Three Teams Hope Past Experience Lifts Them to Success at Fifth Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup
NEWPORT, R.I. — If experience in the event itself is the key to success in the fifth edition of the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup, then the list of favorites has to start with the three teams helmed by sailors who have competed in each edition of this biennial Corinthian challenge. The teams representing the New York Yacht Club, the Royal Cork Yacht Club and the defending champions from the Royal Thames Yacht Club will be led by sailors who have sailed in every single race in the history of Rolex NYYC Invitational Cup.
The 2017 Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup will take place September 9 to 16 at the New York Yacht Club Harbour Court, in Newport, R.I. Amateur sailors representing 14 yacht clubs from around the globe will converge on Newport to race in the ultimate one-design, big-boat competition. The boats and sails are provided and the rig tune is standardized across the fleet. The Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup is sponsored by Rolex, Porsche, AIG, Nautor's Swan, and Helly Hansen and will be broadcast live via the web.
In 2009, John Greenland (above, at helm) skippered the Royal Thames Yacht Club team to 13th place in the inaugural running of the event. While it was hardly an auspicious start for the storied British club, it exposed the club to the commitment required to win. In 2011, Greenland called tactics for the Royal Ocean Racing Club, finishing seventh. When the Royal Thames returned to the competition, in 2013, the team committed to a summer of training in Newport and was rewarded with a third-place finish. Finally, in 2015, Royal Thames YC became the first European team to take home the prized trophy.
"Last time, we were rolling from 2013 straight into 2015," says Greenland. "This time around the team has had a bit more of a break; but we've been more focused in our approach. We sailed both the Annual Regatta presented by Rolex and the Swan 42 U.S. Nationals this year, in Mutiny, which we also have for the Rolex Invitational Cup. Because we've had the opportunity, largely thanks to William Edwards with the support of other Royal Thames members, to focus our efforts over the years, we've got a better feel for what is working and isn't working. We also have eight of the 11 teammates from the 2015 event [returning this year]."
The team seems to have checked nearly every box. However, they are not alone in that regard.
For Anthony O'Leary (right, white hat), from Ireland's Royal Cork Yacht Club, the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup is something of a family tradition. O'Leary represented the Royal Cork at the first regatta in 2009 and has returned to each event since, accompanied by one or more of his sons on the crew, along with his wife Sally.
"The Rolex NYYC Invitational Cup offers brilliant racing in very equally matched boats," said Robert O'Leary, who sailed in 2011 and 2013 and will be serving as tactician for his father this year. "The minor speed differentials upwind and downwind mean that racing is always extremely tight. The variety of amateur teams racing at such a high level is what entices us back every time."
The elder O'Leary is a tireless campaigner who has twice been named the Irish Sailor of the Year and regularly competes in both small planing one-designs and larger offshore events. While the crew doesn't have the opportunity to sail the Swan 42 except at this event, Robert O'Leary thinks their collective experience in four previous editions of Rolex NYYC Invitational Cup will allow them to get up to speed quickly during the three days of pre-regatta practice.
"Every bit of boatspeed helps, be it a quarter knot of straight-line speed or having good speed out of a tack or jibe," Robert O'Leary said. "For the helms and crews that sail these boats on a regular basis, they certainly have spent the time to perfect their tuning and maneuvers. Luckily we have a fantastic crew who have all sailed a variety of boats over the years and will adapt quickly to the 42 for the event."
John Hele (left, at helm) knows better than anyone in this event what it takes to win. Hele was a part of the team representing the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, which finished second in the inaugural event in 2009, won it in 2011 and 2013, and finished 10th in 2015. This September, however, Hele will be representing the New York Yacht Club, where he's been a member for more than 25 years. And while he served as the tactician for all four RCYC efforts—Olympic silver medalist Terry McLaughlin was the helmsman—he'll be steering the boat for the NYYC team.
"As a NYYC Member since 1991, I have always held a strong interest in representing the host club, and so I decided to try for the berth this time, especially since I became a United States Citizen in 2016," said Hele. "It is an exceptional feeling and tremendous privilege to sail under the New York Yacht Club burgee and be helming for the event."
The strict eligibility requirements for the crew, which require that all but two be members of the represented yacht club, means that Hele had to almost completely rebuild his crew for this challenge. Fortunately, the New York Yacht Club is stocked with plenty of talented amateur sailors, including tactician Brad Read, a former J/24 world champion, and main trimmer Chip Whipple, who sailed for the Club in 2011 and 2013, finishing second and ninth, respectively. Hele and his crew have left no stone unturned in their preparation for the event, training numerous days under the watchful eye of America's Cup veteran Tom Burnham, who coached the Artemis team during the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda.
"It's a game of inches out there," said Whipple. "You know everyone's going to show up at the windward mark at the same time. If we have any advantage at all, it's going to be because we've been training so much and working so hard. It may only be a difference of a half a boatlength, but that half boatlength will get you around the mark before the bulk of the fleet."
Because the Rolex NYYC Invitational Cup uses supplied sails and standardized rig tune, the boat is a little different from the Swan 42 that is sailed in every other event. Mastering those subtle differences has been a focus of the team's training.
"In this event, the whole playing field has been completely leveled," said Whipple. "There's only going to be a few times when we're in the sweet spot of the sails and rig tune we're given. Other times we'll be overpowered or underpowered, that's where the experience of the boathandling and sail control will show up and start to make a difference. We've practiced with old sails, smaller sails, we've tried to simulate how the boat will behave given the equipment we're using."
Perhaps the best advice, however, has nothing to do with the boat, rig or sails. These three teams may be favorites on paper, but everyone starts with the same score on Tuesday, and the same ultimate goal.
"Never underestimate the other teams," said Robert O'Leary. "They are extremely competitive and we are all out there with one goal in mind, to take home the trophy."
Photo credits: ROLEX/Daniel Forster (2), Stuart Streuli/NYYC