AMERICA’S Cup teams are returning to the water in varying degrees nearly two months after the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of what would have been an impressive global road show.
After a mandatory five-week lockdown was lifted recently, defending champion Emirates Team New Zealand returned to training on Auckland's Waitemata Harbor with its half-size test boat, Te Kahu (The Hawk). The Kiwis don't have access to their 75-foot race boat, Te Aihe (The Dolphin), because it's still being shipped back from Italy after a preliminary regatta scheduled for late April was canceled.
By Monday or Tuesday, the New York Yacht Club's yacht Defiant and the accompanying containers and chase boats will be headed from Pensacola, Florida, to Auckland on a 500-foot ship. American Magic will be the first of the three challengers to arrive in Auckland, sometime in early to mid-June. The other two challengers, INEOS Team UK, headed by Sir Ben Ainslie, and Italy's Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team, are expected to train at their home bases through the summer, operating within safety protocols.
If not for the pandemic, the four teams already would have seen their fantastical-looking new boats in action, flying across the waves on hydrofoils at heart-stopping speeds.
But in mid-March, with Italy already a hot spot for the new coronavirus, officials canceled the America's Cup World Series opener that had been scheduled for late April in Cagliari on Sardinia. About 10 days later, officials scrubbed an ACWS stop set for early June in Portsmouth, England.
The final ACWS regatta is scheduled for Dec. 17-20 in Auckland. The Prada Cup for challengers is set for Jan. 15-Feb. 22, with the winner advancing to face Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th America's Cup March 6-21.
"This is one of those situations none of the teams planned for," American Magic skipper and executive director Terry Hutchinson said in a phone interview. "It's a pivotal time for all the programs. We have to maintain a certain level of focus on what we're doing. A lot of the team is still working hard. The only thing that's pulled back now is the sailing operation. It's hard."
Moving the boats was already a big logistical task even before the pandemic struck. Team New Zealand's race boat was on a cargo ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean when the Cagliari regatta was scrubbed. INEOS Team UK was already in Cagliari for winter training and was able to get its boat back to England.
American Magic last sailed Defiant in Pensacola on March 5. The team was a few days away from shipping its boat to Cagliari when that regatta was called off. Hutchinson said the syndicate lucked out by not shipping the yacht.
"That would have been catastrophic. Basically we would have lost control of all our assets," he said. "Fortunately, things went in the manner they did. I don't think any of the teams got a break because all of teams want to be racing right now."
While American Magic shut down sailing for safety reasons, it continued to make improvements to its boat. The crew worked on staying in shape by using a makeshift gym. Additionally, grinding machines were set up in the apartments and condos of the crew members who turn the winches that provide power for trimming sails and raising and lowering the foils. Helmsman Dean Barker used a simulator at his house.
Of the 11 crew members, eight have to grind, including Hutchinson.
"It's a love-hate relationship," Hutchinson said of using the grinding machine. "Design and manufacturing are all 100%. The part of the team that gets impacted the most is the sailors. From that perspective, the whole goal has to be, and will continue to be, to maintain the level of fitness we're at, not go backward."
Some American Magic crew are New Zealand citizens who have returned home and already have gone through the 14-day quarantine. A few more will return to New Zealand and be ready to help unload the boat and other equipment.
Construction of American Magic's second boat has continued in Rhode Island, where shifts had to be spread out to meet health requirements. When that boat is finished in late August, it will be flown to Auckland, a more expensive option, but by then time will be critical.
Prep work has resumed on its Auckland base, which will consist mainly of containers that will accompany Defiant.
Hutchinson isn't sure when the rest of the team will head to Auckland.
He praised New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response to the pandemic, likening it to a crew that reefs its mainsail in rough weather.
"Leading something like that is hard to do, but they made an aggressive decision and we give them nothing but high marks," Hutchinson said. "If you're the first team to reef when it gets rough, you continue to race hard through the storm, and as the storm starts to ease, you're the first to continue to race hard."
New Zealand reduced its Level 4 lockdown to Level 3 in late April, allowing the Kiwis to resume sailing and work on their second boat and base. Team New Zealand must make up the estimated 8,000 man hours of work on its second boat it lost during the five-week lockdown. All on-the-water testing ceased as well.
Te Aihe is expected back by early June.
INEOS Team UK said its base in New Zealand was ahead of schedule when the lockdown began.
Luna Rossa plans to remain in Cagliari until the end of September before relocating to New Zealand.