Guilain Grenier / Oracle Team USA

Ainslie could helm Oracle Team USA in 34th America's Cup

Russell Coutts confirms following the Defender Series they will pick the best helmsman

Friday May 18th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

One significant issue with being the America’s Cup defender is that while the challengers get to compete at the highest competition and get race-ready over the course of several weeks in the Louis Vuitton Cup, in recent Cups there has been no equivalent competition to hone the skills of the defender to a similar degree.

In attempting to solve this exact problem, there was uproar, for example, at one point in the preparations for the original pre-court case win monohull 33rd America’s Cup plan when Alinghi suggested that, to cut costs, the challengers would be limited to being one boat campaigns, while they, the defender, could trial two boats in preparation for the Cup.

With the 34th America’s Cup a defender series will be taking place alongside the Louis Vuitton Cup, but this to take a different form to what has occurred in the past.

Defender series have a decidedly checkered history over recent decades in the America’s Cup. The last proper one, the Citizen Cup, was held in San Diego in 1995 and was technically won by the San Diego YC’s own campaign led by Dennis Conner, but he ended up racing the Young America campaign’s boat in the Cup itself after it had proved to be the faster boat in the defender trials. In subsequent Cups, even up to the present day, and with teams wielding way more power than the yacht clubs they represent, the defending team hasn’t been overly keen (to put it mildly) to open up the opportunity for any team, other than their own, getting the right to defend in the America’s Cup.

So next year around the Louis Vuitton Cup, the defender series will take place but this will not be between Oracle Team USA and other teams/yacht clubs potentially wishing to defend, but, rightly or wrongly, will be an entirely inter-Oracle Team USA affair.

Russell Coutts explained this morning: “One approach would have been to rely on racing the other teams and get practiced that way. I was joking to Larry Ellison about this yesterday and I reminded Jimmy Spithill of it recently - I can remember back in 2003 when I was with Alinghi that we had a nine day practice session arranged with One World Challenge. And we went out and on the first practice day we beat them in both races and that nine day practice session became a one day practice session! So for us at Oracle Team USA we can’t rely on getting practice with the other teams, so we have to develop a really strong in house competition.”

Now this could very easily be a pillow fight, the outcome of no consequence, with Spithill still being in the driving seat whatever the outcome, but Coutts says this won’t be the case.

“One of the things you have to do is to create the feeling of a real race. You don’t want to be heading out there on the America’s Cup and that is the first real high pressure situation you have put the team under. I have spoken to some people about this recently – it is amazing when you are selecting a team, you can look at some of the people and they may be great looking athletes with a great physique and you go practising with them and they seem to be really good at racing the boat and then you put them in a race and pretty quickly you establish they are not so good.”

This time around, as we are already seeing with the AC45s, the crewing arrangements on the AC72 will be very different to the V5 boats. On the latter everyone had their own reasonably well defined roles - pitman, trimmers, helmsman, tactician, strategist, etc - but with the catamarans which are effectively sailed shorthanded, this situation is very different.

As Coutts puts it: “You can’t just get on the boat and say ‘you are doing daggerboards’ - it just isn’t going to work like that. People are going to have to multitask if something goes wrong you are going to have to react and shift them to new positions very quickly. It is going to be quite a test for the 11 people on board. We are going to spend a lot of time evaluating the crew over the last two and a half to three months leading into the Cup and the only way we can do that is by creating our own real pressure race situation.”

The upshot of all this is that, according to Coutts, the defender series we will be seeing in San Francisco next year will be a ‘real’ competition between the two Oracle Team USA AC72s, one with James Spithill at the helm, the other with Ben Ainslie or Darren Bundock steering.

“I am quite excited by the prospect of Jimmy Spithill being on one boat and Ben Ainslie being on another boat - that will be quite fierce competition,” says Coutts.

Now the thing is – what happens if Ainslie, for example, starts regularly beating Spithill? “Jimmy accepts this. It is not a popularity contest. We will be putting the best people we can on board – the best trimmers, best helmsman, tacticians, whatever,” says Coutts.

So Ben could end up as the Oracle Team USA helmsman in the America’s Cup? “Why not? I think you’d have a hard job convincing Larry not to put the best person on his race yacht...”


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