holder of the America's Cup, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, Emirates Team New Zealand and the Italian Challenger of Record now have the right to decide when, where and in what craft the 36th America's Cup will be contested.

While many sailing purists hanker for the old days of intense match racing between displacement monohulls, in my opinion the future of the Cup will be best served by the Kiwis and Italians announcing that they will stick with the America's Cup Class 50ft catamarans that contested the 35th Match in Bermuda.

Here are the five main reasons why I think this would give New Zealand their best chance of defending the Cup:

# 1 Peter Burling: Burling is the youngest helmsman to have every won the Cup and he is the hottest property in world sailing. A gold and silver medallist in the 49er at the Olympics, he is arguably the best apparent wind sailor in the world – a great reader of a racecourse and able to make the snap decisions that win races when your craft is flying at nearly 50 knots. Why, then, would you put him in a slow displacement hull with a tactician standing by his shoulder telling him what to do?

#2 Glenn Ashby: “Gashby” is arguably the best catamaran sailor in the world, with 16 world championships and an Olympic silver medal to his credit. He also has a superb technical brain and was undoubtedly the major influence in the design of the ETNZ wing sail's unique X-Box controls. It was apparent during the Bermuda racing that the Kiwis were able to get more twist and better shape into their wing than the other teams. Glenn is also a great bloke and an inspirational leader, credited with being the glue that held the New Zealand team together. Why would you waste his genius by switching to monohulls and fabric sails?

#3 The ETNZ Design Team: New Zealanders have always been innovators and ever since the Kiwi designers found a loophole in the protocol for the 34th Match and put their 72ft cat on foils, they have consistently out-thought the other teams. There is no doubt that their foil design in the 35th Match was a key factor in the Kiwis better VMG going to windward, especially in light airs. When you have the best foiling multihull designers in the world, why would you ask them to design a displacement monohull?

# 4 Attracting More Teams: While there is some merit, from a purely egotistical point of view, in retaining the Cup against weak opposition, it's not good for the economy of your country. Great Britain, France and Japan all challenged in Bermuda for the first time in many years and all will be back if the lessons they learned in the 35th Match can be applied to the 36th. If they have to go right back to square one and start again, expect to see at least two of them missing from the challenger list for Auckland. Australia, too, would be much better able to mount a challenge if the package includes common elements and a budget of less than $50 million instead of a new arms race that could blow out to the $100 million plus that was spent by the teams in San Francisco.

Grant Dalton will have a much better story to tell the New Zealand Government, when he goes looking for money, if he can tell them there will be thousands of tourists from all those countries flocking to Auckland for the Match, and millions more back in their home countries seeing the unique beauty of New Zealand on their TV screens. Oh, and the TV rights will be a lot easier to sell, despite the time zone problems, if there are European, Asian and North American teams involved. Italy v NZ in a single-challenger Match isn't going to capture the imagination of the world's media.

#5 Core Builder Composites: This unique factory in Warkworth, north of Auckland, builds all the common components in the America's Cup hulls and wing sails. Yes, it's owned by Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle Team USA, but it contributes hugely to the NZ economy and was a key factor in Dalton being able to prove to the NZ Government, who tipped $35 million into his San Francisco war chest, that the investment was paid back in GST and PAYE payments from the factory alone. If Dalton sticks with ACC cats, he has much greater control over the supply of common components than he would do if every team was building its entire boat in its home country.

I admire Grant Dalton and what he has achieved in around-the-world offshore racing and America's Cup management. Despite a lot of opposition in his home country, he has been the common element in New Zealand's America's Cup challenges. Without “Dalts” the team would have disintegrated after the fiasco of San Francisco. He also had the courage to “shoot Bambi” and replace the publicly popular but unsuccessful helmsman Dean Barker with the young, unproven Pete Burling.

My greatest fear with Dalton is his passion. It works for him when driving his team to success. But it works against him when he lets his emotions rule his brain. And there is no greater example of this than his irrational hatred of Sir Russell Coutts.

Coutts was the New Zealand hero who won the Cup in San Diego in 1995 and defended it in the Hauraki Gulf in 2000. But he quickly became the villain when he sold his soul to Ernesto Bertarelli and helmed the Alinghi challenge which took the Cup to Switzerland in 2003. Since that time, Coutts has been hated by most Kiwis, but none more so than Grant Dalton.

My fear is that Dalton will let this hatred blind him to the good things Coutts has done with the Cup, such as bringing the costs down with a smaller boat and common components, getting more teams involved because of this, creating a sailing event that works on TV and delivering six relatively evenly-matched teams to Bermuda.

There are plenty of innovations that Dalton can make, within the framework that Coutts has created.

A nationality rule, with perhaps a majority of the sailors in each team required to hold passports from the country the team represents, would be popular with the punters, even if it does severely effect the employment prospects of professional sailors.

In the higher winds likely to be experienced in Auckland, the boats would have to be modified so they could sail in up to 30 knots. But that could be solved with a two-wing policy, just as the Sydney 18 Footers do with their #1 and #2 rigs. The event authority could specify that above, say, 20 knots the smaller wings would automatically be used or it could be left up to the teams, making for interesting choices in cross-over conditions, such as we saw with daggerboard selection in Bermuda.

It is the Defender's right to set a protocol that gives them an advantage. It has always been so in the America's Cup, and Dalton could undoubtedly find design aspects where he knows he has an advantage and write them into the rules. 

But if he throws the baby out with the bathwater and puts the whole America's Cup contest back to a very expensive Square One, I think he will be wasting most of the trump cards he currently holds.

– Roger McMillan



JPK August 2023
JPK August 2023
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