Thursday, 15 October 2009
Harold Bennett, PRO of the 33rd America's Cup. Supplied image.
Harold Bennett, Principal Race Officer of the 33rd America's Cup, and the quietly-spoken, kindly, man behind the initiation into the sport of several generations of New Zealand's sailors, tells Anne Hinton about how he got into sailing, youth training, race officering, got to know the AC participants (very well!), and about his other hobby, away from sailing...
N.B. This interview was carried out prior to the challenge to the RAK venue for the 33rd America's Cup.
AH: Are you, and your family, originally from the Auckland area?
HB: Yes - both my wife Robyn and I are from Murrays Bay on the North Shore.
AH: How did you get into sailing, and how old were you then?
HB: I used to hang around the beach at Murrays Bay and catch rides with the guys who had boats when I was quite young, around the 9 - 10 age I guess.
AH: What is your own sailing background?
HB: Like most kids of that era I started in the P Class and sailed Moths, Z Class, Q Class, 18Footers, OK dinghies and Keelboats. The OK was where I really became keen and represented NZ on a number of occasions at Worlds and Interdominions.
I raced on a number of Keelers on the harbour before launching my own boat that I built, an Elliott 7.9. I raced and cruised that boat for a few years before becoming fully involved in race management.
The New Zealand team at the OK Dinghy NZ Nationals in Whangarei in 1972. Harold Bennett is third from left on the bottom row, Peter Lester fifth from left on the same row, and Clive Roberts (driving force behind the foundation of the Rothmans Youth Training programme in New Zealand, whom Harold succeeded) at the left of the top row. Supplied image.
Excerpt by Harold Bennett from Completely OK, the OK dinghy book: "When I joined the class in the mid 1960s we were all learning the fundamentals of making the boats go and of course trying to sail them. I found the way we all worked together was refreshing and beneficial to all. Not only did it help our sailing at the time but it was the beginnings of some lifelong friendships not only on our own shores but overseas as well, friendships that are still very strong today."
AH: How did your interest in rallying develop, and was it alongside sailing?
HB: I have always had an interest in motorsport but never had the opportunity to try it myself. My son was rallying a Fiat 131 and we decided to build a car, but he became engrossed in his work and when it was finished I decided to play with it instead.
It was an interesting exercise taking a standard road car and building it into a rally car. It is a 1989 Toyota Celica GT4 4-wheel drive - quite a powerful car really and it can be a bit scary at times, but I just drive to my limits and have a lot of fun doing it.
Harold Bennett on the rally track in New Zealand. Supplied image.
AH: How did you get into the race officer work and also still do rallying, as they are both at weekends?
HB: I had always been interested in the Race Officer work, and after the NZ win of ’95 I was approached by Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth seeking my interest in running the Road to the America’s Cup regattas in Auckland and Wellington, and then the Cup itself. I was at that time running the Youth Programme at the RNZYS and taking a greater interest and role in the race management work for the Squadron.
Yes, they are both at weekends, but it was a matter of fitting both together and I would miss some car events with yacht race commitments but it gave me another interest to give me a break from sailing 24/7.
AH: What rallying do you do these days, and where?
HB: I still do as many events as I can, mainly Hillclimbs and Rallysprints but all in New Zealand when I get back there. The car is currently on blocks in our garage at home. I don't get any time in Europe as when I am there it is usually full on.
Harold Bennett rallying in his Toyota Celica. Supplied image.
AH: When, and why, did you join the RNZYS race management team?
HB: It was in the mid ’90s and mainly because of the America’s Cup but also as I took the role of Racing Manager at the Squadron.
AH: I believe that you had the idea for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) youth scheme. How did you get that going, and who else helped start it up?
HB: I don't take the full credit for the Squadron Youth Programme. Richard Endean and I worked some ideas into the format of that programme and I ran it. I would say that the foresight of the Flag Officers and Committee at that time certainly contributed to its existence.
AH: Why did you focus the scheme on match racing?
HB: The programme was born out of the New Zealand Challenge for the America’s Cup in Perth 1987 when we decided that a programme for youth focussed on match racing may one day provide good top class yachtsmen and women for not only Americas Cup but also all other facets of the sport. I would have to say that goal has certainly been achieved.
AH: What is your idea for the graduates of the RNZYS youth scheme in terms of their sailing development afterwards?
HB: It was to give all youths that took part a good understanding of all facets of keelboat training and racing leaving them with a start towards professional sailing which is where most of them have headed. It has also benefitted a large number of boat owners around the country as the Graduates find their way back to their clubs in those areas.
AH: Did you just get into race officering at the America's Cup level when it was held in New Zealand?
HB: Yes - it was the events there that started me off and of course that led to my role as Senior Race Officer for the 32nd AC and now Regatta Director / PRO for the 33rd AC.
AH: Can you give some a story from the the America's Cup race control side, please? And I don't just mean things like Brad saying that Alinghi were “bitterly disappointed” about not racing in no wind and the way that was misunderstood internationally - but, rather, some of the funny, or other, moments on the race committee boat that haven't yet made it into the international press, maybe...?
HB: Well the “bitterly disappointed” issue was probably one of the lighter moments for sure, and you are right that it was misunderstood as few people outside of NZ would have known the connection between us. But one incident that comes to mind was during a practice session with Team New Zealand out off the bays when alongside of the course that I had laid the Alinghi Team had set up some mile and a half away sailing the same direction and length course. The Alinghi team had started 10 – 15 minutes before we had started, and obviously they were towards the windward end of the course while Team New Zealand were near the bottom. As Alinghi had reached the top mark after the second beat the wind had shifted to the right a little making our finish line perfect for their final run.
I mentioned to my Committee that I would guarantee they will finish through our line, knowing Russell, Brad and the boys. So, while our team is near the top mark sure enough down they come with the boat Russell and Brad were on coming straight for the Committee Boat on port to gybe through the line. I alerted my gunner to load both barrels with the specially loaded shells made for noise and prepare to let it off as they came within half a length of us. As they gybed, Gerald Flynn let fly with both barrels. Watching the entire crew duck for cover on the Alinghi boat was something I will always remember. They called me 10 minutes later to thank us for the finish, and said that they were all off to change their undies!
AH: Why did you decide to move on from the RNZYS race control?
HB: I had been there for 18 years and had worked up to Assistant General Manager responsible for racing and, after the America’s Cup 2003, there appeared little to further myself with, so it was time to move on and do something else.
AH: What does being a 'yachting consultant' involve? What types of things do you do?
HB: It covers a wide range of things from coaching which I did after setting up the company but it covers Race Management, Boat show setup, Project management for building boats etc. I have overseen 3 luxury 40ft RIBs for European clients and probably anything marine related.
AH: Are you based in Valencia/Europe in the southern winter and NZ in summer now?
HB: I am currently in Valencia preparing gear and equipment for the 33rd Americas Cup, and will move to the UAE in November, but I am really based in NZ and would simply go to where there are work opportunities.
AH: How did you enjoy the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series in Auckland earlier this year?
HB: I wasn’t involved in that event and was overseeing the Youth International at the Squadron, but by all accounts it was a very good event for the sport and Auckland.
AH: You will be the PRO for the next America's Cup. You obviously know both teams very well. How long have you known some of the key members of each of Alinghi and BMW ORACLE Racing, please, and in what context did you first get to know them?
HB: I have known key players from both teams since they were in junior sailing in New Zealand. I was the Manager Coach for the Youth Team all three times Russell Coutts was competing at World Youths and ran many coaching clinics that all those people attended in their youth. Murray Jones was also in two Youth Teams I led to World Youth Championships. Brad Butterworth was a little older than those guys, so I never had the opportunity to work with him as much as some of the others. I got to know Brad better when he started sailing in keelers with his match racing when I was running the youth programme, but it was in Perth where I had greater contact with him.
AH: What challenges do you expect to face from setting very long courses (20 miles) under the Deed of Gift for very fast machines, such as the massive BMW ORACLE Racing and Alinghi multihulls?
HB: With the speed that these boats do it could help with the course setup as I would expect to see different wind 20 miles away from the start and so averaging direction may become easier than if they took, say, 4 hours to get there when the wind could be from quite a different direction. We have a set area of water to fit our marks within but to be honest I don’t see too many issues in setting the courses and getting the races done. I intend to work with the competitors to ensure good fair races.
AH: Thank you very much indeed for the interview, Harold, as well as all that you have done, and are doing, for the sport and participants in sailboat racing.
Harold Bennett in action on the water. Image kindly supplied by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
With thanks, for information and images, to: Harold Bennett + Robert Deaves, Alistair Deaves and Ben Morrison of the OK dinghy association (internationally and in NZ), Barry Davies and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, staff of Yachting New Zealand and Peter Lester.
Note from SailRaceWin: Despite our best endeavours we have been unable to track down the photographers of the images included with this article. Our apologies for any consequent inadvertent copyright infringements.
... and the OK Worlds in 2010 will be held in Wellington, NZ.
OK Dinghy International Association
Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron
33rd America's Cup