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America’s Cup: Ray Davies interview – Pt. 1

In the first of our two-part exclusive interview with Emirates Team New Zealand sailor/coach Ray Davies we discuss the evolution of the America’s Cup from the ‘leadmine’ version five boats to the latest flying monohull concept and quiz him on the latest state of play within the team as the Kiwis prepare to try to defend the Cup on home waters in 2021.

Yacht Racing Life: You have been involved with the America’s Cup since I think 2000 and this will be your sixth America’s Cup? Let’s start by asking you about the massive transition this competition has undergone in the 20 years or so that you have been involved? It’s very different now isn’t it?

Ray Davies: Absolutely. There’s been a huge transformation and we feel pretty lucky in our generation to have seen the evolution of the America’s Cup and sailing in general. We have seen some quite incredible transformations since my first America’s Cup back in 2001 – I just came in at the end of the America One campaign – when with the AC version five boats we were fighting for a couple of a tenths of a knot of performance, whereas now we are literally fighting for knots of performance.

And now obviously we are flying – so the whole world has changed as far as the America’s Cup is concerned.

YRL: Could you have ever imagined back then that you would have been sailing flying monohulls one day in the America’s Cup?

RD: In the early stages no, but as soon as the America’s Cup went to multihulls straight away a few of us could visualise the future there and could see where it was heading. As soon as we went to performance and the rules started opening up a bit we certainly see this future – where it’s evolved to. But it has been exciting to see that vision become a reality now.

YRL: In the 34th Cup in San Francisco you were tactician on board the Kiwi boat but at the last Cup, the 35th edition, – you took on more of a supporting role – tell us about that role.

RD: In the last Cup, certainly though all the testing and development early stages, I was helming the boat back in New Zealand. Pete and Blair had their Olympic campaign in full flight so pretty much it was Glenn Ashby, myself and a couple of others – including Richard Meacham – were the test pilots on the whole foiling concept.

So I did a hell of a lot of helming of the foiling cat in the early days and did the first foiling tacks and all that side of things. Then the boys freed up from their Olympic commitments, so I slotted into a more coaching and supportive role. I was working with the performance guys analysing various characteristics of the boat and then it just kept evolving from there and we just kept getting faster and faster.

The first half of the last campaign I was doing a lot of sailing. Back then I sailed on all the AC45 events but more and more it has become more of a performance role, working closely with the design team and this whole new concept of [foiling monohull] boat has been my main focus since then.

YRL: Has it been hard to take that step back from sailing the boat – after all for the last Cup you were listed as reserve helmsman for the boat?

RD: [Laughs] Yeah I did have that title – who knows what would have happened?! Yes there was that responsibility, but we committed to giving Pete and the guys as much time as possible [on the boat]. So pretty much as soon as their commitments freed up from the Olympics they sailed the boat every day after that.

My philosophy is about winning the America’s Cup – it’s not about me. So I was able to adjust to the change in responsibility. I have always just wanted to be on a winning team and to be part of that was a bigger driver than my own change of position in the team. For sure it was a hard transition and I’m not saying it was easy. There’s a lot of people would opt out of the America’s Cup if that meant they were not going to be racing any more.

We are all driven, motivated competitors on the water but the way this America’s Cup has evolved into an extremely exciting class and concept of boat there is enough reward in being involved in many aspects of an America’s Cup team now.

YRL: Tell us about your role now within Emirates Team New Zealand for this 36th edition of the America’s Cup as you try to defend the Cup on your home waters.

RD: My main goal is understanding this concept of boat that we have come up with. We have got a very advanced simulator, so I spend most of my time on that simulator going through various board, rudder and sail configurations as I try to understand the intricacies of this new design.

We could be spending a hell of a lot of money on the water with a real boat, but we have opted to go down the path of trusting our simulator. That’s quite a different path to what the other teams have chosen. We did a combination of both in the last Cup and it was incredible just how valuable the simulator was for us.

So we are headed down that path again and my day to day is made up of time on the simulator and time immersed in the work of the design team and giving feedback from the sailors’ perspective.

YRL: When you say time on the simulator you mean you are actually “sailing” it – not just poring over a computer screen at the data?

RD: Yes that’s right. The simulator is set up as we think the boat would be. It’s not a full-sized boat but it has all the features of the boat scaled down. It’s in a room and it actually doesn’t take up a huge amount of space.

I am physically sailing and helming that boat. Pete and Blair have a lot of commitments in doing the Olympics again and keeping themselves fresh as sailors on the water. So we will share the responsibility of sailing the simulator between Pete and Blair, Josh [Junior] and Andy [Maloney] – who are all doing Olympic campaigns – and myself and Glenn.

It does take a lot of time, long hours, grafting it out in the simulator room but at least we know the conditions are consistent.

YRL: Without giving too much away can you describe what it’s like to be on the simulator?

RD: It’s an evolving thing and we are trying to make it as real as possible, but it’s just another tool. We have found it to be good for us within the mix of people that we have in terms of getting good chat going with the designers, but like I say it’s just another tool and we have to prove it all on the water.

So it’s not the be-all and end-all of our campaign but certainly it’s the focus at the moment for our day-to-day operations.

YRL: Aside from the simulator time can you describe what a typical day is like for you from when you get up and have your first cup of coffee in the morning?

RD: I tend to meet Glenn and Dick (Richard Meacham), or Pete and Blair for a cup coffee in the morning. We chat about our priorities for the day and priorities coming up. Then it’s pretty much into a consistent schedule of meetings with the various departments that I have during the week. That can be foils, rig, sails, input devices – there’s a lot of different areas within an America’s Cup team that we are all part of.

So my day to day is getting through those meetings and then trying to execute the plans that come out of those meetings. It’s very much design office centric at the moment but I try to get plenty of time on the water with my Moth and now a foiling windsurfer too.

YRL: Tell us a bit about the team? How big is it and how is it structured?

RD: Like all the other teams are embarking on, we are underway with building our boat now. The change for us this time around is that we have our own build facility and we have had to get that up and running from scratch from a bare bones building. Now that is fully operational state of the art boat building facility. We have incredible guys that we have been able to hand pick – we have about 35 specialist boat builders out there.

Then back at our main base in Auckland city there’s about another 35 people working on everything from admin to making sure we have an amazing event here in Auckland to just keeping the wheels rolling and the design plans coming out to feed into the build process.

YRL: Is there a different feel to the team now that your America’s Cup holders rather than challengers?

RD: Not really – the day to day is the same. OK we are trying to host an amazing event here and there is a lot of infrastructure, but we have outsourced that to another department and we are trying to keep that as separate as possible so that we can just focus on racing and getting this new concept boat going as quick as possible.

So yes, for sure being America’s Cup holders brings an added responsibility but we have tried to set that up so it’s the least amount of distraction as possible.

YRL: You have nice new offices there in Auckland which must be a pleasure after the cramped facilities you had prior to that. How are you enjoying the upgrade and how do you manage to maintain that “team tough” ethos that we have all heard about?

RD: That’s a good question and we know we have been amazingly lucky to acquire the most amazing America’s Cup base of all time so far. It really is an amazing building that we are in and we are redesigning to be specific to an America’s Cup campaign. There’s a lot of space and perfect rooms for what we are doing but we really have to remember where we have come from and how we made it work last time with a nice tight setup.

So we are trying to make sure we keep as many of those lessons learned from last time, not let anything get to our heads and just keep it all in check.

YRL: One thing that sets ETNZ apart from the other teams is that you have made the decision not to build surrogate boats but to go straight into building your first AC 70. What was the thinking behind that decision? Was there not a case for building a full-sized boat this time like the challengers have?

RD: It was a really interesting decision that all the teams faced at the beginning. A lot of teams really had to try and learn about this concept of boat and how it worked. We felt that we got that understanding through the simulator. Then when you look at the schedule everyone is building their boat one already so a lot of the decisions that had to be learned on the water had to have been made months ago for them to actually be translated into your boat one.

We felt like with the timeline on all the things we had going on, that we had learned enough of the lessons already on the simulator to feed into boat one. So that was our philosophy and we just felt we were going to run out of time to get valuable learnings on the water that could be fed into the initial design.

That said, it has been fantastic to see these other teams out there ripping around in the concept and it’s very reassuring for us that our tools have been accurate today.

YRL: More than anything it must be reassuring to see that the whole foiling monohull idea works in reality?

RD: Certainly from the sailors’ perspective, the boffins in the team were feeling a lot more confident than us humble sailors who like to actually touch and feel these things in reality.

It’s a couple of different worlds that come together in an America’s Cup campaign. Seeing the surrogates flying has been amazing for the boffins and the engineers who never actually sail on the boats anyway – they just understand the physics.

As a sailor you are never going to trust just numbers because you don’t understand them to start with and we are all about feeling that wind in your face. So for sure we are really looking forward to launching our boat one and actually getting on the water.

Click here to read part two of this exclusive interview.

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