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By Hugh Boag
Young Arran sailor Neil Hunter has been signed up to take part in his third America’s Cup and he has only one thought in his mind – to win it.
He will be an integral part of INEOS Britannia, the British Challenger of the 37th America’s Cup, which will take place in 2024 at a venue yet to be announced, with Spain and Jeddah is Saudi Arabia among the front runners.
While he has already competed twice neither he, or Britain, has won the coveted trophy and it is that ambition which drives him.
And he believes Britain has its best shot at the title as they have teamed up with the Mercedes Formula 1 team to build the boat.
In an interview with the Banner this week from his base in Portsmouth, Neil said: ‘I am really excited to get back into the team. It means I have the chance to compete in three America’s Cup competitions before I am 30 and there are not many sailors who can say that.
‘Everyone who is coming back, their burning desire is to win the cup and for INEOS Britannia to bring it back to Britain. That is incredibly difficult to achieve and will take a lot of hard work from the entire team but I am very excited to take that challenge on. I feel so lucky to be part of this team and to hopefully be involved in British history one day would be absolutely incredible. The America’s Cup is addictive. Once you get involved, you can’t get enough. It really is the perfect job.’
Aged 26, Neil is entering his third America’s Cup Campaign, a rarity for sailors of his age. From being the last sailor to be recruited onto the team’s AC35 campaign, through the Youth America’s Cup, Neil is now an integral member of the AC37 team.
Neil hails from a sailing background, inspired by ambitious sailing parents. It is his own determination, however, alongside physical and mental strength, that enabled his career to take off.
Born and brought up on Arran, he was home for Christmas with his brother Rory.
He said: ‘Growing up on Arran, I have been sailing my whole life,’ said Neil. His father Iain was a professional yacht skipper and his mother, Sally Hunter, helped make history as part of Maiden in the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race.
After beginning his sailing career in Oppie’s on Arran, Neil’s success showed early on, notably when he got an invite to join the British Sailing Team Podium Potential Squad in 2014. Then, in early 2016, he applied to the British Academy Programme as part of the 35th America’s Cup – a development squad for talented young British sailors looking for a pathway to the America’s Cup.
Through the academy, Neil got the chance to join the senior team in Oman at their first Extreme Sailing Series event, where they placed third. Neil continued to excel and was eventually offered a spot in the first academy intake.
After four months of training with the team, Ben Ainslie asked Neil to race onboard with the team during the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda. ‘It was a massive moment in my sailing career. We didn’t do as well as we would have liked in the cup, but I felt a huge sense of personal achievement. It was a dream come true and one that all happened so quickly.’
During the 36th America’s Cup campaign, culminating in Auckland in early 2021, Neil ‘made a huge step up fitness wise, but the whole team did as well’. His goals had shifted from purely making the team to being one of ‘the fittest and best grinders on the team, as well as in the America’s Cup circuit, with the ultimate goal of winning the America’s Cup’.
Whilst success did not follow for the British team in Auckland, they did win the PRADA Cup round robin series, coming a step closer to qualifying for the all-important match against the Defender Team New Zealand.
The loss in the PRADA Cup final did not discourage Neil and he was keen to continue into the 37th America’s Cup campaign, his and the team’s third consecutive challenge.
Neil said: ‘After we lost in the PRADA Cup last year, it was disappointing when it came to an end so quickly. We had such good momentum in the early days of the round robin, which instilled a good sense of hope as racing continued.
‘It ignited a sense within me to come back stronger. I feel so grateful that I have been given the opportunity to go again and hopefully do it better than we did last time.’
Neil’s fitness goals continue to be top priority – especially with possibility of cyclors returning for this America’s Cup. The possibility of having to shift the power he produces from his arms to his legs has led to a shift in training not only for Neil, but for the entire power unit within the sailing team. It is, as he says, ‘a big change’ and his immediate goal ‘is to get on top of my training to understand better what types of training I need to be doing’.
The INEOS Britania link up with Mercedes means the team will be based in Brackley in Northamptonshire which Neil says seems an unlikely place for a sailing team as it is miles from the sea. However, it is near the Mercedes HQ designing the boat.
His next sail training trip is to Monaco before going on to San Francisco.
The America’s Cup is the oldest international trophy in world sport, pre-dating the modern Olympics, the Ryder Cup and the World Cup. Britain has never won it. The first race was organised by the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1851. Since then the cup has become a global phenomena, with challenges from all five continents, and held in locations around the world – Cowes, New York, Newport RI, Fremantle, San Diego, Auckland, Valencia and San Francisco. The venue for the 37th event in 2024 is expected to be announced at the end of March.
Neil at work on board INEOS Britannia. NO_B07hunter01
Neil is already hard in training for the America’s Cup. NO_B07hunter
The crew on board INEOS Britannia at the last America’s Cup in Auckland.