Cult America’s Cup: the black magic of Tom Schnackenberg

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Tom Schnackenberg. NZL Yachting Photos.

In this sailing-rich 2024, October’s America’s Cup in Barcelona is one of the highlights of a menu that also includes the Olympics and Vendée Globe. In the coming months, the Sailing Newspaper will devote a column to “cult” characters and stories that have written pages of Old Jug history, starting today, with a designer who literally revolutionized the America’s Cup with his insights.

His name is Tom Schnackenberg, the most feared moustache in the history of the ancient trophy, who put more than a hand in the collapse of American rule that lasted more than 100 years. Let’s go find out why his name now finds a place in the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

Tiger Tom Schnackenberg

Thomas William Schnackenberg, a New Zealander born in 1945, a physicist, at not even 30 years of age was part of the group of “tigers” who, with Lowell North, contributed to the worldwide success of the North Sails sailmaker, which would shortly make its debut in the America’s Cup as well.

Schnackenberg was a pioneer in the development of modeling software applied to sails, creating a database of profiles that would be key to his and one of North Sails’ success. America’s Cup landing, with Schnackenberg at the sail program and North as skipper, occurred in 77′ with Enterprise, which, however, did not pass the internal selection for the American defender.

Tom Schnackenberg, America’s Cup success.

Liberty and Australian II during the final act of the 1983 America's Cup.
Liberty and Australian II during the final act of the 1983 America’s Cup.

1983 for the America’s Cup was the breakthrough year, and Schnackenberg played an important role in what happened in Newport, Rhode Island. The New Zealander was the sail manager of Australia II, the union led by John Bertrand and Alan Bond, and for the Kangaroos he devised the very first triradial-cut bow sails, using Kevlar. Australia II with these particular genoa, and thanks to the famous fin keel, achieved the feat by interrupting the 132-year Star Spangled Banner dominance.

Schnackenberg’s bond with the Cup is only just beginning, however, as he will shortly become a staple of New Zealand’s challenges. In 1995, the mustache’s second “paw”: he became coordinator of Team New Zealand’s design department, designed the sails and was the navigator of NZL 32, whose hull was signed Davidson-Peterson. It was the boat helmed by Russell Coutts, the Black Magic with which the Kiwis defeated the Americans 5-0 in San Diego and won the America’s Cup for the first time. All under the guidance of Sir Peter Blake.

Also coming to terms with Schnackenberg’s insights will be Luna Rossa in Auckland in 2000. Schnackenberg was head of New Zealand design and signed with Laurie Davidson the legendary NZL 60, Black Magic IV, as well as designing its sails and serving as navigator.

Tom Schnackenberg, the America’s Cup match of 2000.

Team New Zealand, NZL60 and Luna Rossa ITA45. Notice the net difference in the shape of the two bows.

In Italy, cheers were raging for Luna Rossa, with its ITA 45, an aesthetically beautiful and harmonious, very fast boat that seemed to be able to challenge the New Zealanders. Or so it was believed in Italy immediately after the “keel ceremony,” when even the defender was forced to show, after months of secrecy, the entire hull publicly. NZL 60’s somewhat stocky bow, more angular shapes, almost made the home audience smile, but the cold shower came with a peremptory 5-0 signature Kiwi win.

The New Zealand boat, with that angular bow, was able to increase its length at the waterline from heeling, making it faster in all conditions. Fins forward of the bulb, and not aft as was usually done, improved tacking, and the Millenniun Rig, a special rig that allowed fewer spreaders and saved weight on the mast, made NZL 60 a virtually unbeatable war machine.

Looking at the trees, one notices the smaller number of crosses on the one of Team New Zealand

It can be said that behind New Zealand’s winning history in the America’s Cup, behind Peter Blake’s early challenges, a key figure was Schnackenberg himself, in addition to the better known Russel Coutts or Brad Butterworth, the super stars of the Kiwi cockpit. The New Zealander also moved on in 2007 from Luna Rossa, but in a more secondary role as a performance analyst, and then again with Alinghi and Artemis Racing.

For his insights, for his contribution to America’s Cup history, first with the Australia II victory and then with the New Zealand challenges, Tom Schnackenberg is one of the most influential figures in the Old Pitcher saga.

Mauro Giuffrè

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