America’s Cup and Olympic classes: where are the new sailors coming from?

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America's Cup
Marco Gradoni at the helm of Leq, Luna Rossa’s AC 75 prototype

America’s Cup and Olympic Classes. We have talked at length in recent weeks about the America’s Cup about how a transformation of the typical sailor who goes after the Old Pitcher is underway.

There was a time when theCup was the last step in a career to which one arrived as a mature sailor, with a few notable exceptions, after a major rigmarole in historic Olympic classes such as Laser, 470, Finn. Today the world of the America’s Cup has changed, from the 2013 edition onward the boats have always been foil, and the world of Olympic classes has also changed at least in part.

Two Olympic classes in particular have helped change the type of sailors who make it to the America’s Cup: the 49er which has been an Olympic class since 2000 and the Nacra 17 which has been since Rio 2016. Boats that helped train new generations of sailors accustomed to high speeds. At the same time, single foil boats such as the Moth, which actually has genesis dating back to the 1920s but did not become a foiler until after 2000, also arrived. These facts helped form a new profile of sailors, which inevitably also ended up influencing the history of the America’s Cup, which was meanwhile changing its skin from displacement boats to foil.

America’s Cup – Where the new sailors are coming from

As is the case historically, the level of sailors involved in the America’s Cup is simply sidereal. As we used to tell, there used to be a time when sailors at the end of their careers, with a lot of experience behind them in Olympic, offshore and monotype classes, came to the Cup; today something has changed but certainly not the quality of the athletes. America’s Cup sailors today are on average younger than in the past, with input from Olympic classes remaining important but with differences.

This is also because America’s Cup boats are from a different era and appear more suited to sailors belonging to the younger generation, capable of tactical calling while sailing at 40-plus knots, and able to read the wind in “foiling” mode, when one no longer looks at the gusts that are behind one’s back but only at those to go to the front, as the boats double or triple the wind speed.

Nacra 17 and 49er are the two Olympic classes that are providing more human material to America’s Cup teams in recent times. Team New Zealand is well aware of this, which in addition to multiple 49er medalists Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, who already boast two America’s Cups on their books, has also added Australian-born, New Zealand-passported Nathan Outteridge to have the option of double helmsman. And how important “flying” sailors can be on the AC 75 is also known by Luna Rossa, which has drawn heavily from the Italian Nacra 17 class by hiring Olympic gold medalist Ruggero Tita and Vittorio Bissaro.

Francesco Bruni, on the other hand, is the case of the older generation but multifaceted sailor, who in his history has gone from “classic” boats such as Laser and Star, but also has experience in 49er (one Olympics) and Moth where he has been racing at the highest level for a long time.

Speaking of Luna Rossa, there is the subject of Gradoni: at 19 years old, the young helmsman escapes the patterns just described. Optimist, a quick transition between 29er and 49er and then 470, no particular background in flying sails, but an innate confidence with America’s Cup boat simulators that made him immediately important inside the team, even to the point of competing with the senators for a place at the helm. After all, Gradoni also comes from generations accustomed to consoles and video games, so it is not surprising that with a joystick in his hand he immediately understood what the dynamics of “gaming” were.

American Magic instead fished for the helm two laserists with Olympic medals around their necks, such as Paul Goodison and Tom Slingsby, both of whom, however, have been Moth World Champions three times apiece (the last in 2017 and 2021, respectively), and have flying sails in their background.

America’s Cup – The Britannia case and the other teams

Then there is the exception Ineos Britannia, which ever since it began its America’s Cup hunt from the Bermuda edition, has as its leader multiple medalist Ben Ainslie, trained on Laser and Finn primarily, but with experience in the foil Cup starting in San Francisco 2013 with Oracle. Giles Scott, the other technical leader of the British team, is also a finnist.

Two sailors with a more classical profile than the rampant Kiwis, or even the Luna Rossa figures themselves. Is this enough to explain the difficulties of the British seen in their participations? It’s hard to say where the sailors’ limitations end and those of a design team that since Bermuda 2017 has struggled to deliver a competitive boat to Anslie and co.

The backgrounds of the Alinghi Red Bull Racing sailors and the helmsmen in particular are also interesting. Skipper and helmsman Arnaud Psarofaghis for example has won two European Moth titles and a world bronze, but he has also done many multihulls in his career between GC32 and Extreme 40.

In Orient Express, the “foil quota” is mainly represented by Quentin Delapierre, who even more than Kevin Peponnet has experience on flying boats having raced for a long time in Nacra 17.

Mauro Giuffrè

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