Elaine Bunting analyses how a no-holds-barred approach saw Emirates Team New Zealand leave defenders Oracle Team USA trailing in their wake for the 35th America's Cup.

“Baby, you’re coming home.”

You could see the eyes of Grant Dalton, the tough, straight-talking CEO of Emirates Team New Zealand, filling with tears as he lifted the America’s Cup out of its great Louis Vuitton trunk to cradle it like a first born.

It was exactly the look you might give a new infant: expected, longed for, yet still a surprise. Dalton – Dalts – actually touching the big, famous silver claret jug that has obsessed sailors and billionaires for more than 166 years.

The New Zealand press described it as redemption, the same media that crucified the team in 2013 when they lost from the brink of victory.

But from the Kiwi perspective, it was a deliverance from 14 years of court cases, rule changes, egos, money, machinations. It punched back at the teams that wouldn’t give ETNZ a practice race in Bermuda, and all of them trying to change this to a two-yearly competition with their ‘framework agreement’ (which Dalts was about to scupper).

How, exactly, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) won the 35th America’s Cup is a story that will be stitched into the fable of history. It is something defeated rivals will have to try to piece together if they want to win it back.

Money didn’t do it; ETNZ didn’t have the most. Time didn’t do it; two years ago they were nearly bust and on the verge of closing their doors. But they had two crucial things: a core of smart people who had been involved for a long time; and they had walked over the scorched earth of 2013 and produced 20 goals, the most of important of which was, Dalton said: “to put it outside the square.”

“We won because we did it a different way.”

How ETNZ seized back the America’s Cup, racing the fastest boat in the fastest class ever to sail on water, is an amazing story and probably the biggest organisational turnaround sailing has ever seen.

A brutal debrief

Kevin Shoebridge, ETNZ’s chief operating officer, has been a key lieutenant and one of Grant Dalton’s closest colleagues for decades. Like tactician and wing trimmer Glenn Ashby and standby helmsman and coach Ray Davies, he came through the 2013 fire.

He describes the ‘brutal debrief’ ETNZ had afterwards, a process of ruthless self-examination that produced the 20 points the team vowed to change. Shoebridge thinks that they couldn’t have won the Cup without first losing it so badly. (A painful advantage that, perhaps, start-up teams such as Land Rover BAR did not have.)

“If we hadn’t lost like we’d lost in San Francisco, we wouldn’t have sat down and had that meeting. Because at that time it was an excellent campaign. And if you win it’s difficult to go back and say: ‘Well, what did we do wrong?’ But that’s exactly what you need to do.”

Grant Dalton says: “It often happens in yachts that after you finish you know what you want to do and we wanted to work out what we wanted to do before we started this one.”

“We had a saying: we said we want to throw the ball as far as we can and see if we can get to it – no restriction on design, let’s just see what we can do. That was really the catch-cry of the organisation.”

From the start, it was a struggle. According to Dalton, there was “a coup attempt”. The New Zealand government wouldn’t renew funding, staff remained on reduced salaries and they were struggling to survive. Things ground almost to a halt in 2015.

“Two years ago, we were basically dead,” says Dalton.

The same year, Dean Barker was stood down as skipper, offered the role of coach and departed bitterly.

In Italy, Patrizio Bertelli of Luna Rossa/Prada quit the Cup in protest at the decision to change from the AC62 to the AC50s (‘an evident abuse of process by surreptitious use of procedures to modify the protocol’). After he did, he is widely rumoured to have given design tools and intellectual property to ETNZ, along with $30 million, provided that Luna Rossa would be challenger of record and instrumental in deciding the next class of boat, should ETNZ win.

Left to right: Blair Tuke and Peter Burling.

Photo ACEA / Sander van der Borch

So ETNZ was kept going with this and funding from longtime backer Matteo de Nora, also a billionaire Italian businessman. He has many interests, head and heart, in New Zealand and is the prime mover in what Dalton has described as “a network” of businessmen backers.

But it couldn’t rival the deep pockets of Oracle Team USA. Dalton says: “We knew we couldn’t outspend them. If they had to outspend us five-to-one, if they had to do it seven-to-one, they would. So we knew we had to really, really push out there.”

Among the 20 points, “a big one” was that they had to invest in technology on a limited budget. “And we had to invest in the people who could handle that technology. We had to get our arms around this new generation of yachtsman very early on,” he says.

That meant being ruthless about who sailed. Dean Barker, now 41, was out.

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Dalton recalls a party at his house attended by Olympic medallist and 49er sailor Peter Burling. Burling and his crew Blair Tuke are from a different generation to the incumbents of the Cup such as Jimmy Spithill and Dean Barker.

They were part way through a campaign to better their Silver Medal at Weymouth in 2012 with a Gold in Rio. “Pete came to my house quietly and he said: “I want to be skipper or helmsman.’”

Dalton implies he said something along the lines of ‘You have a way to go’, but the seeds were sown. But because Burling and Tuke were campaigning for their Gold Medal in Rio, they didn’t return to the team until September last year. Until then, Ray Davies and Glenn Ashby were steering the boat.

The cycling, the control system and the foils were already in place, “done in long hours over the winter,” Dalton says, then the sailing set-up at least partly arranged around the skills and modus operandi of ‘Generation Skiff’.

ETNZ gave Burling and Tuke, along with wing trimmer Glenn Ashby, responsibility to sail in the style they favoured, the way you might a 49er. “We gave them the responsibility and didn’t shackle them to constraints,” says Dalton.

That investment in ‘Generation Skiff’ was pivotal. Those young guys in their twenties from a high performance dinghy background – that includes Nathan Outteridge on Artemis Racing, the team that actually took it closest to ETNZ – were a good choice: brave, but right.

“I think we’ve seen a generation shift,” observes former British America’s Cup sailor Andy Green. “There’s no question, 37 is old for that very athletic skiff generation. Five or six years ago these guys were [teenagers] and were getting into Moths and stuff like that.

“When you’re 37 [like Jimmy Spithill] and you’ve been 15 years in the America’s Cup you just didn’t do it in quite the same way. And I think they gave the responsibility around the boat much better,” comments Andy Green.

“Burling always says: ‘Well, we don’t really do these big team debriefs, Grant Dalton’s not really involved in them, Murray Jones is more of a sort of mentor rather than a coach.’ Because their Olympic process is the same every day and they’ve just moved that process into Cup sailing.”

Pete Burling had few controls to handle so he could steer the boat, look out, read the course, the opposition, the wind, and make up his own mind. It didn’t need a lot of continual coordination or consultation. “Pete is cool, analytical, mechanically minded,” Dalton observes.

Then there was Glenn Ashby. Ashby, also part of the 2013 crew, was vital and remains so, both in understanding technology and the part it played in how design would evolve and the boat be sailed. Dalton cites ‘Glenny’ digging his heels in over employing grinders as an example. Dalton wanted to select them; Ashby said no, not yet.

“He said to me: ‘No, we can’t, because if we do that now we will set up a pattern where they will influence the final decisions.’”

“There were many examples like that and the influence that Glenny has had on the campaign,” Dalton says. “It was all about knowing we had to be different and getting the right people who could think differently and knew what they were doing.”

Their ‘aggressive’ philosophy came to be epitomised by the cyclors labouring heads down, wing trimmer Glenn Ashby operating the joystick of his so-called Xbox and the cool-headed, expressionless Peter Burling sitting behind the wheel at the back ‘driving Miss Daisy’.

Underneath that, the technology they had vowed to invest in was at the heart of it all, the extreme foils coupled with an autopilot and revolutionary control system for the wingmast and daggerboard. Their fly-by-wire system pushed as close as the AC50 class rule allowed to ‘manual input’ and could produce stable flight from a fast, inherently unstable configuration.

Meanwhile, the other teams were pushing hard to improve and get faster. Some had been in Bermuda two years before the Cup training and testing. ETNZ arrived in April and were considered to be at a disadvantage.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that some kind of groupthink was inevitable. We know this happens in every area, in business management, design, finance. You benchmark against competitors and focus on marginally outperforming them – a game of fractions. ETNZ, dubbed the ’lone wolf’, was deliberately not part of this.

“You can understand in the environment where you’ve got a lot of teams sailing and working together for a year or two years. You all end up being very similar. You all look at each other, you’re all copying each other. So in the end you all group yourselves together,” says Kevin Shoebridge.

“That, as it turned out, was an advantage to us because we didn’t have that distraction. We just had a lot of faith in the direction we’d taken. It could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t. We had faith in our simulations.”

There were points when their approach was in doubt. Just after their race boat was launched in Auckland, the daggerboards broke and had to be redesigned. Then, on a breezy day during the playoffs, the light winds boards they raced with against Artemis Racing were taken too far up the range and, from then, were on the verge of delaminating.

Their approach also meant they entered the qualifiers with precious little racing experience. “We went in pretty green,” agrees Ashby.

“The semi-finals against Land Rover BAR were good for us and the challenger finals against Artemis was huge because that was the most intense racing we had. So when it came to the Cup we were sailing really, really well – we won most of the starts and controlled the racing.”

Grant Dalton, characteristically, is punchier – no love lost for Oracle. “Pete took it to Jimmy Spithill. He laid him out, frankly.”

What next for the Cup?

What now for ETNZ and the 36th America’s Cup in New Zealand? It won’t be happening in two years’ time, as the other challengers would have wished, and Grant Dalton has indicated other changes aimed, he says, at “doing the right thing.”

“It’s not a right to hold the America’s Cup, it’s a privilege,” Dalton says.

He promised to set out the new format of the 36th America’s Cup in New Zealand within weeks, to provide stability for future teams. And he has vowed to overturn a culture of winning at any cost.

“If you’re good enough to hold on to it, you will. The rules should not be written, in any shape or form, played or manipulated to make it easier for you to hold on to it. When we roll out our rules you will see that,” said Dalton.

It is no secret that New Zealand wants a stricter nationality rule, as do most of the public. Dalton says that is coming, but it won’t be prohibitive. “It has to be tiered. You will see a structure,” he hints. “But if you want to be Japanese, you’re going to have to be Japanese.”

Who will be in for the next Cup? Torbjörn Törnqvist, the oil trader backer of Artemis Racing, may go again. Land Rover BAR will almost certainly continue. The French team has no money, and it’s uncertain what SoftBank Team Japan will do. But Luna Rossa will be there and there are rumours that Alinghi may return too.

Larry Ellison. Photo Daniel Forster

And what of Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA, two times holders of the Cup? Larry Ellison was pictured in a spectator boat during the final, lopsided race, looking as if he had chewed a wasp. The Oracle camp has said nothing. We asked for an interview and were told: “Honestly, I doubt it.”

Some speculate that the team will disintegrate quickly, and its best minds be picked off by other groups. For now, the Coutts/Spithill/Ellison era is over.

When asked what next for him, Spithill replied: “I’ve got no idea. Absolutely no idea.”