Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chemistry On & Off the Course for America's Cup Team Korea

I have to say Team Korea has piqued my interest this past few months and it’s not just because the average crew age is 30. Chatting with skipper Chris Draper (GBR) reminded me of conversations I’ve had in the past with Grant Dalton, the drive behind Emirates Team NZ - the most successful team in the America’s Cup. Like Dalton, Draper leans into the conversation fully engaged and straight to the point. And like Dalton, Draper is massively driven by competition.

I was curious to learn how this first-ever Korean entry have put together a first class team who are doing really well holding their own - mid-fleet - in the inaugural America's Cup World Series competition.

Cliché or not, the phrase, “there’s no ‘I’ in team”, comes instantly to mind when talking to Draper. It’s clear that he’s hand-picked his guys - he wanted skilled, hard-working sailors with a winning chemistry, and he’s pretty sure he’s headed in the right direction.

Currently on board, starting at the front, is Matt Cornwell “Catflap” who has worked with Areva Challenge and GBR Challenge and more recently, Team Origin. He was Ben Ainslie’s bowman on Ben’s match racing tour winning team last year. “Matt brings a lot of Cup racing experience with him as well as a lot of match racing experience,” Draper said. “He’s very relaxed and great to spend time with.”

Next up is Mark Bulkeley, a silver medalist at the Tornado world championships and a representative in the Tornado for GBR at the Olympics. He was also Draper’s mainsheet trimmer in the Extreme 40 series when they won in 2009. Bulkeley was also Draper’s best man and is a very close friend. Bulkeley’s taken on the trimming role and doing an excellent role, Draper said. “He’s got a good physical presence at about 95kilos is very strong and fit.”

Next back is Chris Brittle who’s the float, 110 kilo aerobic machine - he can do 2000 reps on the ergo in 6 minutes flat. Draper says he’s an absolute weapon but that sadly Team Korea is about to lose Brittle as he’s moving to Artemis (Team Korea weren’t on fixed contracts so he made the decision to move to them). “With Cup experience on +39 and Team Origin, he has a huge work ethic and physical presence plus he’s a really nice guy to spend time with, Draper said.”

Team Korea’s wing trimmer is Troy Tindill who has been working with the AC 45s from day 1. It was suggested to Draper that it would be a good idea to have Tindill involved with the team. “It was quickly apparent that he knew a huge amount the boats, plus he’s also great to be around. He’s been a huge asset - without him we wouldn’t have picked up the boat as quickly as we have. He’s a young guy learning all the time, and helping us learn as well,” Draper said.

33-year old Draper knows all too well how important chemistry is to success on the water. He’s sailed Olympic classes for the past 10 years, and before that came up through the classic youth sailing program - Optis, 420s, then sailed the 49er for 10 years, going back and forth between being 1st and 2nd in the world. He took a break from that after missing selection for Beijing, and started doing Extreme 40s in ’08-09.

“I then gave the 49er another shot with a different team mate for the London Olympics which didn’t really go to plan, as we just never quite jelled as a team - the chemistry wasn’t quite perfect, although we had some good success, winning the Europeans last year, he said”

As that plan didn’t work out, Draper started looking for opportunities he knew existed in the Cup because of his background. Enter Team Korea.

Like himself, Draper says there’s a new wave of people coming into America’s Cup sailing who have been Olympic campaigning full-time for the last 10 years and who are used to working with a team-mate who they’re with everyday perhaps spending 200+ days a year with training etc. and who have come to understand the importance of good relationships.

“From the brief glimpses I have had of past America’s Cup teams, personalities can be quite abrasive and I think we’re trying very hard at Team Korea to make sure we have people who get on well and who will work hard and give it their all, and feel good that the person sitting next to you is watching your back, or if you make a mistake, they’ll back you up - that’s an ethos we’ve started for this campaign and we’ll try to maintain that all the way through.”

Draper knows that he’s got some good youth, enthusiasm and talent now but wants to make sure he backs that up with experienced Cup winners. “There’re plenty of those guys out there, a lot of them are people I’ve sailed with who are not involved just yet. We’re also very aware that the design and production of an AC 72 is a huge project and we need as much help as possible with that. We still want to maintain the youth & fitness but make sure we have the balance.”

Although this is his first Cup campaign, Draper thinks while there’s a lot less time to build and plan a strategy for AC 34, nonetheless, the boat-handling is still a massive part of it. “With these one design classes is it’s about refining and getting the most out of the boats sailing as quickly as possible but it’s also about doing the maneuvers well enough that you’ve got tactical options.

We took the approach that we wanted to have the top tactical options but that we might be a little bit on the back with the input to make those tactical decisions. We’ve had a few times where that’s fallen down. But, it’s exciting racing, quick decisions, you have to be thinking fast and I think more and more it’s those that can make those quick gut instinct decisions who are doing well.”

And, Draper likes to think he’s in that category.

“It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years and that’s what I love about the sport - I love the physical aspect of the boat handling, steering the boat to make the boat handling easier and I love the communication to make everyone’s life easier to be able to make good decisions that can be executed quickly.”

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know Draper but just in talking to him I guessed he was extremely competitive…

“Yes, I’d say that!” Draper laughed. “I think if you look at any of our races when we have a bad race we’re seriously upset when we’ve made a mistake and managing that passion is also hard but being young and enthusiastic sometimes doesn’t help that. We’re trying to develop maturity and be unflustered but what I see that people I’ve always thought don’t seem to be flustered can get pretty wound up at times! But yes, we are very competitive, I’m hugely competitive . I really like to win, whatever it is!”

For this regatta, the top three things on Draper’s to-do list have been to work on starts, try out some new sails, and further develop the Team’s strategy for the future.

“We’ve been trying to improve our boat speed but haven’t had a huge amount of time to get used to the new sails but they seem like an improvement - they’re a little bit different to use. We’re also working on where the Team is headed which I have to admit has made it a harder to focus on what we’re trying to achieve here on the race course. But that’s just part of the Cup and the territory.”

Draper expects that after San Diego the Team will probably go to Valencia, which is where other teams are headed. Down the road he’s hoping they’ll have some additional training boats to work with also, citing that a few more AC 45s would be nice but a cheaper alternative is most likely.

“There’ll be a good group to sail with in Valencia so we’ll all develop and move forward. I think if we step away from that and let that happen without us we could potentially lose ground,” he said.

1 comment:

  1. Michelle, thanks for a good behind the scenes interview that helps explain the success of TK!