Glenn Ashby is taking part in the GC32 World Championship in Riva del Garda this week as mainsheet trimmer on board Sébastien Schneiter’s Team Tilt. This is something of a retro-step from his position last year when he skippered the Emirates Team New Zealand flying AC50 catamaran to victory in Bermuda, recovering the ‘Auld Mug’ for the Kiwis.
While helmsman Peter Burling was more the public face of Emirates Team New Zealand, Ashby was not just skipper but also spent his time huddled in the cockpit, fiddling like a teenager with a gizmo akin to a Gameboy controller. Although nominally wing trimmer, Ashby’s gizmo enabled him to not only control the wing, but the jib as well. “I had the whole aero package at my fingertips. You could use two or three fingers and your thumbs on both hands to be able to multi-task and change things simultaneously which was pretty handy. Yes, I wasn’t breaking too much sweat – in fact I tried to keep myself very relaxed!”
In comparison, on board the GC32, Ashby is having to reacquaint himself with ye olde technology…rope! “It is a bit of rope-pulling festival which is pretty different to what we were doing last year. It’s been nice to have to put gloves on again, although it was a bit tough for the first couple of months.”
Ashby is no newcomer to Team Tilt, as he regularly sailed with the Swiss team during the 2016 season (prior to that he’d done one or two events with Leigh McMillan on the 2015 GC32 Racing Tour winner, Sultanate of Oman). “It is nice to sail the GC32 again – a case of getting back to basics, good technique and the crew sailing the boat well together. If you are doing it with electronics or hydraulics or ropes, the same principles apply – team work and co-ordination are key.”
Aside from Ashby winning the America’s Cup, the period between now and the last time he sailed with Team Tilt, he has also seen Sébastien Schneiter develop into a professional sailor, after he represented Switzerland at Rio 2016 in the 49er skiff and last year in Bermuda as skipper of the Swiss Red Bull Youth America’s Cup AC45. “It has been nice to see those guys step forwards,” says Ashby. “Since 2016, their level of improvement has been at an incredible rate as has development of their knowledge base. Their attention to detail and the accuracy of their sailing has improved a lot, which is fantastic.”
As to how racing the GC32 has developed in his absence, Ashby reckons that it has evened out across the fleet. “Knowledge of how to set the boats up and the techniques for reaching starts, etc have improved. Everyone’s knowledge base of ‘how, what and why’ has risen, otherwise I don’t think there has been a huge amount that has changed.”
Back with Emirates Team New Zealand for the present 36th America’s Cup cycle, Ashby has been involved with conceiving the new AC75 and for the last two Cup cycles played a vital role within the Kiwi team as interface between crew and designers. Given that he has some of the most advanced technological knowledge about foiling catamarans – what would he do with the GC32?
“To be honest, the hull shape of the boat was ahead of its time when it was designed. It was based on the F18-type hull shapes of the period, which had high volume-displacement hulls. The hulls being quite big, buoyant and stiff, which really lend themselves to retrofitting proper foiling boards.
“For sure the boats are still current, because of the type of racing and because owner-drivers can get these 32ft foiling catamarans around the track really well. With no electronics, no buttons and no hydraulic stuff to worry about – because everything is rope drive or worm drive – it does bring the purist yachting skills out. That helps keep it a level playing field for the pro guys and the owner-drivers to compete on.”
Ashby says that the present ‘stable’ foils could be swapped for more high performance versions. “If you went more open in the daggerboard tip, with a larger span, and moved the boards outboard, the boats would get a lot more powerful and faster, but they would become a lot more unstable. So then you’d either have to have an electronic control system or even an automated flight control system. Then you’d be foiling upwind in a lot lighter conditions and the boats’ performance would go up and up. But matching the control systems with the foils has to go hand-in-hand.”
No plans are afoot at this stage to upgrade the GC32’s foils, but Ashby’s views on this topic are certainly well-informed food for thought.
Aside from his America’s Cup position, Ashby is also renowned for having won a mighty nine World Championships in the A-Class catamaran, in addition to three more in the F18 and a further three in the former Olympic Tornado catamaran and even the ancient ISAF Multihull World Championship with his former Tornado helm Darren Bundock.
“There is something about a World Championship which makes it different to other regattas. Aside from the Olympics, the Worlds are the pinnacle of any class and to have the GC32s all sailing around together it will be pretty busy. I am super excited about it and it will be great to see the class grow.
“When you are sailing in venues like Garda, it is magic yachting. To be able to come here, we are all fortunate.”