Grant Simmer’s America’s Cup record goes all the way back to the legendary victory of Australia II in 1983. It was the first time a challenger had ever beaten the defender and launched the Cup on a global journey to Australia, back to the States onto New Zealand, Spain, USA again, Bermuda and most recently returning to New Zealand.
Grant has completed ten America's Cup campaigns in numerous roles including sailor, designer, senior manager and now CEO with INEOS Team UK. He’s won sport's oldest international trophy four times; first as navigator aboard Australia II, then as head of design and subsequently managing director at Alinghi in 2003, 2007 and 2010 and most recently as general manager with Oracle Team USA in 2013 and 2017. In the process Grant has been through seven AC class changes in his career including the 12M, IACC, the giant catamarans of the 2010 DOG Match, before boats started flying with the AC72 and 50 and now the soft winged AC75 foiling monohull.
So how did a 26-year old engineer and dinghy sailor end up as a navigator on what’s the most famous America’s Cup crew of all time? It was started by Simmer’s father. “He had little yachts. He used to get them built just locally in the northern beaches up in Sydney.” By the time Grant Simmer was eight he was sailing Manly Juniors with a neighbour at Avalon Sailing Club.
Simmer had the Manly Junior for a couple of years before graduating to Cherubs at the age of 12. “I used to duke it out with Iain Murray. Between Iain Murray and I we would win regattas, win or come second, the two of us.” He moved onto 470s and then the Lightweight Sharpie at University. A popular boat at the time, with around 80 contesting the national championships, Simmer was the first Junior to win the Nationals.
Simmer graduated with an engineering degree and began work, building a power station in a spot surrounded by the world-famous Kakadu National Park. “It was in the Northern Territory, outside of Darwin, in Jabiru. It’s a national park. It was the wild west. Fantastic. We had a fantastic time. Literally building a diesel power station. A 25 megawatt power station. There were three engineers onsite, and I was the junior engineer.” It was 1980, and Simmer was not sailing much. “I remember listening on a transistor radio to the America’s Cup in Newport, Australia racing Freedom.”
It was then his big break came when John Bertrand asked him to join the crew of Apollo 5, the latest in a long line of offshore race yachts owned by Alan Bond.
“We did the Admiral’s Cup in ’81 on that boat, Apollo 5. That was really the first big international event I had done. At Christmas we did the Hobart on that boat, and Bondy, Alan Bond, said, ‘We’re building a new 12M, I’d like you to be the navigator.’
“I’d never navigated in my life, but he said, ‘I think it’s time that we have a younger navigator.’ The instrumentation was going to a new standard, and we could have some pretty basic on board computation. We would write our own software in the little machines that we had on board, programmable calculators, and stuff like that. We had calculations for cross-wind and the relative position of the other boat, and the change, gains and losses relative to the other boat. We had a little strip chart, literally a paper strip chart printing out the wind direction and speed; we were still trying to figure if there was a pattern in any of the shifts. So, that would be tinkering away, printing out.”
The rest is history and four America’s Cup wins later Simmer is now in the UK trying to bring the Cup back to British shores for the first time. Team principal Ben Ainslie had been planning to have Grant Simmer manage his Cup team since 2011. So what was it that changed his mind in 2017?
“I’d joined Oracle half way through the San Francisco campaign, when things weren’t going that well and Russell asked me to do it and just steady the ship a bit, really. Try to pull everything together and coordinate things. They had a really strong sailing team with Jimmy and co, and they had a good design team, but it just wasn’t quite all working together… I hope that we managed to turn things around.
“I mean, we were lucky to win the Cup, there’s no doubt about that, but we certainly turned things around in the 14 months that I was there. Then Ben was really harassing me to join the new team here, but I had a lot of relationships with the Oracle guys and I was part of the team and it was really difficult to leave and start again. He was unhappy about that but, anyway, that’s the way it was.
“This time Oracle had ended because we’d lost, and Ben and I had gotten to know each other better over the years. So I decided to do it. It’s not easy joining a team; it’s not like we’ve made a new team here. Ben Ainslie Racing had a lot of good people. We’ve just made some key changes.
“We brought Nick Holroyd in and he’s a really experienced naval architect. He has done a lot of projects, working both in New Zealand and with Team New Zealand. He’s worked on IMOCA 60s and various other big projects and he comes with naval architecture, structural and control systems knowledge. He comes with a broad experience, and that has been really good for us. We already had a really good young design team, a good bunch of guys with a lot of experience.
“Andy McLean on the systems side is a classic example of a guy who has got the full picture of how these boats are going to sail, and what’s required in terms of instrumentation and control systems.
What does Simmer see as the biggest challenger for the 36th America’s Cup “What I’m nervous about is that it’s such a new class of boat that you could miss something. We’re in this broad, open, design area. It’s when they introduce a new class of boat that it’s really up for grabs. Not necessarily the biggest, or the strongest team will win. It will be somebody who has really understood the concept of the boat the best and made the best decisions.
“The areas with the biggest scope in the rule are the foil and flap configuration, control systems and the energy management, because these boats have big changes in righting moment. Hopefully we have made a lot of good decisions but, for sure, there’ll be things that we don’t get right. So we have to continue to learn off other teams as we go, but I think we’re in pretty good shape. There was a hell of a lot of good work done in the last Cup here at BAR, and I think there’s an opportunity to take those tools and build on them, which we’re doing.
The racing in Auckland could be like no other and Simmer is looking forward to it “Hopefully, ultimately, the racing will be quite close, which is good for the event, and then the sailor’s yacht racing ability will play a big part in the result. But right now, the early years of this Cup are about making good design decisions and then developing the boat with the sailors and designers working together.
INEOS TEAM UK has learnt a lot through T5, the first test boat built to the AC75 concept to get out sailing. “We built T5 to learn about sailing a boat in a configuration that had never done before and it was an interesting project just to get our teeth into, with new people in the team. It has been a great forward-thinking project for the team and we’re getting a lot of value from T5.
Ultimately, it’s still early days with this Cup cycle with no race boat yet to hit the water but we’ve made good progress, we’re happy with where we are.”