This month’s column from Kevin Hall and brought to you by Mauri Pro Sailing goes where few dare…

So you want to win the America’s Cup. You’ve got a budget and a core sailing team. You’ve found or retained or poached some great designers, engineers, shore team, and maybe more sailors. You’re ready to go.

There are many good books and articles on the long history of the Cup, things which have worked in the past. I’m going to offer one word to sum up the future of the whole shooting match: offense.

First an example from on the water. I was surprised by both teams when they lead into the bottom but chose the left gate looking down wind in the flood. Yeah, I know first into the cone. But to me it read as a defensive move, something like this : “If we choose the right gate, tack, and they go to the other one and tack after having more current relief, which we should have known would happen, they might have a piece of us, and then we’ll look like gooses”. Or is it geese. Anyway, my read of the course and bottom gate decision was different. I rated the slightly left angle of the inshore breeze, and the slight left shift as the boats sailed into less flood, and the fact there was a good chance that crossing over to the Cityfront from the right-gate-to-boundary tack position would work pretty well, as the stronger move on average. If the trailing opponent made a small gain from being first into the relief and tacked off the boundary in the cone and had a piece, they might win that battle. But, the boat up a tack is ahead if it ducks close, and is likely to win the war from there.

I have not carefully reviewed every gate of every race of America’s Cup 34 looking for data to support my theory, so I am probably the biggest goose of all. I don’t mind. My point is about the mentality : if the choice was made defensively … it was made poorly.

What are some other places this offense or defense mentality can be seen? Let’s say you have two choices with resource. Choice A allows you to have an upgrade of an existing piece of equipment, of a certain magnitude. It is an incremental gain from an existing piece of equipment. In order to make sure your spares program keeps up, the magnitude of the upgrade is partially compromised. (No free lunch or unlimited resource, or helpful time warps. All that). Or, you can have a bigger upgrade but no spare. I realize “it depends”. It always depends. But if you’re going to be uncompetitive with upgrade A or its spare, you have to go with the bigger but lonely upgrade B. Offence.

You can trust your data that very few, if any, races are likely to be sailed with Code Zeroes (why did it take everyone so long to learn this? Seems so obvious…now, with Harry Hindsight and Isabelle I Told You So at the bar). This allows you to ditch the entire Code Zero program. If you’re scrambling in other areas, ditching everything about Code Zeroes might produce a huge net gain in 90% + of the races. That would be offence.

Top teams are already on offense to get setup to respond as new information about the class rule and the venue comes in. I humbly submit that part of that setup time could be invested in (bear with me) setting up a program to improve the rate of improvement in many areas. I’m sure every team is different, and I’m sure every team has strived, and will strive, for continuous improvement. Cool. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about committing, right now, to systematically and continually improving the methods by which a team gets better.

I realize it’s easy to throw the word “meta” around and say nothing. An example should help.

Team A has great sailing sessions, great tools, great debriefs, and works very hard. Their debriefs produce information which they scurry to use to make decisions about the existing and the future boats. They go on to sail those boats and have great sailing sessions, great tools, great debriefs, and lots of hard work. They will improve. No question. They will be sailing faster tomorrow than they were yesterday. Step by step. They will probably have the occasional day off but only to recharge enough to repeat the above. Perhaps ratchet up the intensity just a little toward the final push.

Team B has great sailing sessions, great tools, great debriefs, and also works very hard. They also know that quality time on the water is important. They also know that recharging drained physical batteries of personnel is necessary. They value time as the most precious commodity in the America’s Cup game, just like Team A does. Here’s what Team B does differently to team A. Before the first sailing session even begins, they plan to follow it up with a session to review that session’s process. Let’s call it a retreat just to hammer it home. It’s not to talk about the sailing session’s results, what the session produced. It’s to discuss all the ways the session itself could have been better, from a better way to get the message that the lunches were soggy through to the person with the responsibility and the power to make them dry, to getting the quiet people to say what they really think, to getting the sailing team down on the floor trying to understand their tools better.

At this point, it’s still only a suggestion box. A meta one, which sounds cool, but a suggestion box nonetheless. So far, we’ve lost valuable time-on-the-water time. The reason we’ve set proper time aside for our efforts to improve the way we improve is to take the next, much more difficult step. We’re going to actually do something about those lessons in the box here on Team B.

After the first sailing session, Team A will be ahead. Guaranteed. They don’t have time for touchy-feely, airy-fairy, ra-ra meta crap. After session two, Team A will still be ahead. Maybe even further ahead. But Team B’s third session will have been considerably better than the first one, and the seed is planted. The expectation is set by and for the people on Team B to seek to improve the way they improve, from day one.

We’ll be in another new class in AC35, so there will be plenty of design and technique space to exploit before worrying about the subtle stuff. Some day, though, the “AC62ish” will be a MkVII (I hope). When that day comes, the team that is still able to improve because they are still finding new ways to improve, will carry the day.

This is not an easy commitment to make. There are no double blind studies supporting it, it’s hard to even talk about in a way which keeps everyone talking about the same thing. It’s very hard to touch this stuff much less hit it with a hammer.

It is an investment in the long game. A tangible benefit which probably can be expected occurs on the very human level of grumble and grouse. If the troops suspect that management just doesn’t seem to understand or to be committed to a vision beyond putting out fires and supplying better food at the team BBQ, some of that time we all decided was so precious will be lost to grumbling. If, on the other hand, everyone looks around and sees people who want to not only do their own job as well as possible, but also facilitate inter-personal and inter-departmental improvement during the three or four years everyone is living out of pretty much the same suitcase, the team will perform better when it counts the most.