49er Teams Rising to the Top Within America’s Cup

It’s long been observed in 49er sailing about how long teams stick together for.  There have been so many brother combinations some joke about the edge they get training together since birth.  While these observations are amusing in Olympic campaigns, there may be more to it.  As America’s Cups squads decide their staring line ups, we’re seeing 49er pairings working their way to the top ranks of pro sailing.

The 4 remaining AC teams can be split in two camps.  Team New Zealand and Oracle are legacy squads. They had teams first and adapted to the boats and format.  The other two teams, Artemis and Prada, have both been assembled around the unique challenge of the AC34 format and boats.  These teams searched for the best sailors they could find to challenge for the Cup and they both ended up with a 49er helmsman driving with 49er crew trimming the wing.

In the Semi Final of the Louis Vitton Cup the two challenge teams lined up one on one.  Prada started with a host of 49er helms vying for the driving position on board their AC 72.  Chris Draper, a 2 time 49er World Champions beat out Paul Campbell James and Iker Martinez, himself a 3 time 49er world champion and the Olympic Gold Medalist.  Paul ended up moving to the bow position, while Iker left the team.  What’s interesting and stayed mostly out of the press is that it’s Iker’s long time crew, Xabi Fernandez, who has moved into the wing trimmer position aboard Luna Rosa.

Xabi has been a ‘rock star’ crew from the very beginning.  A massive ‘engine’ who could keep up with Ikers unquenchable ambition and make it all happen.  They dominated the 49er fleet for 4 of their 10 years in the class, then jumped into ocean racing doing two Barcelona Round the world races and still managed to land on solid ground in time for the London games.  Xabi, a bike racer in his youth, has a huge breadth of sailing background now and is still young enough to be in his prime athletically.  As Draper white knuckles Luna Rosa through San Francisco, it’s Xabi who will be the man on the throttle, balancing the air driven portion of their flight.

Now over to Artemis.  Nathan Outteridge has been a sensation in sailing since winning 3 straight Youth World Championships.  After a sprint up the 49er standings to the top he’s collected Olympic Gold and 3 world championships in the 49er along with a Moth World championship.  Even still, it was a bit of a shock when Team Korea reached into the Olympic fleet to pick out a young gun for their AC45.  Nathan excelled in the pro arena and it wasn’t long before he was brought into one of the big teams, Artemis.  With Artemis planning a 2 boat campaign and plenty of experienced helmsmen around, it was no certainty that Nathan would see any racing time.  Of course, that’s all in the past as Nathan got behind the wheel of the AC45 and then quickly moved into the starting helmsman role in the 72.

What is new, however, is that his 49er crew, Iain Jensen, has moved into the role of wing trimmer aboard Artemis.  Goobs, as the sailing world calls Iain, was initially overlooked by AC recruiting has only been with Artemis for 6 months.  The pro sailing world is very tight knit and many of these AC groupings have been around for campaign after campaign.  What’s different in this cup is the shear sailing challenge has started to impact crewing choices as on the water skills are trumping sailing professionalism and experience.  Nath and Googs explain it here – there is no substitute for the teamwork between a 49er helm and crew.  What the sailing world is also finding out is that there is other crewing position in sailing as involved in ‘driving’ as a 49er crew.

One must wonder if the other 2 teams, Oracle and Team New Zealand, would be doing the same if they hadn’t started with ‘skippers’ leading their campaigns before the boats were well understood.  When the AC moved to cats, many assumed it would be the Tornado sailors turn to shine, but some 49er sailors also got a chance.  Initially, what seemed to be helping the 49er sailors rise to the top was the short course format within 49er sailing that prepared these sailors to go quick and make quick decisions.  We’ve now moved from the fleet racing stage to the match racing portion, the boats have grown and the number of skilled sailing positions is fewer than ever, yet we’re seeing 49er sailors able to land key jobs.

We’ve seen top 49er helms land pro jobs for a few years now, with 3 of the 6 Volvo Ocean Race boats helmed by 49er alum, but now, at last, it’s the 49er crews turn to shine!  Good luck to all the 49er alum as racing gets under way for AC. We’ll see you all soon at the 2013 49er World Championships which starts 3 days after the AC ends so these teams can jump back into skiffs.  It will only be a matter of time before 49erFX alum start making their mark in pro sailing too!