Contenders look beyond sailing in quest for America's Cup


Hamilton (Bermuda) (AFP)

Sailing skill isn't enough to win the new-age America's Cup, and the crews dueling on Bermuda's Great Sound are calling on exceptional talents from a range of sports.

Strength, stamina and agility are vital for the six-man crews racing the spectacular America's Cup catamarans.

The constant effort of the grinders -- or in the case of Emirates Team New Zealand the "cyclors" -- is all that powers the hydraulics necessary to control the craft.

The hydraulic pressure allows the constant adjustments to massive fixed-wing sail and to the foils that keep the twin hulls "flying" at maximum speed above the water.

With their innovative use of cycle-style pedals -- rather than traditional arm-power -- New Zealand turned to Olympic cycling medalist Simon van Velthooven.

He has adapted from life in the velodrome, but says the experience is vastly different.

"There's cranks, that's about it really," he says of the similarities between a bicycle and the on-board cycling stations.

"We're still turning our legs and such, but that's about it," added van Velthooven, a keirin bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.

"You're definitely on a boat, not on a bike."

Myriad technical aspects -- and the constant adjustments made to the catamarans in the never-ending quest for more speed -- only heighten the challenge.

"Both sports are hard in their own regard, but I'll say this sport's a little bit harder because we have to have a lot more hands-on approach on the boat, helping build the boat -- helping designers with feedback on how it's working," van Velthooven said.

Joe Sullivan, a double sculls gold medalist in London, had spent plenty of time on the water in his rowing career, but found himself polishing his cycling skills when he came on board for Team New Zealand.

"Rowing's a different kind of sport, you kind of have to push yourself the whole six minutes. You're in pain the whole time," Sullivan said, adding that there was a bit more ebb and flow to the effort in an America's Cup race.

But there's also an extra test of agility, as the crew must be able to move quickly from hull to hull during maneuvers.

"You've just got to commit to running across," van Velthooven said. "If you have a second thought that might be the difference to staying on or falling off. You've just got to keep your eye on the job."

Sullivan admits the speeds reached when foiling initially gave him pause.

"But since I've been on the boat I've enjoyed it," he said. "The builders and designers have put together an amazing package."

- That extra mile -

The exotic imports on Team New Zealand have meshed with proven sailing talents to put the challengers in command in the first-to-seven points series against defenders Oracle Team USA.

New Zealand swept the first four races, erasing a one-point deficit to take a 3-0 lead heading into the second weekend of racing on Saturday and Sunday.

Steely-eyed young helmsman Peter Burling, an America's Cup newcomer at 26, is a seven-time world champion and Olympic sailing 49er gold medalist at Rio last year with Blair Tuke -- serving as a cyclor and foil trimmer in this campaign.

"A lot of other teams have Olympians as well," van Velthooven notes. "But our team has a lot of cross-over with sports and medals won. We all know how to go that extra mile and use our initiative to do the right thing at the right time."