Sailing With Champions
A day on deck with the defending title-holders of the America’s Cup as they model the latest timepieces from Bremont
From left: Messrs Joe Newton and Tom Slingsby are part of Oracle Team USA
Somewhere off the coast of Bermuda sits a lean racing yacht, her hull gleaming lunar white in the midday sun. With a combined 50 years’ sailing experience, seven America’s Cup campaigns, an Olympic gold medal and numerous world titles between them, the two men on board are more than capable of navigating a boat through water. Even so, it’s been a while since Messrs Joe Newton and Tom Slingsby sailed anything like this.
With a streamlined silhouette that evokes the early years of the America’s Cup, Wild Horses could pass for far older than its 18 years. The passion project of a Boston real-estate developer by the name of Mr Donald Tofias, it was the first of a new class of yachts dubbed “W-Class” in honour of their designer, the late Mr Joel White.
As part of Oracle Team USA, Messrs Newton and Slingsby – main trimmer and tactician, respectively – are accustomed to sailing something a little more modern. In 2013, they were part of the team that won the 34th America’s Cup aboard the AC72, a carbon-fibre catamaran fitted with a rigid 130ft “wingsail” – comparable in size to an Airbus A380 jumbo jet wing. At full speed, the AC72 was capable of travelling in excess of 50mph in winds of less than 20mph.
“There’s no comparison between this and an AC [America’s Cup] Class boat,” laughs Mr Newton, who grew up in Yeppoon, Australia, and who at 38 is the older of the two sailors. “The only thing they have in common is that they both float.”
“Sailing these newer boats is almost like flying a plane,” adds Mr Slingsby, 31, a fellow Australian who won gold in the men’s laser category in the 2012 Olympic Games. “It’s all about being as light as you can, as aerodynamic as you can and spending as much time as possible off the water.” When he says off the water, he’s referring to “foiling”, one of the fundamental principles of modern yacht racing. By lifting the hull clear of the surface on carbon-fibre hydrofoils, the level of drag is considerably reduced, allowing the boats to reach much higher speeds.
The eerie spectacle of AC72s appearing to float metres above the surface of San Francisco Bay was one of the defining experiences of the 34th America’s Cup, which was arguably the most dramatic and spectacular in the competition’s 160-year history. Trailing 8-1, just a single point away from defeat, the Oracle Team clawed their way back to win 8-9, leaving their opponents, the Emirates Team New Zealand, to wonder how on earth they managed to squander such a commanding lead.
With the greatest of respect to the Emirates Team, it never should have been that close in the first place. The Oracle Team was the overwhelming favourite to retain the trophy that it won in 2010, and not least because of the deep pockets of its owner, the tech billionaire Mr Larry Ellison. He had assembled a squad of Olympic gold-medal-winning sailors to man the boat, while the engineers he brought in to design it were among the best in the world. The result was a yacht unlike any that’s ever raced in the America’s Cup, and that had more in common with a plane than it did a boat.
Little wonder that fine British watch brand Bremont felt such a natural affinity for the America’s Cup. It’s better known for its links to the aviation industry – its logo is a propeller – but in this modern form of sailing, inspired by the principles of aeronautical engineering, it found a perfect crossover sport. As the official timing sponsor of the America’s Cup and the defending champions, Oracle Team USA, Bremont has created two new series of special edition watches: the America’s Cup Series, inspired by the elegant J-Class yachts of the 1930s, and the Oracle Series, a pair of highly technical sports watches that have been tested beyond endurance and designed to be worn on the water.
The 35th America’s Cup takes place in Bermuda next June, and Messrs Slingsby, Newton and the rest of the Oracle Team (who, as defending champions, are guaranteed a place in the finals) have relocated their base here in order to prepare. Calm, utterly remote and with a balmy climate that makes you learn to appreciate the utility of Bermuda shorts, the tiny archipelago strikes you as a beautiful place to relax. But relaxation is the last thing on Oracle Team’s minds. With a third successive America’s Cup up for grabs, the crew are training hard.
“We do a workout session first thing in the morning, either at the gym or on the beach,” says Mr Slingsby. “Weather depending, we aim to sail every day. If we can’t, then we’ll do a second session in the afternoon, either some boxing or a cardio session. We also do training exercises that could help us in a difficult situation, like free-diving.”
In October 2012, while training in San Francisco Bay, Oracle Team USA found itself in one such difficult situation when its AC72 capsized and was swept under the Golden Gate Bridge. Seven months later, Mr Andrew Simpson, a 36-year-old British sailor and Olympic gold medalist, died in a similar incident, leaving behind his wife and their two sons. “We take safety very seriously,” says Mr Newton, who has a wife and two young children of his own.
It’ll be a very different setting from Bermuda this weekend when the America’s Cup World Series rolls into Chicago to race on Lake Michigan, the first freshwater venue in America’s Cup history. The following months will see further rounds hosted in the UK, France and Japan before Oracle Team USA returns to Bermuda for winter training. For now, though, everything is still. “It’s the perfect stage,” says Mr Slingsby, looking out over the turquoise waters of the Great Sound.