May 30, 2017 / 2:01 PM / 2 months ago

New Zealand plot alternative course for America's Cup revenge

FILE PHOTO: Oracle Team USA (L) overtakes Emirates Team New Zealand during Race 19 of the 34th America's Cup yacht sailing race in San Francisco, California September 25, 2013.Stephen Lam/File Photo

(Reuters) - In pursuit of revenge for their stunning defeat in San Francisco four years ago, Emirates Team New Zealand are setting themselves apart from rivals as they challenge for the 35th America's Cup, both on and off the water.

On the water, they have caught their competitors off-guard with a pioneering switch to pedals to power their catamaran's hydraulics, while on land they were notably absent when other top teams endorsed a "framework agreement" for the future of the oldest trophy in international sport.

Oracle Team USA, Britain's Land Rover BAR, Groupama Team France, SoftBank Team Japan and Sweden's Artemis Racing all signed up to the plan to boost the number of competitors by capping the multi-million dollar costs of the high-tech boats.

It also aims to make it easier to raise sponsorship and strike broadcast deals.

Emirates New Zealand's abstention raises the stakes for this America's Cup because if they win the trophy they will be in the driving seat for deciding what type of boat will be raced in the next cup, and where.

Lurking behind the decision is the team's CEO Grant Dalton. "Dalts", as he is known, may no longer be leading on board the boat, but the veteran sailor wields huge influence behind the scenes.

The competition is being held in Bermuda, with qualifying races already under way as five teams seek to become the challenger to Oracle Team USA in the America's Cup Match next month.

FILE PHOTO: Sailing - The America's Cup - Portsmouth - 23/7/15Glenn Ashby skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand takes part in a public press conferenceReuters / Andrew Yates/File Photo

Whether Emirates Team New Zealand does lift the cup this time around will depend partly on the other big gamble the team has taken to set itself apart from the rest of the pack.

New Zealand's switch to pedal power, with four fixed cycling positions on board their 50-foot catamaran rather than traditional winches, was a closely guarded secret which left the other teams with no time to copy their radical step.

Only the U.S. crew, who overturned a seemingly unbeatable New Zealand lead in a stunning comeback in 2013, has been able to come up with anything similar before the event began, hastily fitting a single cycling position in the rear of its hulls.

New Zealand's unusual row of pedalling sailors, including a former Olympic cyclist, appear more aerodynamic than the "grinders" on the hand-powered winches of other teams. And by supplying more power for longer, they provide additional grunt for the hydraulic systems used to control their boat.

Their catamaran is helmed by New Zealander and Rio Olympic gold medallist Peter Burling, 26, the youngest of the six helmsmen, who is new to one-on-one 'match' racing.

But sitting immediately in front of him is one of the most accomplished multi-hull sailors in the shape of team skipper and sailing director Glenn Ashby, who operates the hydraulic controls that control the boat's wing sail.

Ashby, an Australian who has an Olympic silver medal to his name, won the cup with Oracle Team USA in 2010 but will want to erase the memory of losing with New Zealand in San Francisco.

Reporting by Tessa Walsh and Alexander Smith; editing by Mark Trevelyan

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