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James Lyne: Coaching American Magic

Published on June 9th, 2019

James Lyne

by Chris Szepessy, WindCheck Magazine
New York Yacht Club American Magic has assembled many of the world’s best sailors to challenge for the 36th America’s Cup presented by Prada, and guiding them toward triumph in Auckland in March 2021 is one of the finest coaches in the sport. A resident of Granville, VT, James Lyne has won multiple world championships in the TP52, Maxi 72, Farr 40, Melges 24 and Melges 20 classes.

WindCheck: Where did you grow up, and how old were you when you started sailing?

James Lyne: I grew up in Whitby in North Yorkshire, England. It’s a little fishing village on the North Sea. I think I was taken sailing by my parents as a baby. My earliest memory of sailing is frostbite racing in a Mirror dinghy at age 5, with my dad.

WC: Who are your sailing mentors, and what are the most important things you learned from them?

JL: My dad is number one. His work ethic was, “Nobody outworks Nick Lyne,” sprinkled with a bit of Yorkshire grit (stubbornness) and laser focus to the task at hand. Terry Hutchinson [New York Yacht Club American Magic’s Skipper and Executive Director] is another. He is constant proof that mental toughness wins regattas, and that a “drive to win” is everything.

WC: Please tell us about the path that brought you to New York Yacht Club American Magic.

JL: It’s been a long and enjoyable path. I did youth sailing in Lasers, then Olympic sailing in the Flying Dutchman and Finn. I’ve done America’s Cups with British and Italian teams. I coached the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Then it was on into one-design keelboats and grand prix racing programs as a coach.

I have been lucky to work with very high quality teams and owners, such as Quantum Racing, Bella Mente, Samba Pa Ti, Plenty, Barking Mad, Volpe and Delta, just to name a few. The path certainly has not been linear. It has had the highs of 16 world championship wins and the lows of coaching a team that missed an Olympic medal by inches in the medal race.

Perhaps the latter has been the bigger stick in shaping my coaching career. If someone asked me what the key was to my sailing career, it would be “I keep showing up every day. If I show up for enough days, over many years, opportunities will come my way.”

That’s been my general path to coaching American Magic, but the direct path has been the working alongside Terry Hutchinson since 2013. I was lucky enough to be coaching Barking Mad, the Farr 40, when Terry came back from America’s Cup sailing. I have been fortunate to have been involved with all of Terry’s programs since then.

WC: Does American Magic have team members from the Quantum Racing and/or Belle Mente crews?

JL: We have a core group who cross through all three programs, but probably the most exciting aspect is the addition of a lot of great young American sailors into the programs, including Andrew Campbell, Bora Gulari, Cooper Dressler, Alex Sinclair, Dave Hughes, Caleb Paine, and Luke Muller and Nick Dana.

WC: How is coaching an America’s Cup team different from coaching Olympic sailors or an offshore racing team?

JL: The essence of my daily coaching does not change. However, on this AC program, the tools and the technical support that are available to me as a coach to try and shorten the learning rate of the sailing team is at another level. We get to look with more detail into potential areas of gain or improvement on a daily basis.

WC: What are the day-to-day responsibilities of an America’s Cup coach, and how do you measure progress?

JL: I am responsible for the overall on-the-water operation. Therefore, I have toes in several of the areas that need to be in place for us to operate safely and efficiently. Day to day, we need to put out a plan and determine a sailing roster for the day. Then we have my normal coaching work on the water and a debrief on land to help and support the learning process by the sailing team. I have a responsibility to determine if the conditions or state of the yacht is outside our agreed-upon operating conditions, and I call a stop to sailing if necessary.

In all of this, I am just one part of a very talented and experienced group of professionals. This means that my biggest responsibility is listening to the expert at hand to help make the daily decisions that need to be made. Measuring progress is often seen as a multi-million dollar question in AC programs. This can be quite straightforward, as we have several metrics for that.

The underlying questions are always, “Are we faster today than yesterday, and what plans are we making to go faster tomorrow?” These are what we always try to answer. However, the real fundamental AC question is how much progress we need to make from day one of the campaign to win the America’s Cup. If we could answer that early rather than in hindsight, that would be the holy grail.

WC: American Magic has some of the world’s best sailors on the roster, so how do you identify areas in need of improvement and convey that information to the team?

JL: We have a mantra of continuous improvement at American Magic. Everybody buys into this philosophy, which makes them very easy to coach. Ninety percent of the time this is just about presenting visuals, data and posing the right questions to the sailing team. This facilitates making a breakthrough or achieving greater understanding.

Coaching at this level is not about trying to teach these sailors. They are already world-class. It is about linking several patterns to help them understand. As I see it, the sailors are self-learning, and the Coach just has to provide the tools for it to happen fast and efficiently.

WC: How do you earn the respect of such elite sailors and get them to listen to your advice?

JL: Make sure when you say something it is correct, timely and valid. Sometimes you have to coach by osmosis, and sometimes with the velvet sledgehammer to get your point across. Deciding when to use each one is key.

WC: Are you also involved with the team’s off-the-water training, including conditioning and strength training?

JL: American Magic’s conditioning program is run by Cup vets Ryan West and Baden Cashmore. They are the professionals when it comes to developing sailing athletes. I am in daily contact with both about injuries, energy levels, gym schedules, and more.

WC: What’s your advice for young WindCheck readers aspiring to sail in the America’s Cup?

JL: Learn from Cooper Dressler. He started off sweeping the floor at ORACLE Team USA in Bermuda. He worked hard, kept his head down, went to the gym when he was not doing other jobs, and eventually made the best of an opportunity to go sailing with the team.

Cooper sailed the majority of AC races in Bermuda, became a world champion in the TP52 class with Quantum Racing, and is now one of the top grinders in world sailing. It’s not the job you start with; it’s the opportunity you give yourself for your dream job in the future.

WC: Thank you very much James. We look forward to seeing you add “America’s Cup Champion” to your CV!

Editor’s note: Thanks for this interview goes to WindCheck, an outstanding monthly magazine devoted to sailors, boaters, and people who enjoy the waters of the Northeast. Special thanks to New York Yacht Club American Magic Communications Director Will Ricketson for facilitating this interview.

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