Newport This Week

Lull Before the Storm for American Magic Head Coach

Driving the Team Artemis coach boat, Tom Burnham multi-tasks while waiting for post-race debriefs. (Photos by Sean McNeil/Phlotilla.News)

Driving the Team Artemis coach boat, Tom Burnham multi-tasks while waiting for post-race debriefs. (Photos by Sean McNeil/Phlotilla.News)

At the moment, Tom Burnham, of Middletown likens American Magic’s preparation to capture the 2024 America’s Cup to that of a pro football team in the offseason. “We’re making trades, finding new talent, and doing some crosstraining [by sailing in other regattas] so that we can learn how to work with each other,” he said.

But it won’t be long before the pressure ramps up for Burnham, who will serve as head coach, for American Magic in the quest to win the Cup in Barcelona, Spain. From there, the team shifts operations to Pensacola, Florida in September to begin training aboard the 75-foot foiling monohull design that was first used in the last America’s Cup.

This will be the fifth America’s Cup campaign for Burnham, 50, who graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1993 and lives in Newport. He sailed on Young America in 2000, with the Italian team, Luna Rossa, in 2003 and 2007, and was head coach of the Swedish team, Artemis Racing, in 2017.

His extensive background and his deep contacts within the sport made him a natural choice for head coach. In addition to his Cup experience, he also coaches Artemis Racing on the RC44 circuit and is an ambassador for 11th Hour Racing, the sustainability organization working with the sailing community and maritime industries to advance solutions and practices that protect and restore the health of the ocean.

“I’ve worked with a lot of the key players on the Magic team and have been coaching and sailing with them over the years, so it kind of made sense that they reached out and asked me to be a part of it,” he said.

The Orange, Connecticut native learned how to sail at the nearby Milford Yacht Club and his love for the sport grew at URI, where he was a four-year Captain of the nationally ranked sailing team and a member of the crew that won the 1991 collegiate keelboat world championship in France.

“A lot of my passion for sailing stems from my time at URI,” he said. “Making it my career is not something I planned; it just sort of happened organically. I’m so lucky to do what I love as a job.”

As a professional sailor and coach, the sport has taken Burnham around the globe, competing in the world’s elite regattas. But he knows there is nothing that matches the intensity and atmosphere of the America’s Cup, especially when he is representing his home country.

“Of course, there is pressure; there is always pressure because you want to succeed for the country you’re representing, for the yacht club you’re representing and for yourself,” he said. “That’s the nature of the game in any sport.”

He also understands what returning the Cup to U.S. soil for the first time since 2013 could mean. “One of our goals is definitely to create more opportunities for sailors in the U.S. and to showcase sailing as a sport,” he said, knowing that a victory would accomplish just that.

Burnham believes that success in the next America’s Cup will be more about sailing expertise than about designing the fastest boat. This is the second time the AC75 has been used for the Cup, so designers have compiled ample data upon which to base their decisions, he said.

“They’re all starting from a similar place,” he said. “As you get into the second or third generation of a design, the design advantages get a little smaller and there is a higher premium on sailing the boats really well. I see this America’s Cup as being an event where the boats will be closer in speed than they were in the last edition, so the racing skills of the teams are going to be more important.”

That’s where Burnham hopes his experience will pay dividends. “You learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. That’s a big part of what we bring,” he said. “Sailing is a lifelong sport where you keep learning more and more throughout your career. Experience helps you make decisions that are not guesswork but are more informed decision-making. So, experience is important, especially with the younger members of the team, where you can help them through their first America’s Cup.”

But with American Magic, he does so much more, working with a software program called “Race Cutter” that records video, audio and data, and merges it with time stamps, allowing him to instantly review a maneuver without wasting time editing. Burnham can watch the action from multiple viewpoints, review the data and get answers to why something went right or, more importantly, wrong.

“It’s awesome, because you can’t hide why something happened anymore,” he said.

When American Magic takes to the water for practices next fall, Burnham will direct training from a coach’s boat and focus on maneuvers. During the actual Cup races, he’ll watch for trends so that he can serve as a tactician. He’ll also listen to his team, observe their performance, serve as sounding board and provide encouragement.

“I remember how hard it is for the sailors to make decisions during the heat of a race,” he said. “I need to create an environment for the sailors to learn and, when on the water, to do the testing the design team needs to help them build the fastest boat,” he said.

Until then, he will compete in events in Cascais, Portugal and in Baiona, Spain over the next two weeks as he works toward September 2024, when the eyes of the sailing world will be laser-focused on Barcelona.

More sailing and On the Waterfront news on page 20.

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