I remember it like yesterday. Strolling through the university sports exhibition day: an opportunity for the various student bodies to showcase their societal camaraderie and recruit new talent to their teams.
Backing myself as an athlete (or at least, that was what I was primarily at uni to do – the academic course a mere side note), I wandered up to the Sailing Club stand with confidence.
There was one man, one piece of apparatus, and one white board. The scores on the board reflected the fastest times that day for “trimming the sails”. The challenge set up turned out to be a full-body sprint primarily focused on the deltoids and upper back and arms.
The apparatus was essentially a seated, handheld pedal bike with added resistance. No doubt you will have seen crew doing this on TV during the Olympics or America’s Cup.
I went in all guns blazing and it really blew me away how much of a physical test it was. From that moment, I was hooked.
I wondered how it was that we don’t talk about these sailors as prime athletes? I always knew there was massive strategic knowhow in sailing – but didn’t appreciate the huge physical challenge they have to undergo.
So, when the opportunity arose recently (many years after that first university experience, I must admit) to chat to the Alinghi Red Bull Racing America’s Cup team in Spain about their various roles in the boat, how they approach incremental performance improvements year on year, and of course how everyone in the team relies on Tudor’s watches, I was all in.
Let’s start with a little background for the uninitiated. The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy in the world dating back to 1851. The New York Yacht Club held the trophy for 132 years before losing it in 1983 to Australia. The unique format of the Cup sees the Defender of the trophy automatically entitled to race in the final ‘Match’ whereas the Challengers will undertake a series to find the top yacht to take on the reigning champion.
The America’s Cup is a race with no second place. Either you win or you lose. Team Alinghi Red Bull Racing is one of the most successful teams in the history of the Cup so there were some butterflies in the stomach ahead of meeting them in Barcelona.
The America’s Cup is a race with no second place. Either you win or you lose.
Founded in 2000 by Swiss entrepreneur Ernesto Bertarelli, the team’s goal was simple: to win this hallowed trophy. And they did it for the first time in 2003, beating Team New Zealand in a pulsating seven-race series. The opportunity to meet and geek out with the team is a rare one, so I took full advantage and met both crew men and designers.
The first on my roster was Bryan Mettraux, a member of the sailing team’s Driving Group. His path first crossed with Alinghi’s when he was 14 years old and invited on board the D35 to follow a training session. Five years later, he was a fully fledged member of the crew.
Although this is his first America’s Cup, I was interested to see how much change he’d seen in his career so far. He opened up by telling me that, “Training nowadays is all about getting more and more data to get the boat more efficient. It’s a big part of our training – to collect data. This is quite new in sailing. It looks more like what the F1 world does, rather than what sailing was in the past”.
For those who aren’t familiar with the two groups (Driving and Power), the demands are very different. “For me, as a trimmer in the Driving Group, it’s more the mental part that is important. I don’t have a physical job on board. My role is to control the foil, with systems that we use to trim the foil, and this makes the boat fly. Concentration is really demanding for me, I have to be really focused to fly the boat. While the Power Group trains in the gym to be ready for sailing, for the Driving Group, it’s different: being on the boat is training for us. But before going on the AC75, we practised a lot on the simulator, and we did cognitive training with our physical coach in the gym as well.”
Of course, he loves watches; I spotted his team Tudor Black Bay a mile off. “Everything is about timing, in the whole project. In Alinghi Red Bull Racing, we’re more than 100 people and the only way to be able to work properly together is to respect the timing of each person. On the water, in the procedure before the start… everything is about timing. It’s not only about being on the start line at the right time, but doing the right thing (manoeuvre, decision, communication) at the right time. When I look at this Black Bay, it reminds me of all the effort it took to get here.”
Later in the day, I had the chance to sit down with one of the design team, Mr Dolfo Carrau. I was keen to ask him how things had evolved when it came to the technical elements of the boat itself: “We are currently at the halfway point of the new AC75 racing boat design,” he explained. “Compared to the previous generation boats, this will be a big step forward in terms of aerodynamic and hydrodynamic performance. Our understanding of the design challenge is much higher and also our design tools have been improved to extract the maximum performance of the AC75.
“The crew cockpits layouts and cyclor team general arrangement will be an interesting feature of the new boats.”
Given what Mettraux had mentioned to me earlier about the comparison to Formula 1, I wondered if there was a similar legislatorary shift going on in the America’s Cup. “During the last America’s Cup cycle, we had 27 rule versions and upgrades,” explains Carrau. “In this cycle, we are already on version 13. The Rule is continuously being challenged by the competitors and the rules committee needs to find unanimous consensus to amend it, so it’s a big part of the game and it involves a big part of our design team.”
I’ve long been fascinated with materials innovation, both within the watch industry and performance worlds. It was interesting to hear Dolfo’s take: “The materials’ mechanical properties are restricted by the AC75 Rule; most of the materials need to be commercially available to limit spending on exotic materials R&D. The future AC75 design needs to be the fastest in the Barcelona racecourse during the months of September and October 2024, when the AC37 will be held.
“So, the performance tradeoffs are found by having a really good understanding of the wind and wave conditions to be expected, and targeting a design to maximise performance in a very defined weather range. Once the main concept is defined, the last bit of performance is found by then optimising every aspect of the boat to the nth degree. We are very meticulous with every single detail found on our new race yacht, and look for the lightest and most efficient solution in every area”.
Team Alinghi have been supported by Tudor since 2019, a match made in heaven. There are genuinely few mechanical watches I would feel comfortable putting through its paces in an America’s Cup challenge. A rock-solid Tudor would be one of them.
The partnership resulted in a limited-edition Tudor x Team Alinghi Black Bay, inspired by the colours of Team Alinghi’s logo, with a black dial, red accents, and a titanium case – and it’s naturally sported by the whole team.
Some partnerships don’t make sense; this one does. The synergy between precision engineering, technical excellence, and commitment to achieving greatness is evident in both sides. Nothing quite hits home like meeting the world’s best at anything to drive your appreciation for excellence. It was absolutely a day I won’t forget. And if you are new to yacht racing, be sure to tune into the 37th America’s Cup from Barcelona next year – you can thank me later.
Check out more about the Alinghi Red Bull Racing America’s Cup team here. For more on Tudor, see tudorwatch.com