Ray Davies has been involved in the America’s Cup for over 20 years. He was tactician aboard the Kiwi boat that suffered an agonizing loss in San Francisco in 2013 and reserve helmsman and coach for the team’s comprehensive win in Bermuda in 2016.
I caught up with Davies at the end of December 2018 to find out about his role in the team as the New Zealand syndicate prepares to try to defend the Cup in Auckland in 2021.
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?
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.
Could you have ever imagined back then that you would have been sailing flying monohulls one day in the America’s Cup?
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.
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.
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.
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?[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.
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.
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.
When you say time on the simulator you mean you are actually “sailing” it – not just poring over a computer screen at the data?
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.
Without giving too much away can you describe what it’s like to be on the simulator?
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.
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?
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.
Tell us a bit about the team? How big is it and how is it structured?
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.
Is there a different feel to the team now that your America’s Cup holders rather than challengers?
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.
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?
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.
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.
More than anything it must be reassuring to see that the whole foiling monohull idea works in reality?
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.
For the last Cup your strategy in terms of innovation – as Glenn Ashby put it – was to “throw the ball as far as you could and see if you could get to where it landed”. Is that still the case this time around?
I think we have seen that in terms of this design of boat where I feel like in terms of innovation for sure we have thrown it out there. As far as we are concerned the America’s Cup ties up all the best designers in the world and we think the philosophy should be to keep pushing the boundaries.
This is an amazing, exciting sport now and we have seen at the events in San Francisco and Bermuda that these flying boats can be incredibly exciting and we wanted that to continue [for the 36th edition] in Auckland. We feel like this new concept of boat nails that on all fronts.
We have had great feedback from the other teams that this concept is incredibly difficult and challenging but there are amazing rewards when you get it right. I think that really fits the bill for our vision for the America’s Cup.
Can you shine any light on the rumours of problems with the foil arms/foiling systems?
Yes I can. There have been some problems with the foil arms themselves. If we rewind a little bit – with the new design there a few one-design components that had to be built and so we decided to spilt the responsibilities for those parts.
Team New Zealand took on the foil cant system for the actual mechanics of moving the arm up and down. That seems to have gone quite well and we have positive feedback from the teams.
Luna Rossa were in control of the foil arm itself and when we tested those foil arms they did actually fall below the design spec. So that was quite a setback in that area. But all the teams got together and had a series of meetings on what was going to be the best design for that foil arm going forwards.
The Team New Zealand engineers have sort of front-footed that and we have come up with a new design. So we have binned the old design and all the teams now agree on this new structure and build method.
It has set us back a few months back for sure but breaking foils in the America’s Cup is not new – we did it in the last campaign – and we are pushing the boundaries on all these items. So it was a setback but not a major one – we can overcome it.
But now the other thing that has happened now is that we have had a couple of more teams come on line, so there could be a couple of flow-on effects as far as the scheduling is concerned for next year.
We are working hard to make sure we make the right decisions so that the teams and the boats can be ready to race safely. It’s important that all the teams get time to get to grips with this new concept of boat. Eleven crew is a lot of crew and certainly we are going to be pushing these boats blooming hard.
So yes, the rumours are true and there was a setback. This is what happens when you push the boundaries of design – and if you don’t do that the boats will be slow. We are working our way through the solution and the problem has been resolved. The new boards are under construction now and we will see how the next 12 months plays out.
Deviating slightly from talking about the America’s Cup what are your thoughts on the new SailGP circuit which is launching in 2019 using the modified versions of the AC50 catamarans?
I think it’s great. It’s fantastic and good on [Russell] Coutts and Larry Ellison for pushing the sport in this direction and really supporting this type of [high performance] sailing [based around] innovation and technology.
It doesn’t affect the America’s Cup – we’ve got enough entries – and it almost supports this whole sort of boat and [high] speed [type of racing]. So good on them for doing it and good on Larry for putting his money where his mouth is.
But really it doesn’t affect us at all. The America’s Cup is always going to be the pinnacle.
Let’s talk a little bit about the challenging teams – one of which you are going to have to face in the final of the 36th America’s Cup. The list now totals five teams with two newcomers recently – the Malta Altus Challenge and Stars & Stripes Team USA – what are your thoughts?
It’s all very exciting. It’s pretty obvious that we really want this to be an amazing event and it’s great to get the numbers up. We are working through the numbers right now with both those teams, but it looks like they will both get one of our boat one design packages. We will work pretty closely with them to make sure that they are on the start line with a good boat and we are just right now talking through the details of how that transpires.
They both have their own design teams as well so it’s not like you are going to see a mirror version of Emirates Team New Zealand, they are going to develop their own boat as well. So we will help them to get up and running and then they will take the ball from there.
Is there a danger that we will see a two-tier system in this next America’s Cup with the ’super teams’ like Emirates Team New Zealand and the original five challengers – Luna Rossa, INEOS Team UK, and NYYC American Magic – and then a second tier of the smaller later teams who buy a design package from you? Is everyone going to be on a level playing field here?
We are one a level playing field because a lot of the rule is very tight within this new design and there is not a massive amount of wriggle room. So even though it is an incredibly quick high-performance boat, there is not a huge amount of scope with the design – there’s a lot of finesse and a lot of detail. I honestly think it is still open for a new team to come along and put the time on the water in to understand the boat from a sailing perspective and that is going to give a massive reward.
There is plenty of time for these new teams to get their boat, get on the water and get comfortable with actually racing it around the course. The gains you will see there are bigger than what you would get by spending more time and money on the detail. So yes, going forward I think it is still very much a level playing field.
Time is always the most important commodity in professional yacht racing campaigns, so tell us how Emirates Team New Zealand is going to be spending its tike over the next six months?
Making smart decisions and managing a limited amount of time is critical in any America’s Cup campaign.
It’s about being efficient with your time and not having too many crazy projects – you have to be mindful that each decision you make does burn up time, so you have to try to be super-efficient with the decision-making process.
Obviously there is a huge amount ahead of us including finishing this first boat and getting it in the water and getting it commissioned. So as that evolves and changes and [eventually] become clear our scheduling will evolve as well.
This interview first appeared on the Yacht Racing Life website: http://yachtracing.life
By Justin Chisholm – International Sailing Writer