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Kitted for Flight

Leg 07 Race Start Auckland, New Zealand
Leg 07 Race Start Auckland, New Zealand (Jen Edney/Volvo Ocean Race/)

Time is of the essence, time is money, and there’s never enough time in the day. Such is the current state of the America’s Cup. In less than 12 months, the sailing and shore teams of INEOS Team UK, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and American Magic will fight for their place in the 36th America’s Cup while the Defender licks their chops and dissecting their every weakness and strength.

So, yes, the time is now in the Cup cycle, which is why Øyvind Vedvik, Helly Hansen’s category managing director for sailing boards a jumbo jet in snowy Norway in late February, bound for the United States, via a factory in Hungary, many times zones and blurry-eyed hours away. From the baggage claim at Pensacola International, Vedvik hauls two gigantic grey roller bags stuffed with Helly Hansen’s first-generation custom PFDs (50 newton buoyancy aids, actually) for the American Magic sailors who are now head to toe in HH—on land and on the water.

The buoyancy aid in Vedvik’s possession is the one piece of essential kit the sailors are eager to try on the water before closing out their winter training session and decamping to Italy for the first of three America’s Cup World Series tour events. The PFD is designed with extensive input from the sailing team, particularly the grinders who need unrestricted movement as they hammer away at their pedestals continuously for 30 to 40 minutes, grunting out the sustained 300 to 1,000 watts of human power required to keep the 7-ton 75-foot sailboat on its foils.

Vedvik, who is tall, lean and plenty fit himself, could easily be mistaken for any one of the 140 or so sailors, designers, engineers and specialists that make up the American Magic juggernaut. As a hands-on-and-deliver type of sponsor, he’s pretty much on the team, and you can tell by his keen interest in what the sailors say to him, that he knows the importance of his role in the team’s success. For the sailors especially, the gear they wear on training days and race days does—and will—contribute to their performance come race time. By extension of “you are what you eat,” when it comes to AC75 sailing, you also are what you wear: comfortable and hyper-focused on delivering results.

With his roller bags in tow, Vedvik is welcomed to the team’s base, set up inside the busy Port of Pensacola, where just outside American Magic’s sprawling container city, rows of gigantic wind-turbine engines from overseas get craned onto rusty rail cars and taken away. Once inside the team’s dining facilities, a small white-top tent with plastic side drapes, Vedvik neatly displays the PFDs on circular banquet tables. American flags adorn the back of each, above the sailors last names in big, bold, black lettering.

It’s like Christmas in February, and one by one, the sailors straggle in, pulling their respective PFD from its plastic bag and examining its details. Cooper Dressler, the young grinder from Coronado, California, on his second Cup tour, gets right to work on setting up his, first stuffing a spare-air cannister into a stretchy sleeve that runs along the bottom of the front floatation panel. He threads a hose and mouthpiece through an internal sleeve and it exits at the right shoulder. He then slides the silver PFD over his head and tugs it down, admiring the snug fit around his barreled torso. He nods with approval and then sheaths his safety knife, with a click, into the buckle mounted on the vests upper left panel. Then he opens the zipper pocket to see if it fits a nutrition bar, and as one final check, he mimics his grinding action to be sure the air bottle doesn’t swing from side to side, which it tended to do with their old PFD.

All good. He likes it.

A PFD may seem a minor detail in the scale of such a complex and high-stakes sporting event, but the sailing gear is more important than one may think. I can tell because it’s a regular dinner topic. A few of the crew poke fun at their hyperactive CEO and skipper Terry Hutchinson, who has yet to sail a single day without a drysuit. He’s always cold, but can you blame him? Imagine driving a convertible car on a cool, moist morning, at 40 miles per hour, with the top down. And no heater blasting from the dashboard.

The same is true for the rest of the afterguard, including flight controller Andrew Campbell and mainsail trimmer Paul Goodison, both of whom are not embarrassed to pile on puffy down-fill layers beneath their dry suits until they look like Michelin Men. They say their helmsman Dean Barker—who thwarts Pensacola’s cold winter sailing sessions with many layers, bulky winter gloves, balaclava—looks like a villain-fighting superhero. The only thing he’s missing is a cape.

It’s understandable, of course, for the grinders to poke fun at the softness of the afterguard. Their internal combustion engines are firing on all cylinders and their needs are far different. For them, Helly has deployed rash guards and customized pieces from their neoprene dinghy sailing line, adding impact and closed-cell protection where needed (shins and knees, primarily) and keeping their upper bodies dry with a team favorite called the Foil Pro Jacket (and Foil Pro Smock), which may very well be the most technical sailing jacket ever built by Helly Hansen. In collaboration with the team, they now have an incredibly lightweight, form-fitting jacket with four-way stretch fabric with sonic-welded seams (no stitches, no leaks). The Foil Jacket is an apparel work of art that does its part in contributing to an overall target of 3.5 kilograms total for each crew’s sailing gear. Remember, it’s the America’s Cup, where every gram goes straight into making the boat faster.

After a few of the sailors try their PFDs, all with nods of approval, the cafeteria tables are cleared for the arrival of the lunch break crowd. Although, not everyone in the base on this day can afford to stop and gorge from the buffet. From the top of the organization to the bottom, there’s a monumental worklist to be checked off and time is most definitely of the essence. Barker is over in the top-secret simulator, either trying a new foil configuration or working on the team’s playbook in the simulator’s two-boat mode. With a symphony of vacuums, grinders and files, a small army of boatbuilders crawl over the team’s AC75, Defiant, finishing up a refit so the team can go sailing a few more times before the ship arrives to take them all away. A handful of shore team guys are installing systems into a new, lighter boom that just arrived from their building operation up north in Rhode Island. In a corner behind Defiant, several others are decommissioning the team’s 38-foot test boat for storage. And over in another shed, their second mast and mainsail are being prepped for measurement.

Somewhere on a vast virtual Smart Sheet boxes are ticked one by one, and Vedvick’s special delivery allows them to take one more off the list. That’s how America’s Cup partnerships work: He’s done his part and delivered the goods. Now it’s up to them to go out do something with it.