The America's Cup: sailors who are machines

Racing is a business, and to be successful, you need to put aside any additional considerations and work solely to win.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
08 December 2023 Friday 03:23
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The America's Cup: sailors who are machines

Racing is a business, and to be successful, you need to put aside any additional considerations and work solely to win. You must have the best candles, no matter who makes them; the decks must be free of unoccupied people, no matter who their friends are; It requires an astute skipper and a well-trained crew. Determination that shapes the people and the means to achieve a goal, regardless of personal ties or business associations, is what is needed. System, discipline, order and the dedication of everyone to a purpose.”

This is how the nautical journalist Thomas Fleming Ray wrote about the America's Cup sailing in 1901! More than one hundred and twenty years later, the text is still valid. This event represents the pinnacle of this sport, the elite of the elite. Not just anyone gets on board a boat that participates in this event (...).

The America's Cup is the challenge that any sailing professional aspires to, also for historical reasons. This regatta has been, basically, the mother of professional sailing. According to Juan Luis Wood, Olympic sailor and world runner-up in dinghy sailing, “the America's Cup has transformed sailors into professional athletes. “It has taken them from being sailors who went from tavern to tavern in the ports to becoming athletes who seek excellence and make a living from their craft.”

It's like the master's degree that everyone wants to have on their resume, giving that extra something that others don't have. At the same time, to be there, it is necessary to have one foot in one of the other two disciplines (oceanic and Olympic). Even those who despise or do not give importance to the Copa del América, deep down dream of being part of this select group. In terms of reputation, it is second to none. In the world of sailing, being able to say that you have participated in THE EVENT, in capital letters, is an outstanding achievement. In fact, there is a WhatsApp group where all those who have participated in any edition of the Copa del América throughout history are found, forming part of a tribe.

The Copa del América has many elements that make it stand out from other events, especially from a sporting point of view. Sailing is the only team sport that requires a physical environment, perhaps along with some types of canoes, canoes and some winter sports.

Furthermore, unlike motorsport or MotoGP, where there is only one driver, in the America's Cup, in addition to the skipper, there are many other people involved, both on board the boat and on land. Each assigned role is critical to maximizing the ship's performance. It is no longer enough to be good at your individual task. The added value of the winning team is related to the feedback that each team member communicates with each other, in the synchronization of all their skills.

Xavi Penas, a sailor who was on board the first Spanish challenge in 1992, says that on board an America's Cup “there are not just any athletes. There are people who have a gift. We are talking about men who have a golden, natural authority. In general, on board and on the ground everyone is on another level.”

It is true that after the evolution of the latest boats, the sailor's values ​​have changed. “Now everything is more physical. They sign you even more for your physique than for your seafaring arts,” complains Xavi Penas. Altadill takes the speech to the extreme: “Now you are not a sailor, you are a pilot. Trimming a sail aboard the AC75 is like trimming the sail of an airplane. There are America's Cup sailors who spend more time in the simulator than in the water. “We are getting closer to a Game Boy or a video game.”

“I think that deep down the screams at the starts are the same as always,” objects the president of the Real Club Náutico de Barcelona, ​​Jordi Puig. “There is a unique aspect to the America's Cup, which is the match race [a boat against another boat]. Now the format may have become more demanding or more radical, but it is always the same: lose, you lose a lot. Inside or outside. You are going to life or death. But winning, you win so much. That is why it is said that it is the event where you win the plenary session, the biggest prize, because you end up deciding the rules, the place... ". (...)

What should the ideal skipper be like? What requirements should it have? For Grant Dalton, the greatest virtues of a successful skipper are “luck, perseverance and knowing how to interpret the sea and wind.” Natalia Via-Dufresne, perhaps one of the best-known female sailors in Spain, a double Olympic medalist, sums up in this way what a skipper feels during a regatta. “It requires perseverance, perseverance, talent, and above all the ability to manage your nerves. That is, don't let defeat lose you,” she comments. “The skipper has to take on added pressure and not everyone is capable of taking it on. I myself have come across sailors who are technically very good, but who do not know how to manage their emotions.”

There is a saying in sailing that many sailors repeat: “A competitive boat makes the skipper smarter.” And it is quite true. Being a collective sport, interaction with other crew members becomes a key factor. “The boat is like an orchestra, the skipper is the director, no one has to go out of tune, the music has to sound good,” says Via-Dufresne.

It may be useful in this sense to recover the chronicle made by the nautical newspaper The Rudder commenting on the regatta of the ship Columbia in the 1901 edition of the Cup. “On the Columbia, the crew was part of the ship in all its movements. When asked to carry out an order, they would get up, act, and return to their positions like well-trained pieces of a machine.”

According to the journalist and businessman Luca Oriani, director of the magazine Giornale della Vela, “the skipper is like the CEO of a company: he is the one who decides. They all win and lose together, but he is the one who takes the praise and criticism, and then shares it with the rest of the crew.” (...)

To better understand how a sailor's brain works aboard an America's Cup, a comparison with ocean sailing may be useful. Joan Vila, the sailor considered a legend on the ocean circuit and currently a member of the Swiss Alinghi team, considers that it is a regatta that transcends classic sailing and is very different from ocean sailing: “In the America's Cup everything is a lot. faster, more intense. In the Atlantic you are between eighteen and twenty days at speeds of 20 knots. In the Copa América you compete in half an hour, at double speed, several times a day for two weeks. If you slow down during a turn, it will be difficult for you to get back up. It is the same difference that there is between a Dakar and Formula 1.”

Technological advances have also forced sports preparation to change. “Before we trained a lot, because the regattas lasted two hours, but it was more quantity than quality. Now a test can last 20 minutes. And if you are going at 40 knots and you come across another boat that is going at 40, then it is as if you have to think twice, at 100 knots,” commented Luna Rossa skipper, Max Sirena.

To understand the psychology of these sports heroes, we must assume that they take the following motto to the extreme: you should never rest on your laurels or get depressed after a defeat. Maintaining a certain coldness, an emotional armor, is a resource that, if not innate, is useful to work and learn to be among the elite. This attitude can be summed up in one word: self-knowledge.

The Galician Pedro Campos, who was at the forefront in three of the four Spanish challenges to win the Copa del América, maintains that “the boss has to know how to do quite a bit of everything. He has to be able to talk to the engineers or designers. He also needs to form a team. This means knowing how to delegate, trusting others. The successful boss knows at all times that they support him,” he says.

And then there is the regatta format, which exalts and requires certain abilities. “The match race, a boat against another boat, as if it were a duel, is pure stress, adrenaline. Not only do you have to know the rule, but you also haggle to annoy the other person,” explains Campos. This is what oceanic navigator Guillermo Altadill sums up bluntly with one phrase: “When you are in the water, you have no friends.”