MATT CORNWELL - PROFESSIONAL SAILOR FOR AMERICA'S WORLD SERIES TEAM LAND ROVER BAR
"International rock-star sailors would come to local events in the latest state-of-the-art race yachts and I always thought I would love to be a part of that world one day."
Matt Cornwell is a professional sailor and was a member of the Land Rover BAR team that represented Great Britain in the 35th America's Cup, which was held in Bermuda earlier this month. Often referred to as sailing’s version of Formula 1, the America’s Cup is a high-octane affair with 45 foot catamarans spectacularly lifting completely out of the water on hydrofoils and reaching speeds in excess of 50mph. America's Cup boats are the most technologically advanced in the world and place huge physical and mental demands on the crews so alongside rapid innovation in boat design there has been huge advancement in the fitness regimes of crews. America’s Cup sailors are now amongst the fittest endurance athletes in the world. Matt is a hugely experienced sailor who has competed in 3 America's Cup challenges, having also represented Great Britain in 2003 and France in 2007. I spoke to him about where his passion for sailing stems from, his brutal training regime, the challenges involved in sailing a high performance America’s Cup boat, the outcome of this year’s race, and his proudest achievements in the sport.
Where does your passion for sailing stem from? Was it always your dream to become a professional sailor?
I grew up in Lymington in the UK, which is a popular sailing destination, so it was a sport I was exposed to from an early age. International rock-star sailors would come to local events in the latest state-of-the-art race yachts and I always thought I would love to be a part of that world one day.
What is your typical training regime? And has it changed significantly over the years?
With the introduction of hydrofoiling wing-sailed catamarans to the America’s Cup in recent years, the power requirements from the crew has increased massively and so our training regimes have changed accordingly. Our focus now is on maximum wattage production for various periods of time. Although strength and conditioning is still an important aspect of our training, high intensity cardiovascular interval training is the mainstay of our gym time. Unfortunately it’s also the least fun part!
What is your main role on the Land Rover BAR boat? What is the most challenging aspect of your role?
I am a grinder for the team, which means that I am one of the crew responsible for delivering the power to actuate the various and continual adjustments required to propel the boats at maximum speed. The boats are very thirsty for power, which means we are constantly turning handles to meet these demands.
Why are the hydrofoil sailboats so physically demanding on the sailors?
With any normal yacht, the wind we use to propel the boat is constantly changing in direction and strength, add to this the changing sea state and you have a very dynamic state which requires the crew to regularly adjust the boat setup for optimum performance. With the modern America’s Cup class these adjustments need to be made not only to the sails and wing but also to the hydrofoils to keep the boat level and stable above the water. The fact that the boats are travelling so much faster than a conventional yacht only decreases the time between the required adjustments.
Is it also mentally demanding racing the hydrofoil sailboats?
For the helmsmen driving the boat and the wing trimmer who is controlling the speed of the boat, it is very mentally demanding as the reaction time required is shorter and the consequences of a lapse in concentration are much higher. For the rest of the crew, myself included, the opposite is the case in that the physical requirement has increased hugely but there is generally less to think about.
How difficult is it to control the hydrofoil sailboat? Can you compare sailing the hydrofoil to flying a plane?
Controlling the ride height, as we call it, of a hydrofoil sailboat is very similar to flying a plane in principle. Our foils work in the same way as an aeroplane wing with a high and low pressure side generating lift, with the angle of attack and the speed of each, through the air in an aeroplanes case or the water in ours, controlling the amount of lift generated. Planes however benefit from a steadier speed from a constant thrust from their engines, whereas a yacht’s speed varies with the wind strength and direction so a yacht’s foils need more regular adjustment.
What do you think the most important lesson the Land Rover BAR team have learnt from this year’s America’s Cup performance? Do you think it is fair to say there were some issues in the engineering and design of the boat?
That is fair to say. We lacked the speed edge we really needed to challenge for this edition of the America’s Cup. Most of the mistakes we made in the design of the boat can be traced back to the original design and overall campaign strategy. Whatever the design parameters and rules turn out to be for the next America’s Cup, we have learnt some very valuable lessons that can be applied to any future campaigns. As a new team, getting the strategy for our first design package right was a big challenge and you can see where the veteran teams had the benefit of experience here.
Why do you think New Zealand were so strong at this year’s America’s Cup, was their use of cycle power the key factor?
Team New Zealand made some very brave and innovative design decisions and pushed the envelope on what was possible with these boats as they often have in the past. Using cycle power was one factor, not only because of the benefits of legs versus upper body, but also because it freed up one of the crews hands to control the angle of the hydrofoils in the water, which is critical for a stable and fast boat. For ourselves and the rest of the teams this was controlled by the helmsman but he is already busy enough and it was definitely a benefit for the New Zealand team to offload this task from their helmsman. They were also ahead of the rest of us on hydrofoil and rudder design, as well as the method in which they adjusted their wing. All in all they just got more of the key performance differentiators right.
With several ex Formula 1 designers and engineers becoming involved in the sport, is it fair to say the America's Cup is sailing’s version of Formula 1?
It is certainly the closest thing in the sailing world to Formula 1 and there are many areas where we can benefit from their expertise. Composite structures, electro-hydraulic systems, audio communications, aerodynamics, data recording and analysis, even marketing and communications, there is much we can learn from their sport.
Most people associate sailing with getting wet and with waves coming over the boat but with America’s Cup racing you lift up out of the water. Do you think the America’s Cup is the future of sailing? Or are you more of traditionalist and prefer a more classic style of racing?
I would say both are true. Many traditionalists and long-time sailors prefer racing monohulls as this is what they are used to and can relate to . Many of the next generation and those who are new to the sport prefer the high performance catamarans we are using currently. The trick for the America’s Cup is to represent the whole sailing community. As the winners of this America’s Cup, Team New Zealand now get to chose the design of the boat for the next event so it will be interesting to see which way they go. It is quite possible that they could revert back to a high performance monohull.
The America’s Cup boats are so advanced in terms of design and technology but are we just touching the surface of what is possible?
The America’s Cup has always been a technology race so it will continue to push the boundaries on design and innovation, but it also needs to represent our sport as a whole as well as it’s own rich history and prestige, so I think there will be a balance between striving for more speed whilst maintaining the traditional aspects of sailing that have lead to the event being the longest running competition in sport.
What has been your proudest achievement in the sport?
The two times that I have represented Great Britain in the America’s Cup are unquestionably my proudest moments. I have raced for other countries when GBR hasn’t participated and thoroughly enjoyed those campaigns, but nothing compares to competing at the highest level of our sport with a Union Jack on my sailing kit.