Sailors crank up fitness to meet America’s Cup challenges
Sailors are still not widely viewed as traditional athletes, but the Cup sailors certainly view themselves that way
Emirates Team New Zealand races ahead of Oracle Team USA in front of Alcatraz Island during the America’s Cup finals in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
Craig Monk, a mountain of a mariner, remembers his first year in charge of physical training for an America’s Cup team. It was 1995 and Monk – all 280 pounds of him – was a grinder for Team New Zealand, which eventually won the Cup in San Diego.
“We had a bench press, and it was on the dock next to the boat, and a couple of dumbbells I brought from New Zealand that just rusted up basically,” Monk said. “That’s where it’s come from.”
Rust (and body fat) have more difficulty accumulating in today’s Cup. There is now nearly as much attention to fitness as there is to optimum hull shapes and shifts in the breeze.
Sailors are still not widely viewed as traditional athletes by the wider world, but the Cup sailors certainly view themselves that way in this era and many older sailors who participated in the last full-scale Cup, in Valencia, Spain, in 2007, have not been able to make the transition to the new, high-speed catamarans in use this year.
“In typical sailing races a long time ago, you’d come in and go out and the first thing you’d do is probably have a cold beer,” said James Spithill, the skipper and helmsman for Oracle Team USA, the Cup defender.
“The first thing we do now is have a protein shake and our recovery drink. Guys are in ice baths like NFL players, trying to let their bodies recover, so it’s just a completely different level now and a lot more similar to what I’ve seen when I go into a Major League Baseball locker room or a rugby locker room.”
Craig McFarlane, a New Zealander who is Oracle’s head physical trainer, has worked with world-class rugby union clubs, including Saracens in London.
“The heart-rate profiles of a 25- to 30-minute sailing race in these boats are exactly the same as a half of rugby union, but without the contact and the running,” McFarlane said. “People are still getting educated. It’s a new sport. They don’t realize how athletic it is.”
In truth, physical prowess has long been a necessity on America’s Cup yachts. Bowmen have needed to be agile. Grinders have needed to be powerhouses to keep cranking the handles that adjust the sails. But this year’s Cup has taken the “game,” as sailors like to call it, to a higher level and expanded the demands on the entire crew. Unlike the enormous multihulls used in 2010, the AC72s are not allowed to make use of stored energy, which means that the 11-man teams must power the hydraulics manually at grinding stations to raise or lower the daggerboards and adjust the huge wing sail that is the yacht’s primary engine.