America’s Cup 2021: ‘Kiwi Kryptonite’ – meet the sailing legend who’s beaten Team New Zealand three times, and is back for more

If there is a reason to be wary of Ineos Team UK in the 2021 America’s Cup, it might be the presence of an understated 63-year-old Australian.

Of the three challengers, the British team has almost been dismissed as a serious threat, after their poor showing in December’s America’s Cup World Series, which revealed issues with boat speed and manoeuvrability.

There is a lot more focus on Luna Rossa, with the presence of Jimmy Spithill and the ongoing sparring with Team New Zealand, while American Magic have an obvious fascination, with Dean Barker and the return of the New York Yacht Club.

But if the Brits – and it’s a big if – can sort out their hardware problems, they have an all-star line-up, and chief executive Grant Simmer could be the icing on the cake.

Sir Ben Ainslie admitted he paid a premium to secure the services of the Sydneysider, as they continue a 169-year British quest for the Auld Mug.Probably no one in Auckland has more Cup experience than Simmer, embarking on his 11th campaign.

Simmer has also been on the winning side against Team New Zealand in a Cup match three times, though he laughs when it is suggested that he has been ‘kryptonite against the Kiwis’.

“No – far from it,” says Simmer. “That just tells you I have been lucky to be on the defender’s side. The Kiwis have always been the strongest challenger so they are pretty damn good.”

That might be so, but his resume tells a story. “Guys like Grant know the game, they know the Cup so well,” says former Team New Zealand sailor Joey Allen, a veteran of six campaigns, from 1995 to 2013.

“He was part of those big calls in San Francisco, where they made some monumentally huge decisions.”

“He knows the ins and out of a campaign better than most,” adds former New Zealand Challenge sailor Peter Lester, now an expert commentator. “He’s a really good man to have on your side.”

The last time the Cup was staged in Auckland (2003) Simmer was a key part of the Alinghi team in their smash-and-grab raid. Simmer was there again in Valencia in 2007, for probably the best Cup regatta in the IACC class boats, with the closest margins in history.

And Simmer was present in 2013, as general manager of the Oracle operation that made a famous comeback from an 8-1 deficit.

Of all the characters involved in this Cup edition, few have a record like Simmer. His career started in the early 1980s, as navigator for John Bertrand on Australia II, part of the legendary crew that beat Liberty 4-3 in 1983 to end the New York’s 132-year stranglehold on the Cup.

Simmer has been involved with four different teams and won the Cup four times (two challenges and two defences), in the United States, New Zealand and Europe.

He has been victorious against Team New Zealand on three occasions – no individual has managed more – and labels Grant Dalton’s syndicate as the ultimate benchmark.

What’s behind Team New Zealand’s enduring consistency? “There are three things,” says Simmer. “They are always innovative. They are good at focusing on priorities, because they struggle a bit for budget, so they have to focus on the priorities.

“And they have a really good depth of great sailors. There was Russell [Coutts], Brad [Butterworth], Warwick [Fleury], Simon [Daubney], Dean [Barker] and now Pete [Burling] and Blair [Tuke]… incredibly strong. That’s a great recipe for a successful team.”

Simmer’s encounters with Team New Zealand began in 2003, when he was head of design for Alinghi.

“It was a very controversial thing because we had Russell and Brad and a bunch of Kiwis from the 2000 winning crew who were the key sailors on our boat and driving the campaign as well,” says Simmer.

“It was modelled on what they had learnt from Team New Zealand and it was a strong challenge. We had a good boat, a good technical program and had gone through a pretty tough challenger series, [so] we were better prepared than the New Zealanders.”

Team New Zealand’s brittle NZL82 isn’t remembered fondly from the 5-0 sweep, but Simmer says it wasn’t completely straightforward.

“They had a really innovative design and they were probably the fastest boat we had met,” says Simmer.

“It wasn’t clear to us early on who was going to win. But our guys sailed incredibly well, and we were equal or slightly better for speed and that will normally do it for you. And they had the broken mast (fourth race) and breakdown [in the first race].”

Simmer was Alinghi’s managing director when they defended the Cup in Valencia, with an average winning margin of just 23 seconds across the seven races.

“There was nothing between those teams at all,” says Simmer. “Maybe we had a slight edge upwind, but it got down to starts and who was on the favoured side.”

After Oracle took the Cup in 2010, Coutts signed up Simmer ahead of the defence in San Francisco.

Oracle had assembled an impressive roster, but they were all at sea in the first half of the Cup contest.

“We never thought we could win,” says Simmer. “We were struggling to match the Kiwis for speed [and] we lost a lot of races early on. It was really Larry Ellison, together with Russell that said, ‘guys we have to stop…we are going to go down if we keep going like this’. They really forced us to make such radical changes.”

Simmer remembers being in awe of Team New Zealand at the time, who were way ahead with their foiling ability.

“We just had to keep making changes,” says Simmer. “We were able to load the wing a lot more down low, and we were able to foil upwind and ultimately we ended up faster and that turned the event around. Then it was a matter of recovering the points score without breaking down, but it was hard to imagine we could win that many races in a row.”

But Team New Zealand had learnt valuable lessons. “If you look at the Kiwis in Bermuda, they didn’t look like they were going to be the winners when they first arrived, but they kept on getting better and better,” says Simmer.

“Then they were so dominant in the Cup. You don’t want to ever stand still…you need to keep improving.”

When we speak Simmer is edgy, but excited. The construction of the second British boat (Britannia) took longer than expected, which put pressure on their already compressed time frame.

“It was always going to be tough,” says Simmer. “We were always going to struggle for time with this new boat and it was a balance. You give yourself more design time and then try to minimise the construction time so you can start sailing the boat as quickly as possible.

“But it’s a 75-foot long composite structure, incredibly highly loaded and lightweight so the construction process takes six to eight months and you can’t get shorter than that.

“I’m not happy that it has taken us longer to commission this boat than anticipated but the systems on the boat are very complicated.”

Simmer has been part of the journey from the 12-metre class to the AC75s, via the IACC class, the multihulls of 2010 and the initial foiling classes in 2013 (75-footers) and 2017 (50 footers).

He characterises the AC75 as “exciting, pretty challenging, expensive and complicated” in what was a “really bold” decision by the defenders and challenger of record.

Like most, Simmer has some concerns about potential disparities in the racing.

“I’m hoping we will see close racing but they go that fast that if one boat makes even the smallest mistake, like a less than ideal tack, then the other team can get 50-60 metres straight away,” says Simmer.

“We are likely to see quite big intervals on the water, quite big separations but as the boats get more mature as we go through the racing towards the final they will get closer.”

The three 2021 challengers are all ‘super teams’, and the British syndicate has a stellar cast. The Ineos backing is believed to be the largest single sponsorship in sailing history and Ainslie has pursued some big names, especially off the water.

Apart from Simmer, he also signed long-time Team New Zealand head of design Nick Holroyd (1997-2015) and Dutchman Rolf Vrolijk, who helped create Alinghi’s successful 2003 and 2007 boats.

Their expertise has led to a radical design, including a massive bustle keel which stretches almost back to the stern. “Our hull shape is more radical because we were more aggressive with our aerodynamics,” says Simmer.

“There was some debate whether we go this radical, but we pushed it and it will be fine.

“The contribution of the hull to the overall aerodynamics of the performance is only part of it. The foils, control systems and the sail controls are a much bigger contributor towards performance than the hull shape, so our hull shape will be just fine.”

The British base is a whirring bustle of activity but Simmer retains a calm head. He’s been here so many times before and knows the learning curve is usually exponential.

“We are focused on sailing as much as possible and getting ready for racing.”

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