How banter has become the latest weapon in America's Cup espionage
Spying and the America’s Cup go together like gin and tonic, or Mills and Clark. With design rules that limit the opportunity for technical dominance, it is no surprise teams spend time and money scoping their rivals. As Dennis Conner, the legendary American who won the Auld Mug four times in the 1970s and 80s once said: “It’s not the sailing that wins the Cup, it’s the equipment.”
All six teams are now bedding down in Bermuda as the countdown towards May begins in earnest, having covered each and every move the competition has made in waters around the world.
It may not have the subtlety of old, when some campaigns even featured helicopters, frogmen and straightforward theft, but with the teams training out on the Sound, the noise of clicking shutters can often be heard above the wind.
A slight change to the angle of a foil or the dimensions of a rudder can make the critical difference in this short-form sprint racing. No one wants to be left behind.
“It’s not quite as covert as it used to be, but there’s a lot of observation of other teams,” said Sir Ben Ainslie, skipper of the British team Land Rover BAR. “We don’t really have spying as we used to because we’re allowed within reason to take photos and videos of the other teams when you’re out on the water.”
Not like the old days, then, when spying missions even ended up with police arrests as teams stepped over the line in their attempts to gain information on technology and strategy.
In November 2012, Team New Zealand prepared two test boats, one with a new foil, one with the old, in a bid to throw Oracle off the scent. In 1985 British police arrested a man attempting to sell the British team’s keel design, while 10 years later, the Kiwi team actually boarded an Australian spy boat and stripped the man on board of his equipment – and his clothing.
But with the reconnaissance now brought out into the open, the sailors are reverting to an even older tactic to get ahead.
“There’s a lot of dock talk, a lot of misinformation flying around,” said Ainslie. “You can go and do a day’s sailing and get five different versions of what actually happened.
“You have to take it all with a pinch of salt and get on with it. There’s quite a bit of banter, jostling. We try to be as understated as we can. We’ve got a really good squad, with some young guys coming through and some older heads who know not to say too much.”
Ainslie has almost tripped himself up once or twice. He and his wife Georgie and their six-month-old daughter Bellatrix have taken a house on the island with a rather familiar neighbour.
“We’re living next door to Grant Simmer, the general manager at Oracle,” said Ainslie. “He and his wife Alex are very good friends of mine. I just have to be careful when I’m catching up not to say too much.
“It’s nice with all the other families here, it’s becoming quite a tight-knit community, and Georgie and Bellatrix are spending some time with them and building some relationships. It’s mostly within our team but it is a small world, and we’ve all sailed with different people on different campaigns and got to know other families.
There are some long-standing friendships too.
“But as you get closer to competition it can get a bit awkward not talking about the sailing and performance so it’s easier to stick with your own crowd as much as you can.”
[Main image by Harry KH/Land Rover BAR]