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.

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.

As a result, the running joke is that the job descriptions of the crew are now greatly simplified. “It’s almost one helmsman, one wing-sail trimmer and nine grinders,” said Iain Murray, a former America’s Cup skipper who is the regatta director for this Cup.

Even tacticians, like Oracle’s John Kostecki and Emirates Team New Zealand’s Ray Davies, are being pulled into grinding roles. Although the races are expected to be significantly shorter than in any recent Cup - less than 30 minutes - the aerobic demands are considerably bigger. “We measure wattage, we measure lactic acid and we measure a lot of things that have to do with endurance,” said Paul Cayard, a veteran America’s Cup helmsman who was chief executive of Artemis Racing, which was eliminated from this Cup in the challenger series.

“The difference,” Cayard said, “is that before you needed to be super strong for one, maximum two minutes, and now you need to be putting out high wattage for up to 40 minutes.”

Sailors also have to cover greater distances than when they switched sides in Cups past on a relatively narrow monohull at speeds under 20 knots. Now, they have to run across a wide trampoline at speeds potentially in excess of 40 knots.

“Previously, if you were a grinder you hardly even moved from a 1-meter-square box on the deck,” said David Slyfield, the trainer for Team New Zealand. “Now you have to get across a trampoline, and because our structure is different to Oracle, you’ve got to get over a couple of beams.”

“As the boat is turning, if you are bearing away or a maneuver like that, there are massive G-forces,” he added. “Our guys get knocked over a lot of the time just for the sheer power of the boat, so they come ashore with lots of different bruises and hematomas and things. Everything is far more extreme.”

Far more dangerous, too. On May 9, British sailor Andrew Simpson died in a training accident after an AC72 belonging to Artemis Racing capsized and broke apart. Simpson was trapped under the wreckage. The cause of death has yet to be announced.

Some, including Oracle Team USA’s owner, Larry Ellison, have suggested that Simpson’s death resulted from a freak set of circumstances, but it has increased the emphasis on safety.

“Until the Artemis tragedy, the general public really had no idea of the risks,” Slyfield said. “My sister said to me, ‘I didn’t know it was dangerous.’ I said, ‘Do you stand on the bonnet of your car at nearly 50 miles an hour and then slam the brakes on?’ The answer is no, but that’s what it’s like, and these guys don’t have a seat belt.”

They do have helmets, body armor and portable oxygen canisters. They also have heart-rate monitors and sophisticated recovery and computer-based fitness programs. Oracle uses a physiological monitoring system made by Zephyr.

“The Chilean mining disaster is when I first heard about the system about three years ago,” McFarlane said.

“They used the technology to monitor the vitals miles under the earth, so to speak, and now they’ve started branching into sport.”

Monk and his Artemis team converted a stationary cycle from the German Olympic training program into a sophisticated grinding station with handles instead of pedals that gave them high-level data to mine on each crew member. Team New Zealand is also using a grinding simulator that can break down the output of each sailor.

McFarlane oversaw the construction of a trampoline inside Oracle’s base that replicates the one on board the AC72.

“We’ve tried to upscale some of the guys who aren’t as good at crossing the tramp on the boat,” he explained. “Some are a bit slower and are unsure. You have to train that. A lot of these guys historically haven’t sailed catamarans.”

What strikes Spithill is how targeted the training is compared with past Cups.

“The guys will do this grinding cross-fit-style workout and right during the workout our trainers will come up with some sort of mental puzzle for them to solve while they are completely exhausted and give them very little time to do it,” he said. “That’s because decision-making while you’re exhausted is what you have to do on the boat.”

The mild surprise is that the youth movement is not more pronounced. Oracle has only three sailors in its starting 11 who are in their 20s. Team New Zealand, which is challenging Oracle, has no sailor in its core crew under 30 and Grant Dalton, 56, has a grinding role.

“We range from 32 to 54,” Slyfield said. “Nearly any other sport you care to think of, every one of these people would be retired. But they’re here because they have the skill and knowledge.

“So we’re trying to extract out of their bodies a performance you’d normally want to get out of a 20-year-old.” – (New York Times)