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Hiding in plain sight: two helmsmen, one boat

This weekend saw Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli take four wins from four in the Prada Cup Final. Was the winning secret having two helmsmen?

Written by Rebecca Hayter
Photography by America's Cup Media

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When Australian Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni fronted to the Prada Cup as co-helmsmen of the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, the immediate question was if this could actually work.

But now, as Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli surge through the Prada Cup Final, cruising beyond its string of round-robin losses against their now rivals, INEOS Team UK, is the answer yes?

The latest results suggest it is and a comment from Bruni, after race three of the Prada Cup Finals, explains why.

“At that moment I was worried, yes,” said Bruni, in reply to whether he was concerned at INEOS Team UK attempting a hook in one pre-start over the weekend.

“But I was also trimming the foils so I knew that I had my job. I knew that Jimmy had the business in his hands so I was trusting him. I wasn’t watching back.”

Bruni’s response reflects a relationship of mutual trust and respect between the two helmsmen – and technically, flight controllers – which is the only way such an arrangement could work.

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Initially, the decision to run two helmsmen appeared high risk – mainly, just because it did. The idea of one skipper, one chain of command is a core yachting principle. Anything different feels wrong.

AC75 boats are different and inherently high risk. Ignoring personalities, the decision to have two helmsmen makes sense.

For one, it means there is always a helmsman’s viewpoint to leeward. In the America’s Cup World Series, Peter Burling was helming to windward and foil wing-breaking close to whacking the top mark, as tactician Glenn Ashby told him with increasing urgency: “Pete, listen to me. Come up.”

Of course, it’s possible that an off-duty helmsman operating as flight controller would still be busy, but surely, he could grab the wheel in between flying the boat?

With twin helmsmen, there is no need to swap sides during manoeuvres. INEOS Team UK nearly lost a crew mid-tack in the Prada Cup Finals. In 2017, Artemis did lose its skipper, Nathan Outteridge, in Bermuda as he crossed the boat and didn’t stop, thus ending their race.

But this isn’t the case with Luna Rossa where each helmsmen stays on his side of the boat through tacks and gybes. A decision that gives the boat a dedicated helmsman on the wheel at all times, particularly, and most crucially, during manoeuvres.

If you take the personalities out of it, it does make sense to have two helmsmen, but personalities often derail shared leadership.

America’s Cup skippers need swags of self-confidence to make non-negotiable go, no-go decisions. Those skills serve them well as they attack in the pre-start and engage in freestyle brawling in a tacking duel, but such qualities are sometimes linked with big egos. Is there room for two AC75 egos on one rudder?

And that’s the success story here. Under the regime set out by Max Sirena, Spithill and Bruni have committed to a flat hierarchy. On the website, they are listed as sailors, not helmsmen, alongside the rest of the crew.

Having got that out of the way, there are huge advantages for Prada Pirelli. They lined up two of the best America’s Cup helmsmen in the world and didn’t have to choose which one.

They have built-in redundancy if one helmsman is unable to helm, but there’s perhaps an even bigger advantage here. At the wheel, the helmsman and the flight controller need an intuitive connection with the boat and with each other to keep the boat in perfect, level flight.

The best way to develop that skill and connection is to swap jobs in every tack.

At this stage, we don’t know the outcome of the current COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, but if Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli does go through to the America’s Cup, we’ll be seeing a lot of Spithill and Bruni on the television, and they both give great quotes. We won’t have to choose.

 

americascup.com

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