America’s Cup: What makes a great helmsman?

Published on March 6th, 2021

With the America’s Cup first-to-seven showdown about to begin, Suzanne McFadden of asks a six-time winner how much could it come down to the helmsmen.

Murray Jones knows the exact essence of what makes an America’s Cup helmsman great. A phenomenal Kiwi sailor in his own right, Jones has worked alongside some of the most masterful drivers to have ever fought over the 170-year-old trophy.

Known as “Captain”, Jones has won the Auld Mug six times. This is the first America’s Cup since Team NZ’s historic victory in 1995 he hasn’t been caught up in a campaign. “I miss it a little bit,” he admits.

He called tactics and helped spot the wind for Sir Russell Coutts in three victorious Cup campaigns – as Coutts set a record of 14 consecutive America’s Cup race wins and finished his Cup sailing career unbeaten.

An America’s Cup hall of famer, Jones worked with then Oracle helmsman Jimmy Spithill and helped mastermind the American team’s come-from-behind slaying of Emirates Team New Zealand in San Francisco in 2013.

Then he was called into Team New Zealand for the final six months of their 2017 campaign, as the performance coach to helmsman Burling and his crew. Burling – who at 26 became the youngest helmsman to win the prized silver ewer – credited Jones as being crucial to New Zealand’s success in Bermuda.

Jones rates all three helmsmen among the very best this competition for the world’s oldest sporting trophy has seen. He’s witnessed their genius, and their shortcomings too.

He ranks Coutts as the best helmsman he’s ever sailed with, and sees many similarities in fellow Olympic gold medalist Burling (who in his fledgling Cup career has notched up eight wins and one loss).

There are parallels, he says, in the way they make quick decisions – and frequently the right calls – while still being able to see the bigger picture. There’s their shared understanding of the mechanics and fluidity of a boat, borne out of their engineering backgrounds. And their vital ability to communicate with their crew.

Spithill, now sharing the wheels of Cup challenger Luna Rossa with first-time Cup helmsman Francesco Bruni, is a different character again.

His America’s Cup record equals Coutts’ 14 wins, but the Aussie battler has also suffered 16 race losses (remember the America’s Cup matches are much longer these days). He’s aggressive, fiercely competitive, yet cool and calm under pressure. He knows how to niggle off the water and he knows how to win on it.

But just how important is a helmsman’s role in winning the America’s Cup? Will a two-helmsman set-up be better than one in the first-to-seven match, slated to start on March 10?

“I think the helmsman is really important,” Jones says. “But it comes down to their attitude and their communication. It’s not just about driving a boat.

“When Russell was helming, we had an exceptional team that worked exceptionally well together and we developed fast boats. We had a package that was good in every respect.

“That’s not to say it can’t be done now. I believe Team New Zealand has the same formula.”

Before there was Coutts and another Cup legend, Dennis Conner (with 13 wins at the wheel), pint-sized Scotsman Charlie Barr (above) was the most successful America’s Cup helmsman – almost a century before them.

Tough and fearless, Captain Barr steered American boats to victory for the New York Yacht Club in three consecutive Cup regattas – Columbia in both 1899 and 1901, and Reliance in 1903.

They were all 3-0 whitewashes, and all over another Scotsman, tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton and his fleet of Shamrock yachts.

Then moustachioed and bespectacled, Barr was described as “a formidable skipper, an adroit strategist, exploiting the weaknesses of his adversary relentlessly.”

He was aggressive at the startline, knew every sailing rule, and he took chances with the boats in his care. No helmsman rivaled him during his reign.

Coutts equalled Barr’s record of nine straight wins during the 2000 America’s Cup in Auckland, and could have claimed the record outright the next day, but instead handed the wheel to a young Dean Barker for the final race against Prada that kept the Auld Mug in New Zealand – until Coutts took it to Switzerland in 2003.

There are good helmsmen, and then there are great ones, Jones says. “It comes from the person themselves as much as their skills as a sailor.

“Some of the qualities I see that make a really great helmsman is an ability to think and process information very quickly, and then be able to prioritize and make an instantaneous decision. But still keep the big picture in mind; the overall picture of what you’re trying to achieve.

“In a match race, when things happen quickly, it was like Russell was viewing it all from above, watching the whole thing play out. He had the ability to see it all in his mind.”

A top helmsman needs to be calm and communicate clearly with the crew, and generally has the best feeling of the boat – feeling its power or balance through the wheel. “If they have a really good feeling of that and an understanding of the design of the boat, they should be able to communicate that well to the crew,” Jones says.

That’s an area where 30-year-old Burling has an advantage over his rivals. Although he only completed half of his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Auckland, he’s built on his knowledge considerably by contributing to the design phase of Team NZ’s campaign.

“That’s one of the things that makes a big difference,” Jones says. “When you have guys like Peter and Russell, who are both motivated to understand all the design aspects of the boat, that really helps them to make the boat faster on the water. And they can channel good feedback from sailing the boat back to the design team.

“That’s probably one of the biggest factors in the success of a campaign.”

Spithill, in his seventh Cup campaign, also has a huge interest in boat design. “You have to, these days,” Jones says. “But I would say that aspect isn’t Jimmy’s passion, and he doesn’t have the engineering background.

“But he’s very, very good. Jimmy is an athlete and a really fierce competitor. He’s super motivated, dedicated, and he has the ability to be fairly calm under pressure which I think helps him.”

A two-time America’s Cup champion, Spithill is also a master of the mind games. Media savour his appearances at the press conferences, where he sometimes slips in the odd jab at his adversaries.

But Burling proved in Bermuda that he wasn’t fazed. “Someone else might go away and think about it all night, but for Peter, it just doesn’t bother him all,” says Jones. “Last time he held his own; he’s a very quick thinker. I think he finds it all amusing.”

Of course, Spithill isn’t always the envoy for Luna Rossa in Auckland. Bruni – a versatile and hugely respected sailor the world over – is also an eloquent speaker. And neither men are the skipper – a role reserved for veteran Max Sirena, who’s on the Luna Rossa chase boat, not the AC75.

In the time between the PRADA Cup and the America’s Cup, Burling and sail trimmer Glenn Ashby have been replicating Luna Rossa’s model of dual helmsmen – particularly in the pre-start box.

Having Spithill on the starboard wheel and Bruni on port – one trimming the foils while the other steers – paid dividends, but only after they realized they needed to communicate better with the rest of their crew.

“It feels like in close combat situations, we may have a small edge there,” Bruni said on their way to a 7-1 PRADA Cup victory over INEOS TEAM UK (who had only skipper Sir Ben Ainslie steering).

Jones believes there are advantages and disadvantages: “But there may not be a right or wrong.”

The disadvantage is in the tactics, he says. “The helmsman tends to be a tactician too, but on just one tack which is pretty limiting. It’s important to see the whole picture. But that’s where time and trust comes in.”

But he can see why Emirates Team New Zealand have been trialing the set-up and will likely stick with it for at least the start of races.

“There are a few maneuvers which I think we’ll see Emirates Team New Zealand do more in the pre-starts that will be too quick for Peter to change sides. So you will find Glenn will steer the port side and Peter will steer on the starboard side in the pre-starts – and in some of the really tight maneuvers around the course,” says Jones. This week they were spotted staying in their spots in tacks and gybes during training.

Starts are an area Emirates Team New Zealand have done a lot of work on since they won the America’s Cup World Series before Christmas, which Jones says has led to some “alternative strategies”.

Jones doesn’t hesitate to predict a winner in the best-of-13 race match, that must finish by March 21.

“I think Emirates Team New Zealand will win easily. I think they will be significantly faster,” he says. “They’ve had a massive advantage – they really haven’t missed a day since they left Bermuda, while the others had to rebuild or start from scratch. I just hope it’s not a complete whitewash.”

More information:
• America’s Cup format, standings, and how to watch online: click here.
• Complete America’s Cup coverage: click here
• Additional America’s Cup information: click here

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