52 Super Series: The Power of Three

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As I step into the darkened briefing room I’m immediately star-struck by the assembly of professional sailors waiting for their morning debrief to start. I scan the space for an empty seat. Almost all of them are occupied by recognizable Olympic, America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race icons, but I eventually squeeze myself into a chair between American yachtsman Doug DeVos and his strategist Dean Barker.

At the stroke of 0900, James Lyne, the performance coach for the TP52 team Quantum Racing, looks up from his computer at the front of the room, glances at his watch and then promptly starts the briefing. On the enormous plasma TV is a graphical leg-by-leg analysis of the previous day’s racing at the 52 Super Series event in Mallorca, Spain. Each graphic shows the wind strength and angle around the course, with the tracks of numerous boats overlaid.

“So, not the regular Palma Bay conditions we might all have been expecting,” says Lyne, his gaze darting about the hushed room. “The classic right-hand twist we were all anticipating at the top of the course actually happened much earlier, at the very start of the beat.”

As he continues to dissect the weather data, sailors around me nod their heads in agreement or listen dispassionately to what he has to say. He then transitions to a photographic comparison of upwind sail-trim setups for the three teams present, using images he shot himself from his coach boat. Trimmers in the room each sit at attention and crane their heads for an unobstructed view of the screen.

“Cheese, what was your setup here?” Lyne asks Dirk de Ridder, of the Netherlands, who is trimming for Harm Müller-Spreer’s Platoon.

De Ridder, attentive but leaning relaxed against the wall, pauses for a second before rattling off a set of numbers relating to the German boat’s setup. His answer triggers several minutes of discourse as sail trimmers from the other teams offer comments.

Lyne listens attentively before moving the discussion to downwind setups, and then on to drone video of starts and the opening section of the beats. The audience continues to pay close attention to what’s on the screen and note Lyne’s observations.

There’s more talk of weather before he finally concludes the session.

“OK,” he says. “That’s all I’ve got for you.”

Chair legs scrape the wooden floor as the sailors of Platoon and Onda, the Brazilian entry fielded by Eduardo de Souza Ramos, shoulder backpacks and scatter to individual briefing sessions elsewhere in the hotel.

Remaining in the room for the exclusive Quantum Racing session are DeVos, Barker, tactician Terry Hutchinson, navigator Ian Moore, headsail trimmer Maciel Cicchetti, and mainsail trimmer Warwick Fleury.

Moore leads off with an overview of several weather forecasts. He runs through the possible scenarios based on where in Palma Bay the race officer opts to run racing. Next, Hutchinson takes the floor, running through “room for improvement” topics he has identified from the previous day’s races. As he runs fluidly through a checklist ­scribbled in his tiny waterproof notebook, his delivery is upbeat and factual. There’s not the slightest hint of an accusatory tone.

Lyne, Barker and DeVos interject from time to time with their own feelings or observations on what Hutchinson has to say. The dialogue is open, honest, direct and purposeful. Nobody talks for the sake of talking. Issues are aired, identified, analyzed and targeted as watch points for the coming races.

The meeting closes after 20 minutes, with Hutchinson setting the tone for the day of racing. “Two races today,” he says, scanning his teammates and making eye contact with each of them. “So, it’s the same thing as we always say: Seven points or less for the day and we will be happy.”

As today’s competitive ­professional sailing landscape continues its inexorable slide toward foiling boats, only the hardy perennial 52 Super Series stands out as a beacon for conventional high-performance monohull racing. The series has been through a few changes since it first emerged in 2005 as the Audi Med Cup. When the Audi sponsorship ran its course at the end of the 2011 season, three owners from the class — DeVos; Sweden’s Niklas Zennström; and Alberto Roemmers, from Argentina — each stumped up their own funds to keep it alive.

Seven years on, the series is stronger than it has ever been.

The boats continue to be light and fast, having evolved as the result of a series of calculated changes to the TP52’s box rule. Crews of the mostly owner-driven boats are packed with the top stars in the professional yacht-racing firmament. What continues to attract owners and crews to this series is the chance to race in ­glamorous locations around the Med.

The 52 Super Series also remains one of the hardest inshore racing series to win, and there is a distinct pecking order among the teams. As is true of any competition, the most talent-laden teams eventually rise to the top of the rankings, but there are no guaranteed winners in this fleet. Every day of every regatta is a high-stakes, and expensive, scrum for a Champagne shower and podium place.

This fierce competition is what led to the unique information-sharing agreement between the Quantum Racing, Platoon and Onda syndicates. Under the agreement fostered by Quantum, the other two teams — both using Quantum Sails, of course — get access to Quantum’s tuning setup and attend the detailed morning briefing sessions with Lyne.

According to Quantum Sails CEO Ed Reynolds, this collaboration with “rival” teams stems from the company’s original reason for competing in the TP52 class to begin with — product development.

“This is our virtual wind tunnel,” Reynolds says. “It is the most consistent ­performance-measurement setup we could possibly have. It’s one thing to design sails that win sail tests, but racing sails are so different from testing sails. Assessing performance in a racing environment is so much more valuable than simply two-boat testing. If you just tested sails using two boats, you’d end up with extremely flat sails because you get a big running start.

“When they have to measure how much performance is lost during a tack, how much is lost in all different maneuvers around the racecourse, you get a very different perspective on sail shapes,” he says. “So, from that point of view, this class and this series have been invaluable.”

Aside from the company’s product development, Reynolds identifies another opportunity to strengthen his relationship with clients.

“What we realized was that to really help our customers or whoever is dealing with Quantum to perform better is not just about the sails. It’s about the intellectual property and everything that goes around being able to use them to the best effect. The collaboration we have created between our team and two others has proved to us that even at the professional level people need that sort of information as much as people at the club level.”

As altruistic and visionary as this sort of thinking might seem, asking battle-­hardened professional sailors who race these boats to share hard-earned data and specialist knowledge — much of which translates directly into competitive advantage out on the racecourse — is a big step.

The 52 Super Series is a fleet in which the owners pay handsomely for the expertise they need to get them to the front of the fleet. They hire and fire based on results and the sailors’ professional reputations. Financial remuneration is linked directly to their ability to deliver results.

“We would never have been able to do this without the buy-in from the sailors,” Reynolds explains. “They make their living based on results, and then we come to them and say we want to help bring other people higher into the mix. They deserve a lot of credit for buying into it all and helping us to make it work.”

Lyne, of course, is at the heart of the collaboration project and critical to its success. An Olympic campaigner from “many decades ago,” Lyne moved to the United States, where he switched to big-boat sailing for a few years before being recruited as a grinder for the British America’s Cup syndicate GBR Challenge.

This was Lyne’s introduction to grand‑prix sailing, but he found himself, as he puts it in his own words, more useful off the water than on. “I started with that team as a grinder and ended up running the weather program, the spy program and coaching,” he says. In 2013, Hutchinson recruited him to work on a few of the high-end campaigns he was involved with, the most prominent of those being Hap Fauth’s Maxi 72 Bella Mente and the Quantum Racing TP52.

“I’m lucky to be a part of a group of people that form the core of several of these grand-prix-level campaigns,” says Lyne, who now has the same role with the New York YC’s American Magic America’s Cup challenge.

Reynolds says Lyne’s role cannot be underestimated: “He has transformed the way we think about performance. This is an industry that was driven by the relevant opinion. Whoever had the best, most impressive resume would drive the thinking and the purchasing decisions by the client base. What James has done — and everybody inside Quantum rolls their eyes when I say this now — is like the story of the baseball movie Moneyball. He has gathered and analyzed the performance data to a point where he can take away the ­subjectivity that blurred everyone’s view of things.

“His credibility, and his thoroughness, puts him beyond reproach. He has earned the right to be able to look the best sailors in the eye and say, ‘I know that’s what you think happened out there, but this is what really was going on.’ It’s got to the point where Terry almost won’t go racing without James there.”

For his part, Lyne sees himself as the interface between the team’s front end — the sailors on the boat — and the back-room team that gathers the performance data and analyzes it. “I try to paint a holistic picture of what’s happened on the water that day,” he says. “I do that by drawing on what the sailors experience, the visual information we can gather from the coach boat, and from the performance data itself. On any given day, the data, or what we witness with our eyes, or experience on the boat — taken on their own — don’t always represent what ­actually happened.”

His role, Lyne says, is to make sense of it all and look for ways to improve the next day.

“Enabling this kind of approach is the quality of the data coming off the boat,” he adds. “We’re getting more and more accurate data, and that’s a credit to the instruments and the guys running the data packages. So now, all of a sudden, we have all of this good information, combined with the feelings of the expert sailors on the boat, coupled with our ability to analyze data and make suggestions on how to improve. All in all, that’s a pretty powerful tool.”

Powerful indeed: More than 1 million data points each day are collected from the Quantum Sails TP52s and uploaded to the servers at specialist company KND SailingPerformance.

“The reports they give me are a ­graphical and a numerical representation of our performance for the day,” Lyne explains. “That enables me to look back at prior history, our targets, our previous days, and compare how we went.”

As effective as this would be with data from one boat, Lyne says the team’s collaborative approach with Platoon and Onda gives a massive boost to the potency of the data.

“Working as a group, we get to see three sets of data, and we can identify things like we were a little slow down the first run yesterday versus the other boats, after having to sail a higher wind angle. Before, we might have spent two days with the same issue because we didn’t know whether we were slow because we just sailed in a lighter spot (or for some other reason). With the data from three boats, we can know with confidence it’s a real issue for us and something we need to find a solution for.” This reduction of the learning curve is what Lyne sees as one of his key roles in the team. “We certainly don’t need to teach these world-class sailors how to sail — they are the best of the best,” he says. “But what I can do — and what we’re aiming to do by working as a group with two other teams — is reduce the time it takes to learn ­important lessons.”

Hutchinson reinforces this message. “It speeds up our ability to make sense of otherwise confusing scenarios,” he says. “There’s a lot of experience and brainpower in the room at our joint morning sessions.”

Combining the brainpower and talent of the likes of Robert Scheidt, John Kostecki, Ross Halcrow and Jordi Calafat, and picking everybody else’s brains too, it’s easy to understand how the problem-solving process is accelerated.

After the morning briefing, down at the marina, DeVos extolls the benefits of the three-squad briefing sessions between his teammates and the sailors of Platoon and Onda. He’s not surprised by the knowledge sharing between these three disparate groups of professional sailors who are, after all, ultimately competitors.

“We’re all trying to learn and learn from each other, and I think that the best sailors in the world like to learn from the best sailors in the world,” DeVos says with a disarming smile. “So they’re happy to have those sorts of conversations. If you’re going to learn, you have to give a little bit before you can take something back. You have to be honest with what you’re saying, say what you saw and admit where you made a mistake, or highlight where you did ­something right.”

Eventually, by design or chance, the Quantum Racing chase boat and the team’s 52-foot raceboat leave their respective berths in the Puerto Portals Marina at precisely the same moment. They are the first team to leave the dock, and the synchronized exit does not go unnoticed by the rest of the sailors baking in the midday Mediterranean sunshine.

At the top of the grand-prix sailing game there’s always more work to be done. But more hands make for quick work, and quickness around course is always the best path to the podium.

Aboard the chase boat, I find a shady spot to settle in to observe Lyne in his coach role. Reynolds is also on board, along with media manager and drone pilot Keith Brash and three other members of the shore crew.

Once the thermal breeze makes a ­meaningful appearance, Quantum Racing, Platoon and Onda line up for an upwind tuning run. Lyne extracts his long-lensed camera and documents each of the three from astern, images for tomorrow’s morning meeting. His handheld radio crackles to life with Hutchinson asking for his opinion on the 52’s setup.

Before answering, Lyne studies a small black tablet that displays live performance data transmitted from the boat. His answer relates specifically to what he’s observing with the Quantum boat.

As the boats break off and turn ­downwind toward the start area, Hutchinson and Lyne continue their conversation about wind conditions and how the next hour or so might play out.

The chase boat RIB darts in close to the boat several times to transfer headsails and spinnakers, and shortly before the race committee begins its start sequence, we go alongside to collect the snack bag and drop off full water bottles.

We position ourselves beyond the leeward end of the start line, and the high-pitched whir of plastic rotors is unmistakable. Brash launches his drone into the sky to record the start. Lyne is animated (bordering on agitated) while the boat is racing, but he maintains his implacable even-tempered tone when talking to the sailors on the VHF between races. He has plenty to talk about, but he’s happy; Quantum Racing finishes the day with second and a fourth-place score line. Less than 7 points for the day. Hutchinson will be pleased.

Back ashore, I quiz Lyne about the teams’ shared coaching program and how he views his role in the project. I suggest that the data and feedback he typically presents isn’t the answer in and of itself — but rather a way to help the sailors work out solutions for themselves.

“That’s right,” he says. “We have people like Terry and all the other expert sailors and world-class trimmers on the boat. They’ve all got great feeling for how the boat could be sailed, but the trimmers could choose another 20 different settings, and Terry could go another 15 different ways on the racecourse. Just having a little bit of information, and some solidity in what we know or don’t know, helps reinforce all the good things that they do.”

How much, I wonder aloud, is the team breaking new ground with this collaborative approach?

“We are, 100 percent,” he says. “When have we had three grand-prix programs working together with such open collaboration before? It’s a testament to Ed’s vision that we have three teams working together as we do, in a way that is so successful.”

There is no denying their unique approach has been fruitful. The results speak for themselves:

Müller-Spreer’s Platoon crew won the World Championship in 2017, and was second on the series over the season. DeVos’ Quantum Racing won the entire 2018 season and the world title, while De Souza Ramos’ largely Brazilian Onda crew, which returned to the circuit for the 2018 season after a three-year absence, is considered one of the quickest boats around the course at times.

“I think, for sure, Quantum has been really helpful with us as we have tried to establish ourselves in this class,” says Onda tactician Scheidt, a five-time Olympic medalist. “We are a new team, so I think we made a good decision to join with them, to get all the feedback from their coaches and the information they give us during the practice sessions. We have been able to get up to speed quicker than we would have done otherwise.”

He acknowledges they continue to make mistakes around the racecourse, but that’s all part of the process of getting to the top. “Most teams here have done three or four seasons already, so it’s normal that we have a lot of things to work on.” Indeed, at the top of the grand-prix sailing game there’s always more work to be done. But more hands make for quick work, and quickness around course is always the best path to the podium.

Source: sailing world

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