America’s Cup: The Crew and their Fitness Level

words: JOSH DEAN
photography: Sam Greenfield / ORACLE TEAM USA

Over the last decade, the speed of yacht racing has increased by a factor of five and the age of the competitors has dropped by 10 years. When the 35th edition of the America’s Cup takes place in Bermuda in June, it will mark the beginning of an entirely new sport. Part 3: The crew and how they keep themselves fit

The AC72 yachts at the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco required a crew of 11. In Bermuda this year, just six men will serve on each AC50 racing yacht.

Every man wears a helmet, an impact vest, an oxygen canister, and a special harness that can clip to the high side of the boat if it capsizes.

Hover over the picture to learn more about the different functions of the crew members

The Fitness

No more rotund guys wearing blazers – These sailors are svelte athletes

Before 2013, the America’s Cup was a very different sport. “It was not very physical,” says Oracle Team USA trainer Craig McFarlane. There were always grinders, but they worked hard for short periods and then rested. The grinders on the Oracle team this time will be at 91 to 93 per cent of their maximum heart rate for the entire 22-minute race. It’s hard for McFarlane to even find a comparison in other sports because of the combination of endurance and power required. “Their power output is pretty phenomenal,” he says. “What elite cyclists do with their legs, that’s what these guys do with their arms.” 

Jimmy Spithill

“It’s the whole approach: diet, nutrition and training,” says Jimmy Spithill (pictured)

© Peter Hurley

Sensors on the boat’s handles provide real-time data to McFarlane and the team, telling him how much power, in watts, each man is applying at a given moment, as well as tracking their cadence. He can see who is off his typical pace, which positions seem to be working harder, and who’s recovering most quickly after intense spells of effort.

McFarlane is still working on that mix, trying to find the right balance. He thinks the “optimal cadence” is 85-90rpm. “But we’re tweaking it,” he says. The advantage of keeping a lower cadence 
is that the heart rate doesn’t spike as much – but doing fewer, more powerful reps has a downside, too: a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles.

Training takes place five days a week with McFarlane, with an optional sixth day on Saturday that most take advantage of. Three days a week, the team focuses on strength, then there’s one day of unloaded cardio in a pool, and another of intense aquatic work, typically in the open water at Horseshoe Bay. McFarlane runs a series of drills in which they swim out and perform exercises such as underwater weights and underwater running, then transition directly into land work – stairs or hills, typically. “This transitional training is very taxing, but it makes you resilient as an athlete,” McFarlane says.

Even the shore crew for OTUSA works out every day, at 6.30am. “If they’re unhealthy and fat, they’re not going to do their job,” team nutritionist Scott Tindal says. The shore crew’s fitness, he says, “is a big difference this campaign”. Over one six-week period, the eight guys lost a total of 43kg of fat. Everyone boxes with trainer Brent ‘Honey Badger’ Humphreys a few times a week, too.

Keeping fit!

550: Calories burned, on average, by a grinder during a 22-minute race

9: Average body fat percentage of crew members

1440: Number of organic eggs from Pennsylvania consumed by OTUSA in a single week 

150: Average weight in kg an Oracle crew member can bench press

525: Maximum weight allowance in kg for the six-man crew

the next generation


Four years ago, Austrians Roman Hagara and Hans-Peter Steinacher came together with the goal of finding the next generation of competitive sailors. Today, the two pros – two-time Olympic gold medallists in 2000 and 2004 – are sports directors of the largest talent-scouting programme in the world of sailing. “We try to open young sailors’ minds by sharing our experience with them,” Steinacher says. “And hopefully it’ll take them in the right direction for the future.” 

The smallest crew in the AC’s history

The Reliance, which won the America’s Cup in 1903, had a crew of 72 people. More than 100 years later, each has only six members…  

1992-2007: 17 members
2013: 11 members
2017: 6 members

The programme is divided into two parts: the Red Bull Foiling Generation and the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup. Foiling Generation, founded in 2015, is an international regatta series for all up-and-coming sailors aged 16 to 20. Teams of two sail a 5.5m-long Flying Phantom catamaran at speeds of up to 35 knots (65kph). The next rung up is the Youth America’s Cup, where up to 16 national youth teams aged 19-25 battle it out in Bermuda with the hope of qualifying for the finals on June 20-21 LIVE on Red Bull TV.

The teams sail on the original America’s Cup course in a 13m-long AC45 foiling catamaran. “With all these races, we hope to find the best sailors in the world in every age group,” says Steinacher. It’s an ambitious goal for him and Hagara, but it seems to be working: since the first Youth America’s Cup was held in 2013, eight sailors have already advanced to the America’s Cup. Keep an eye out for 26-year-old Peter Burling, who after winning the youth race in 2013 will be the skipper for Emirates Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup proper, and Cooper Dressler, also 26, who will be a grinder on the Oracle Team USA boat. 

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06 2017 The Red Bulletin

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