To the uninitiated, espionage and sailing do not normally go hand in hand, yet before this year’s America’s Cup gets underway later this week, holders Oracle Team USA know every tack is being watched.
“It is funny, [there are] guys on the water right now taking photos of the boat and the system on board,” says Oracle Team’s Australian grinder Ky Hurst. “Whenever we roll out the boat they are always there taking photos. They are spying on us.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Oracle Team USA helmsman and Hurst’s countryman Jimmy Spithill, who will be steering for a third consecutive Cup crown when the competition begins on Friday in Bermuda.
“The defending champions usually have a target on their back and added pressure,” says Spithill, the youngest ever America’s Cup winning skipper. “The level of reconnaissance is right up there. It is like James Bond or the CIA. We all have teams based where the other teams are, watching them all the time.”
Accusations of subterfuge might sound paranoid, but surveillance really is just part of life in the competition and the six competing teams make no apologies for keeping a close eye on one another ahead of the 35th edition of world sport’s oldest trophy.
“You try and keep tabs on what the other teams are doing. It is very commonplace to have photographers watching. It goes both ways – all teams are looking,” says SoftBank Team Japan skipper Dean Barker.
As a result teams are eager to protect their designs and intellectual property in whatever way possible. The yachts are craned out of the water before and after training and stored inside shiny cavernous sheds resembling aircraft hangers.
It is here boat builders work around the clock to make micro adjustments to the craft – based on intelligence garnered from on-water testing and simulations via computer modelling – and the tweaks made inside the hanger are done well clear of prying eyes.
“You can learn a lot from the competition,” says Spithill. “That is what it is about in this game. You can look at your competitors and not only take their lessons but improve on it.”
Gaining access to the team bases is nigh on impossible. A towering steel fence rings the perimeter. There is no admission to the general public. Journalists are accompanied by a chaperone, passing several checkpoints before reaching the boat sheds. Photography of the yachts inside these sanctuaries is strictly off limits.
Trying to shadow these breakneck flying machines on the water in a chase boat is difficult too. You can only get a fleeting glimpse bouncing along at 60 kilometres an hour in a rubber boat on Bermuda’s Great Sound. The carbon fibre monsters deploy their hydrofoils, slicing through the water, flying past in the blink of an eye. Even so there are certain angles where photography of these catamarans is forbidden – lest a frame might reveal an engineering advantage the teams want to try and disguise from the competition.
Six muscular men scurry across the yachts – the power they deploy to move the boat is obvious, they lose litres in sweat every hour – but the systems on board that optimise performance aren’t as easy to spy for the untrained eye. Oracle Team USA’s tactician Tom Slingsby, another Australian, says the cutting-edge engineering is what really maximises a boat’s speed.
“Being the pinnacle of the sport, every day we are doing amazing things out there with technology,” he says.
The first Japanese entry in search of the Auld Mug in 17 years, SoftBank Team Japan, believe their technological expertise has made them competitive quickly. Systems and science are arguably more important than crew experience for Asia’s sole entrant.
“In the future I want to combine all the technology and knowledge from Japan to challenge for the America’s Cup – that is my dream,” says sailor Kazuhiko Sofuku at the team base.
The technology and innovation driving the renewed interest and swell in competition doesn’t come cheaply. Tech tycoons and billionaire bankers passionately prop up their syndicates’ ambitions. “There are millions of dollars in campaigns and egos,” says Slingsby.
Just how much investment goes in to funding an America’s Cup campaign is another closely guarded secret. While the regatta’s foundational document the Deed of Gift looks to make competing in the race more transparent, the costs are still prohibitive for many.
“You look at Nascar. They are at $20m per car, per year, and most of the teams have three or four cars, so budgets are well over $100m. We are well under that, but look at what we do. Plus from an athlete point of view I will put our athletes up against anyone,” says Spithill.
“It is not the old suits walking into fancy yacht clubs. The athletes we have on our boats can match it with any athlete in the world I can assure you.”
This new era of racing represents a sport in convergence and it isn’t just the newly bulked up, gym-honed athletic sailors that reflect the changing face of the sport. Race partners from the world of luxury like Louis Vuitton and Panerai, long aligned to maritime pursuits, are now joined by Red Bull – a brand that traditionally outlays most of its marketing spend on car racing and extreme sports. It is evidence of the high octane, risk-riddled formula seeking to entice and cash in on a new audience.
“You look at any sport now, weather it is X Games or auto racing. You watch it because it isn’t easy and there is real consequence and that is exactly our game. We don’t have seat belts, there is no safety,” says Spithill. “I think now the sport works commercially on TV. The valuations are there now.”
And like with most sports it is often the winning team that captures the most fans and eyeballs – and in turn the biggest sponsorship war chest – so the crews aren’t going to let their guard down, or stop keeping tabs on their competition any time soon.
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