CupInfo Interview: Alinghi's Ed BairdÔĽŅ
Coach. Skipper. Commentator. Helmsman. Ed Baird has done it all. And in his 10-plus years in the Americaís Cup, heís pretty much seen it all as well.
Now he's enjoying the view from the cockpit of defender Alinghi, with plenty of perspective on the journey that's brought him to this point.
"The America's Cup has changed a lot since my first involvement. It's a much greater spectacle than it was in San Diego and it is going to be even greater in Valencia than it was in Auckland. The facilities, the teams, the budgets, and the technologies have grown, so it really has matured into an incredible international spectacle and thatís great to see."
When Baird arrived in San Diego in 1995, the Americaís Cup looked very different. Team bases were scattered across San Diego Bay, and as a whole the general public barely took notice of the Cup -- unless someone was sinking or an aircraft carrier wandered onto the race course.
Baird signed on to Team New Zealand as sparring partner for Russell Coutts and the "A" team Ė- most days, he would "grab sailmakers and some of the office staff to go out and try to beat up on Russell."
Team New Zealand stormed through the Cup, losing only once on the water, and they made quick work of defender Stars&Stripes. Now it was the Kiwisí turn to unbolt the Auld Mug, with Baird in the middle of the champagne-soaked mob scene having contributed greatly to the fine-tuning of Russell Coutts.
"My experience with Team New Zealand was incredible because it really opened my eyes to the levels people could reach. I thought I knew a lot of the better sailors in the world until I got onto that team and realized there was another substantial step up. It was also impressive to be in a group that was pushing pretty hard the limits in many areas of the sport, but that was also on a very limited budget."
In 1996, Baird signed on with Young America and skippered the team as it led the New York Yacht Club back into Cup competition. With the 2000 Americaís Cup looming in Auckland, Baird found himself trying to keep the team together amid a budget crisis and very public boat difficulties.
"I had much more of a leadership role, which meant a lot more decision making, planning and risk management. I enjoyed that, but it tends to distract you from trying to do your best on the race course. In 2000, we also spent a lot of effort trying to protect our intellectual property from the other teams, which is quite stressful. They want to find out and learn about what you have, and protecting it takes a lot of energy.
"One of the significant disadvantages that we had in 2000 was that we werenít sure that we would actually get all the money that we had budgeted to spend. We were always out to find more sponsors, find more donors, do whatever it took to bring more money to the campaign.
"We ran into a financial dry spot in the middle of the campaign which meant that we had to make some difficult choices about how much time we could spend in our new boats on the water. In the end we chose to spend less time so that we could protect the concept of having two boats."
Young America proved fast, but fragile, and a set of sharp waves in the Louis Vuitton Cup broke the boat in half. The team did not recover from the loss of USA-53, and did not reach the semi-finals. Baird barely took a momentís rest before launching into an Olympic Soling campaign with Young America teammates Tom Burnham and Dean Brenner. The trio lost in the finals, but the lessons were invaluable.
Burnham also joined Baird on a trip to Italy, when the Prada syndicate purchased USA-53 and 58, to give the new owners an introduction to the two boats they knew so well. Burnham stayed, sailing with Prada in í03 (and remaining with the current Luna Rossa team), but he continued to sail with Baird in the Swedish Match Tour.
Bairdís next chance at the Americaís Cup came not from a syndicate, but from TV New Zealand, who offered him the seat next to Peter Montgomery, calling the racing for both TVNZ and for OLN in the US.
"One of the special unwritten rules," says Baird, with a wry smile, "is that when you break your boat in half, you have to sit out the next Americaís Cup."
"[Working with TVNZ] was a real breath of fresh air. I was in the middle of the event with all its intensity and drama, but able to look and listen and pay attention to everything. Everything! It was a great chance to absorb the event, which is very special, and to appreciate the flavor of all the teams and how they were managed. It was a tremendous case study on how to do things, right, not that right and poorly. However, I did miss the racing...."
Baird didnít stay on the Americaís Cup sidelines for long. Following his successes on the Swedish Match Tour, Alinghi announced that Baird would be in the helmsman line-up, along with Jochen Schuemann and Peter Holmberg. In Trapani, the last Louis Vuitton Act of 2005, Baird took the wheel of an Americaís Cup boat in anger for the first time in nearly six years, and Alinghi continued its dominance of the Acts, winning both the match racing and fleet racing events.
"It is fantastic to get to race again and especially with such a talented team like Alinghi. The job for me becomes trying to catch up to where all these guys are with their skill levels in their particular positions. Itís a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the racing experiences."
Like most participants, Baird enjoyed the new atmosphere surrounding the Acts Ė- in Sweden and Italy last year, teams were side by side, without huge compounds and high fences to separate them. With closeness came a new sense of camaraderie Ė- at a price.
"It was a wonderful experience this summer with all the teams together. In Ď95, some teams told their sailors not to speak to other teams. Can you imagine?
"Now there is a great open atmosphere -- the Acts created that. The flip side is that it became a bit of a free for all with people checking out each otherís equipment. We were surprised at the way some people behaved, taking pictures and sneaking around looking at stuff. That side of it is frustrating, but itís part of the sacrifice of being able to chat over the fence to another team."
With the Acts just about over and done, attention now turns to the Louis Vuitton Cup in 2007, and the Americaís Cup. Teams have had the chance to measure each other, and Baird knows thereís a fight ahead. Whoever wins the challenger series will be more than ready for the defender.
"If you think back to the 2003 Cup, most people watching the Cup would have made the wrong choice as to who was going to win. Alinghi was discounted as a start-up team. Prada was the team expected to get stronger on the heels of their 2000 performance. It shows you how much can change in that year and a half.
"Here we are, a year away from the Cup, and I think focusing on a team that looks strongest right now gives you a tremendous risk of missing things that a less prominent team might be experimenting with. A good example is K-Challenge coming out and beating us in the match racing in Trapani and doing well overall with a boat that is two generations old. If that can happen, what could happen when they get a new boat? So I donít subscribe to the theory that you need to watch out for one or two teams, I think you have to keep your eye on everybody and pay attention to the ideas that they have, even the ones that donít seem to work, because they might work the next time."
And the next time, itís for real.
-- Diane Swintal for CupInfo
Ed Baird's Sailing Resume includes:
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