Racing

Cup Watch - December 2006

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Hide and Seek: Spies come in from the cold

After the 31st America’s Cup in 2003, when Alinghi snatched the trophy from Team New Zealand, the talk was all about spying, leaking, and under-the-table deals. The scene in Valencia, Spain, where the 32nd America’s Cup is being held, is happily different.

The protocol set out between Alinghi, as defender, and BMW Oracle, as challenger of record, is specific as to what is and is not allowed. There are practical differences, too. Dawn Riley, team manager for the French Areva Challenge, says, “Spying is at an all-time low. We are all right next to each other. There aren’t many secrets. It’s strange for us old-timers, as we are used to barely making eye contact with a competitor when we’re anywhere near their equipment.”

Bill Trenkle, a veteran of many campaigns with Dennis Conner, observes, “The Acts are great for the defender. When we were defending, we would try any means possible to get a read on the challengers. Now they give that away in great detail by racing each other. It reduces the need for the defender to spy on the challengers.” On the other hand, he notes, “Ever since we lost the Cup in 1983 because of lack of knowledge of the competition, every serious team knows it must learn as much as possible about the other boats.”

In 1983, Australia II was the first to use skirts to hide its notorious winged keel. Now skirts are allowed at times and not allowed at other times. A skirts-okay period extends from January 1, 2006, until “unveiling day” on April 1, 2007, after which the shrouding of hulls is no longer permitted. Generally regarded as a nuisance, skirts eat up a lot of time, money, and effort. All teams use them, however, and they are considered worth the expense.

BMW Oracle kept its new boat covered in 2006 while encouraging speculation regarding unconventional foils. Like other leading teams, the lone American challenger will have a second new boat for 2007. It will have to declare on the “Declaration Day,” March 31, which boat it is racing in the Louis Vuitton challenger series and, if successful, in the America’s Cup.

How did the previous no-skirt period influence the way that competitors monitor each other? “As a new team, it was great for us to see where the established teams were heading,” said Geoff Meek of South Africa’s Shosholoza Challenge. “I think legal spying is good and should be encouraged. Illegal spying is a no-no, the same as any other form of cheating.”

To understand the advantages of the new rule, think back to Auckland and remember how 10 powerboats from 10 syndicates followed top competitors, flirting with the mandated 200-yard limit as they tried to get a peek at things. It was a ridiculous situation in which each challenger was obviously “surveilling” or spying, and it was within the rules. The 200-yard limit still exists, but thanks to the new format, syndicates now practice daily against each other and the absurdities of Auckland no longer occur. It is much easier to follow the progress of opponents and much harder to hide anything from them.

Although all the teams are embracing these changes, the one most likely to benefit is the defender. Alinghi competed in 2006 with a modified three-year-old boat, while other top teams sailed their first new boats in an effort to catch up to the “Swiss Rocket.” All know full well that each team can build only two new boats per campaign.

It’s no surprise that in researching this piece, I encountered a number of “no comments.” Desafio Challenge’s sailing manager John Cutler was willing to say, however, that “all teams observe their competitors. We look for ideas to try out, or we just look to see how other people have solved the same problems that we have.” In the end, the game comes down to fine-tuning the boat against the opponent—heavy air versus light air, upwind/downwind versus around the course, pre-start versus straight-line speed. These are the numbers you want to hide, or seek.

French-born Aussie Sebastien Destremau is the tactician for Asia’s first America’s Cup challenger, China Team.

>> NOT Allowed

Under the protocol for America’s Cup 32, competitors are prohibited from:
  • Doing anything illegal to gain information
  • Eavesdropping with listening devices
  • Gaining unauthorized access to computers or data, including data in telemetry; capturing, recording, or analyzing such data
  • Running a team chase boat within 200 yards of another team boat unless you are following your own boat
  • Using satellites, aircraft, or other special means of observation
  • Using divers or subs
  • Capturing images for the primary purpose of analysis
  • Accepting banned information from a third party
  • Tracking competitors from shore with radar or lidar

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