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America’s Cup: The key figures for Luna Rossa and New Zealand

With the America’s Cup 2021 now just one day away from starting, we take a look at the key personnel for Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli

As racing gets underway in this 36th America’s Cup, most people’s eyes will be squarely on only a few key players on each boat, the three helmsmen: Peter Burling; Jimmy Spithill; and Francesco Bruni; and a key member of Emirates Team New Zealand, Glenn Ashby.

The three helms of these two AC75s will get the lion’s share of the attention and will likely be praised for victory and blamed for defeat.

This is all part and parcel of steering an America’s Cup boat. With the foils controlled by members of the crew, and a complex double skinned mainsail, the AC75s require a greater degree of crew synergy than ever before, but that does not change the fact that the helms will always be seen as the leader of the crew on the water and it is a hugely important role.

The America's Cup will feature the Italians and Kiwis

Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team

Nowhere is a helm’s skill more obviously on display than in the prestart where decisions made in the blink of an eye can be the difference between getting off the startline in the best position and giving yourself your strongest chance of victory or trailing your opponent.

The sheer speed of the AC75 makes this job all the harder as the boats cover distance in such short timeframes, the smallest mistake can be instantly magnified leaving the gap between hero and zero incredibly small.

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It’s a high pressure role that requires a combination of natural ability and dedicated training. In the modern era helms also need to be excellent apparent wind sailors, and the days of the wise old head steering are long gone, with a trend for younger helms continuing.

Uniquely, we will be talking about three helms this America’s Cup as the Challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli’s boat has a helm on port tack and another on starboard, meaning neither has to run from one side of the boat to the other mid-tack.

There has been some talk in the build up to the America’s Cup match itself that the Kiwis might also be looking to do the same. This, however, has been summarily dismissed by Burling ahead of the event stating that: “I can say we sail the boat the same way now as we have over the last few years. So If anyone watched theChristmas Cup you will see there are some manoeuvres where we change sides and some where we don’t and we’ll continue to do things that way.”

Pete Burling wil steer the Kiwi boat in the America's Cup

Peter Burling. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

Peter Burling – Helm – Emirates Team New Zealand

New Zealander, Peter Burling stepped up to the role of helm for Emirates Team New Zealand after the team’s failed attempt to win the America’s Cup in 2013.

He took over the role from Dean Barker who had been behind the wheel for New Zealand in the final race of their successful Cup defence in 2000, then as helm for the Cup in 2003, 2007 and 2013.

Burling is a phenomenally talented sailor. For most outside of the New Zealand sailing scene, the first they are likely to have heard about the Kiwi was when he and his crew Blair Tuke took silver medal in the 49er class at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Burling and Tuke had formed a training partnership with Australians, Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen in the build up to the event. These two teams were head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the fleet winning both the silver (Burling and Tuke) and gold (Outteridge and Jensen).

For his part Outteridge would follow this win as helmsman of the Artemis AC72 in the 2013 America’s Cup.

Peter Burling gets ready to race ahead of the America’c cup World Series. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

With the Cup transitioning into high speed foilers in 2013, young sailing talents with a background in high performance apparent wind racing saw their stock rising.

Burling and Tuke, alongside several other young Kiwis, won the Youth America’s Cup in the summer of 2013 proving that they were a force to be reckoned with even away from their usual 49er sailing.

Despite the 49er silver medal and the Youth America’s Cup win, Burling was still far from a household name when he was announced as the helm of Emirates Team New Zealand ahead of the 2017 America’s Cup.

However, what that move made clear was that New Zealand as a team had identified a need for someone with a natural instinct for sailing fast boats. In the 49er class Burling and Tuke made that decision seem all the more prescient as they dominated the Olympic circuit ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games winning, essentially, every event they entered and taking gold at the event in impressive style.

The 49er is a one-design boat, but Burling and Tuke often seemed to have a different gear. To watch the kiwi pair race a 49er is to watch pretty much perfect synergy between helm and crew and understanding of how to make a boat go fast.

If there was one area that was still in question ahead of the Cup in 2017 it was Burling’s ability as a match racer. He had not done a great deal of match racing and few had any idea how he might get on in the aggressive pre starts of the America’s Cup.

The Kiwis were just plain faster than anyone else in the 2017 Cup and, such was their boatspeed, they arguably could have lost every start and still won the event. But Burling acquitted himself well in the match and, up against Jimmy Spithill, more than held his own.

Upon winning the Cup in 2017 Burling became the youngest winning helmsman in the history of the Americas Cup, aged just 26 years old.

Glenn Ashby, America's Cup skipper for NZL

Glenn Ashby. Photo Emirates Team New Zealand

Glenn Ashby – Skipper – Emirates Team New Zealand

One of the fascinating trends we have seen in recent America’s Cup cycles, is the development of the title ‘Skipper’. There was a time that the word almost always meant the helmsman of a team, but today the title has taken on a subtly different meaning and often varies from team-to-team.

On INEOS Team UK’s setup, Sir Ben Ainslie was both helm and skipper in a much more traditional way, reflecting perhaps, their propensity towards a more traditional setup with helmsman/skipper and a tactician. For Luna Rossa Max Sirena is officially the skipper of the team, though with Sirena not as a part of the sailing team, the title is essentially used in place of CEO.

When Emirates Team New Zealand put together their crew ahead of the 35th America’s Cup, Australian, Glenn Ashby, was listed as the team’s skipper, while Burling was the team’s helmsman.

Glenn Ashby making a speech after the 2017 America’s cup win. Photo: Emirates Team New Zealand

This was much commented on at the time, but looking back on the all-conquering Kiwi effort to win the Cup in 2017, this setup makes a lot of sense. For all his natural talent Burling was still very young and had limited experience in the America’s Cup. Ashby, however, has already shown himself to be an absolutely essential part of an America’s Cup team.

Ashby’s route to the Cup is not a traditional one. He is a multihull specialist and has won a silver medal in the Tornado class at the 2008 Olympics and also has fully 10 A-Class Catamaran World Championships to his name – the first of which he won in Spain at the age of 18, the first time he had been overseas.

Ashby’s prolific skill in a multihull made him an obvious candidate to be part of an America’s Cup team for the 2010 Deed of Gift match between BMW Oracle and Alinghi, which would be sailed in huge multihulls. He served as head coach for Oracle Team USA in the build up to that Deed of Gift match and helped helmsman Jimmy Spithill get up to speed on the intricacies of catamaran sailing.

Ashby was then picked up by Emirates Team New Zealand for the 2013 America’s Cup in which the kiwis came within a whisker of beating Oracle Team USA. Despite the loss, Ashby had clearly impressed Emirates Team New Zealand boss, Grant Dalton and following the painful loss, he was named team skipper.

Much of what Ashby brings to the team is behind the scenes, he was said to be a big part of New Zealand’s decision to get their AC72 foiling ahead of the 2013 America’s Cup, and was also an instrumental part of the team’s ability to develop their AC50 so far beyond the rest of the fleet in 2017.

His role in 2017 was as mainsail trimmer as well as skipper and he is also a key part of the decision making process onboard. Many talk about him as something of a talisman figure for the team and once again for this edition of the Cup he has clearly been a key member of the setup.

He is once again the team’s skipper and mainsail trimmer – though exactly what his role entails onboard is a bit of a mystery, with suggestions that Burling can do some sail trimming from his wheel, while Ashby takes care of the sail profiles being mooted by several observers.

Jimmy Spithill is one of two America's Cup skippers for Italy

Jimmy Spithill. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

Jimmy Spithill – Starboard tack helm – Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli

Australian by birth, James ‘Jimmy’ Spithill has gone from young gun to trusted America’s Cup skipper and is possibly one of sailing’s best-known athletes.

Spithill burst onto the America’s Cup scene in 2000 where at the age of just 20 he skippered Young Australia and became the youngest skipper in America’s Cup history. He impressed in the event and was rewarded with another helming role in the Oneworld challenge for the America’s Cup in 2003.

However, it was during the 2007 event that Spithill truly rose from talented youngster to the famous America’s Cup helmsman we see today. Back then, as in this edition of the event, Spithill was helming for the Italian Luna Rossa Challenge team.

In the Louis Vuitton Cup – the challenger selection series – in 2007 Luna Rossa faced BMW Oracle in the Semi-Final. During the course of the event, Spithill picked up the nickname ‘Pitbull’ among Italian fans because of his aggressive tactics during the pre-start phase of the races.

In that Semi-Final Spithill was part of what is arguably remembered as the greatest pre-start in the history of the America’s Cup, forcing two penalties to BMW Oracle skipper Chris Dickson in race five of the matchup, causing Dickson’s resignation a few days later.

Given this total annihilation of his competition, it is little surprise that when it came time for Larry Ellison and Russel Coutts to find a helm for their 2010 Deed of Gift America’s Cup match against Alinghi they immediately turned to Spithill.

Spithill steered the giant BMW Oracle trimaran to a 2-0 victory in the 2010 America’s Cup and in so doing became the youngest skipper in history to win the America’s Cup – a record that would be taken from him by Burling in 2017.

Spithill remained in the Oracle Team USA camp as their helm for the 2013 edition of the event. This match has gone down as one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time with Spithill helming the American AC72 from 8-1 down in a fist-to-nine series to eventually winning the event.

As much as he is a masterful sailor, Spithill is also something of a master behind a microphone and has his hard-nosed Aussie act down pat for press conferences. Down 7-1, in 2013 Spithill was asked how he can remain motivated ahead of such a monumental uphill battle.

“I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here,” he said, glancing at Dean Barker. “What an upset that would be. They have almost got it in the bag. So that’s my motivation. That would be one hell of a story, that would be one hell of a comeback and that’s the kind of thing that I’d like to be part of.”

Whether it was the loss that followed in the 2017 America’s Cup at the hands of the Kiwis, or (rather more likely) at the request of his new Italian team as Spithill moved back to Luna Rossa for this America’s Cup, he has been a softer character this edition of the Cup. He’s still supremely confident, still happy to talk up his team, but some of the previously hard edges seem to have been smoothed somewhat.

Bruni is one of two America's Cup skippers for Italy

Francesco Bruni. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

Francesco Bruni – Port tack helm – Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli

It makes sense that Spithill steers Luna Rossa on starboard, giving him, essentially, the key role in the pre-start as usually the boats will be on starboard tack across the startline.

However, that all means that the Italian team could go for a more rounded skipper for the port tack role. On that other wheel is the homegrown Italian talent, Francesco Bruni.

Bruni is a staple of the Italian America’s Cup team and this will be his fifth America’s Cup and fourth with the team.

Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

Spithill and Bruni have sailed together in the America’s Cup back in 2007 when Spithill skippered the Luna Rossa Challenge boat upon which Bruni was a key member of the crew.

He is not short of talent and he has won seven world, five European and 15 Italian championships in different classes, from dinghies to offshore yachts.

Bruni’s varied background makes him the perfect foil to Spithill’s Match Race dedicated background and he is one of the smartest sailors out there.

Bruni is every bit the enthusiastic Italian, and his obvious excitement and race wins, alongside his infectiously happy personality make him the perfect foil to Spithill’s more measured demeanour.


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